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Corum carves out a place in the fine watch segment

Corum carves out a place in the fine watch segment

Thursday, 21 February 2008
By Florence Noël
Florence Noël

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4 min read

Taken in hand by the Wunderman family in 2000, the small La Chaux-de-Fonds brand stands out for its “one step at a time” commercial strategy. A case of patience rewarded…

The partnership agreement between Corum and the Fondation de la Haute Horlogerie (FHH), announced in December 2007, is something of a milestone, in particular for the La Chaux-de-Fonds brand. “By associating ourselves with the FHH, we are making clear our determination to defend the values of the art of watchmaking. Respect for products and the watchmaking professions is our philosophy and the crux of the repositioning of our brand,” notes Antonio Calce, chief executive of Corum as it repositions itself in the fine watch segment, that coveted territory of prestigious timepieces and outstandingly crafted movements. Two years on and this strategy is proving a success. Little by little, with perseverance and patience, Corum is carving out a place in this exclusive territory.

Gone are the days when the brand, whose symbol of an upright key represents the quest for perfect time, was threatened with closure… though it was a close call. Established by Gaston Ries and his nephew René Bannwart in 1955, the firm soon became known for its daring choices, with forms, materials and movements that consistently went against the grain. People were in the habit of reading time on a round or rectangular dial? Corum added squares, tubes and dodecagons. Such originality created a stir at the 1958 Basel fair when Corum’s watchmakers, having run out of time to complete their work, showed a watch with no numerals. Against all expectations, it was an instant success. Named Romulus, it is still one of the brand’s flagship models.

On the brink

And so, over the course of its history, Corum has stood out from the crowd. From complex movements to original designs, creativity prevailed until the 1990s. Watches with Double Eagles (United States 20 dollar gold coin) for a dial were highly prized by Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. The Rolls Royce watch, whose dial replicates the prestigious car’s radiator grille, raised eyebrows in 1976. Ten years later the brand began to produce dials using fragments of meteorite or sailed the crest of a wave by fitting extraordinary mechanisms inside its Admiral’s Cup watch.

With so many successful models, the brand should have reigned over the very high-end segment but, as the year 2000 approached, the wind changed. Having produced thousands of different models, Corum no longer had a clear identity and fell deeper into crisis. Jean-René Bannwart, the founder’s son now at the head of the firm, had no option than to let part of the staff go in 1998. With his back against the wall, he had just two choices: file for bankruptcy or be taken over.

Family management

The second solution prevailed, in the person of Severin Wunderman, the father of Gucci timepieces and now Corum’s saviour. A successful businessman with particular expertise in the watch sector, he acquired a 90% stake in the company and set about refocusing strategy on its niche segment while asserting its savoir-faire. The number-one objective: to establish Corum not as a fashion brand but as a luxury brand.

In 2004, Severin Wunderman appointed his son Michael as chairman of Corum, then made Antonio Calce chief executive. Such family management introduced flexibility and the possibility for rapid action with a single aim in mind: to prolong the brand’s prestigious past by building on the potential of the models that had signed its success.

Step by step the brand is laying the foundations for a serene future, putting its faith in quality more than quantity. “We don’t wish for any drastic increase in production,” Antonio Calce points out. “We prefer to further develop content and reflect this effort in an increased average price.” A cautious, behind-the-scenes management style that is nonetheless proving to be extremely efficient: with production of 25,000 watches a year, Corum still has impressive room for manoeuvre at a time when a good many watch brands are fighting the stock-market tides. Says Antonio Calce, “we’re currently using just 40% to 50% of our distribution potential.” Clearly, Corum’s low-key but well-handled commercial strategy pays.

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