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“Those who don’t want us don’t deserve...
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“Those who don’t want us don’t deserve us!”

Tuesday, 18 March 2008
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Christophe Roulet
Editor-in-chief, HH Journal

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7 min read
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Asked why certain prestigious brands don’t support the work of the Fondation de la Haute Horlogerie, which he presides, Franco Cologni throws them a line when he answers with this Italian proverb, adding that watchmaking’s values are worth fighting for. What is Fine Watchmaking? Why is the Fondation de la Haute Horlogerie (FHH) no longer in charge of the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie in Geneva? Is the FHH infeuded to the Richemont Group, the reason why several brands may refuse to join? The Foundation’s president, Franco Cologni, puts the record straight.

How would you define Fine Watchmaking?

Franco Cologni: I see Fine Watchmaking as a finely-balanced combination of culture and expertise, tradition and innovation, creativity and application in the specific fields that are the making of timepieces of exceptional technicity and beauty. The difference between watchmaking, belle horlogerie and Fine Watchmaking or haute horlogerie lies in the fact that Fine Watchmaking supposes a quest for excellence and perfection, both technical and precious, two areas in which talent is free to express itself. It soon becomes clear then that it is not the brands that make up the perimeter of Fine Watchmaking but their products inasmuch as the brands may well be present in several segments of the market. The role of the brands and the mission of Fine Watchmaking is to strive to develop this excellence while making the necessary investments to achieve this goal. If this is the case, then a brand can justifiably claim to be part of technical and precious Fine Watchmaking. Which doesn’t mean that all its products qualify for this title.

How does the Fondation de la Haute Horlogerie operate in this environment?

Because the Foundation’s cultural wing does not have its own resources, it must work with partners. The only profit it makes comes from the activities it stages for the benefit of Fine Watchmaking brands at specific events. And here I have to say “brands” as it would be ridiculous to say that the Foundation’s partners are products. The brands must uphold the distinctive values of Fine Watchmaking. The FHH has therefore defined a perimeter of 56 brands which have proven their commitment to fulfilling this role. Of these 56 brands, 23 have become our direct partners and consequently contribute financially to the Foundation.

So why do certain brands not support this mission, which apparently sets out to embrace Fine Watchmaking as a whole?

Let’s not be afraid to name names; they are primarily Rolex, Patek Philippe and the Swatch Group brands which, while they have shown interest in principle in the Foundation have never demonstrated any real intention to become partners. For a simple reason: their directors believe that the brand is all and the products simply an emanation, an expression of the brand. They also show a certain degree of self-importance by imagining they are above associating themselves with a shared culture and savoir-faire. Like Leonardo da Vinci, they feel they know everything and need no one. This is a most unusual situation, as in most professions enlightened minds don’t hesitate to share culture and knowledge. Deep down, while I can understand that they should wish to put the brand first, I am incapable of grasping why they do not want to be primus inter pares, being part of the ultimate expression of Swiss watchmaking and contributing to its overall development.

Rolex doesn’t feel the need be part of Fine Watchmaking and presents itself as a luxury brand. Patek imagines itself at the top of the pyramid looking down on the other players in the branch. As for the Swatch Group, it claims that all its brands are Fine Watchmaking brands. While this may not be totally untrue, given its role in rescuing Swiss watchmaking in the 1980s, I don’t see how one can compare a Breguet with a Swatch, even if the latter is the result of a genuine feat of technology and industrial development. In this business, I think we are well-advised to show some humility to defend its ethics in a spirit of transparency. It’s a question of values.

You recently announced that the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie was becoming independent of the Foundation which was previously responsible for it. Why this change?

In order to generate funds, the Foundation has had to develop some profit-making activities. Carmina non dant panem as they say in Latin (editor’s note: Poetry doesn’t feed a man). In other words, we have developed partnerships with companies that have financial resources. One of the Foundation’s tasks is then to organise events in different parts of the world that train the spotlight on products that fall within the perimeter of Fine Watchmaking. These are bespoke events and the brands are free to take part or not. That said, we quickly realised that inasmuch as these companies invest to develop this type of activity, they have rights and duties towards the event as a whole. In conclusion, the Foundation decided to no longer mix its “non-profit-making” entity, which concerns the promotion of the expertise and culture of technical and precious Fine Watchmaking around the world, with its “commercial” activities as related to these events. Henceforth, the brands will take all necessary decisions regarding these different fairs and exhibitions and the FHH will organise them according to its availability.

This explains why, in the future, responsibility for the SIHH will fall to the exhibitors who come together as a newly-created committee. The Foundation, meanwhile, is simply the organiser. In this context one can easily imagine that certain companies wishing to set up a similar event could ask the Foundation to organise it for them. And there’s no apparent reason why we should refuse. Indeed, if tomorrow we were invited to make a cultural contribution to the Basel Fair, we would have no qualms about answering yes, as Baselworld is also a showcase for Fine Watchmaking products and brands that are an honour to the profession. Everything else we’ve been hearing about the SIHH and the Foundation is, as Shakespeare would have said, “much ado about nothing.”

All the same, it has been said that the Foundation is finding it hard to break free from the Richemont Group?

When you set up a foundation such as this, you must take one small step at a time. There’s a certain aspect to what we do that reminds me of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza doing battle with windmills. Don Quixote may not have won, but five hundred years later he is still part of universal culture whereas windmills have practically disappeared. I’ll end with an Italian proverb: Those who don’t want us don’t deserve us!

I would like to point out that if Richemont’s name is readily spoken in our entourage, this is essentially because the group has understood the importance of investing to defend Fine Watchmaking’s values, and continues to extensively do so. That said, we’re all open-minded people here at the Foundation, as is our Journal, so if you have something to say, pick up your pen and write to us. We’ll be only too happy to relay your message.

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