Anyone who isn’t au fait with the term “expressive haute horlogerie” only need look at the RM 50-03 Tourbillon Split Seconds Chronograph Ultralight McLaren F1 by Richard Mille to know exactly what we are dealing with. Or the Excalibur Spider Carbon by Roger Dubuis. Two watches unveiled at the last Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie (SIHH) in Geneva by two firms that appear to be dodging the drops which are otherwise raining copiously on the industry’s parade. Two firms that have narrowed down their perspective on watchmaking to an almost pinhole view. A view which, for want of the financial means, is beyond the ordinary watch-wearer’s reach. These are timepieces at the cutting edge of innovation, rugged design and rare typicity. You love them or you hate them. There is no middle ground.
An under-estimated brand
Ever since Roger Dubuis was subsumed into the Richemont group a decade ago, it’s gone out of its way to cultivate its reputation as a “disruptive” brand, and with far greater consistency than when it first started out. The group was initially interested in acquiring Roger Dubuis’ manufacturing capacity for Cartier, but was quick to see the advantages to be had from developing this image, new for the group, of watchmaking’s enfant terrible. The brand kept hold of the production facilities that had first caught Richemont’s eye, and quickly grew. Vontobel Bank estimates the company’s revenue at CHF 55 million for production in the region of 4,500 watches a year. Roger Dubuis doesn’t release figures but it’s unlikely that the brand – which employs around 400 people and can count on some 200 points of sale including 25 own-name stores – is at these levels today. After all, this would put the average price of a Roger Dubuis watch at CHF 12,000, which is the brand’s entry-level price point!
“Certain brands suffer from being wrapped up in their history. Not us,” declared CEO Jean-Marc Pontroué in a recent interview to Swiss daily L’Agefi. “If a certain bank’s estimates were true, I’d be under close surveillance from the group’s board, which isn’t the case. What do you want to change about a brand that’s doing great? We’ve never been a reflection of the industry, whether up or down. Our main concern is to inject enough creativity into our products to justify higher prices than the competition.” And in doing so, drive the brand on to new heights. Appointed chief executive six years ago, Pontroué does reveal that “volume has increased slightly in recent years, but the biggest development has been in value terms, primarily because we’re recognised for limited-edition tourbillons that retail between CHF 130,000 and CHF 150,000. We’ve also strengthened our position with our automatic skeleton watches, which have gained us market share in the CHF 50,000 to CHF 100,000 segment. In haute couture, it’s not about how many items you sell. It’s revenue that counts. This is the key to what we do, too.”
Bolstered by this positioning, Roger Dubuis hasn’t been idle in these early months of 2017. Far from it. First up was the announcement at SIHH of a three-year partnership with Pirelli that has already given rise to two limited-edition Excalibur Spider Pirelli. This was followed by the brand’s arrival at Harrods, the ultimate London department store, where it joins a carefully curated selection of just ten watchmakers. Lastly, for the time being at least, came the announcement of a collaboration with Italdesign, synonymous with an Excalibur Spider Italdesign Special Edition of eight watches to accompany the hypercar that the Italian firm unveiled at the Geneva Motor Show. A third partnership is expected to be made public later in the year.
These multiple collaborations encompass more than the product. “I’m convinced the next battle for high-end watchmaking will be the customer experience, and our partnerships are an initial response to the fundamental question, what unique experience can we offer a clientele that already has access to everything? Through our partnership with Pirelli, we can take our clients behind the scenes at F1 races. The partnership with Italdesign gives us access to VIP days at the Geneva Motor Show, with limited editions available there. The real difficulty is finding a partner as disruptive as we are in watchmaking, and one that is motivated. The trigger for us was our fundraising operation with Emirates two years ago. A one-off watch was put up for auction on the company’s flights. It started at €280,000 and went for €400,000.” Crisis? What crisis?