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A glance in the rear-view mirror

A glance in the rear-view mirror

By: Jean-Philippe Arm

The last one by Arm ? That’s the code name of this issue of Watch Around, the last editorial lap from yours truly after 40 years of journalism, of which the past 25 have been mostly devoted to watchmaking.

So why are you stopping ? As soon as it became known that I was retiring from the track, questions flooded in, as did various comments. So much for wanting to tiptoe discreetly away. Admittedly, I had over time become part of the furniture within the watchmaking microcosm. In the course of the subsequent often warm and sometimes touching exchanges, I gave in to the suggestion that I had a couple more stories to tell before putting down my pen and shutting down my Mac.

How about reversing the customary interview-interviewee roles by having you answer the questions ? Fair enough ; I had in a way already got things started in my editorial by explaining why I was taking a final bow, now rather than later and with a smile. There is however something slightly embarrassing about the exercise, because when those in my generation trained as journalists in the 1970s, there was no question of writing in the first person singular. “I” was an absolute no-no and, like the international reporters and editorialists who were our gold standard, we used the pronoun “we”, as a token of modesty rather than majesty. It was not about false modesty, but simply the rule. Opting for a self-effacing attitude rather than putting it all out there may seem strange in today’s selfie-driven world, but that’s how it was.

A passion for watchmaking
How did you contract this “passion”, since that what it must be, given that you even made it the title of a magazine ? True enough, and that takes us back a while. But let’s be clear about one thing : when the news magazine of Western Switzerland, L’Hebdo, which has just vanished, asked me back in 1993 to create a special issue dedicated to watchmaking, it was not at all because I was fascinated by watches or had even the slightest competence in this field. I was simply a fairly versatile journalist with a taste for investigations, reports and feature articles, who had already been entrusted with various missions on different subjects.

Such a watch supplement was a first in Switzerland and it had an incredible impact, which is why the publisher asked me to do another one. I agreed, without realising exactly what I was getting into. Montres Passion magazine was born and I stayed at the helm for 13 years. Just as I had sensed during that first experience, the journalistic potential of the watch industry was vast, incredibly rich, varied and encompassed a vast range of technical, scientific, historical, artistic, economic and human fields. Within this distinctive universe I have met a number of truly passionate individuals who have made it their profession after getting into it by chance. As some have said : “Once hooked, it’s a form of addiction that is extremely hard to shake off.”

A specialist
You’re a specialist… Hang on a ­minute ! I was very quickly given that title. It’s actually quite amusing, since within an editorial team you tend to be considered a specialist as soon as you’ve dealt three times with a particular subject ; whereas, on the contrary, when it comes to watchmaking, you could almost be called a beginner after 10 years in a workshop. It’s all relative.

Some 2,000 articles later, one can indeed speak of a speciality, albeit shared by a number of colleagues, since this editorial niche has undergone spectacular expansion. It suddenly sparked a number of vocations across the globe, precisely during the period when Swiss watch industry figures were rocketing. Yes, I know one shouldn’t get carried away and that for a long time its turnover was below that of the pornographic film industry in California, everything being relative in that respect too. Nonetheless, the phenomenon was worthy of serious interest. Information followed on a massive scale, since there were fans, clients, readers and advertising opportunities involved. Whereas 20 years ago there was a mere scattering of “watchmaking journalists”, they are now legion. Last year, Baselworld accredited 4,400 media representatives from 70 countries, while the inaugural press conference was watched online by 11,000 journalists.

So it is truly journalism ?
Can one really speak of journalism when it is really only about promoting products and praising the brands that launch them, thereby taking part in huge marketing operations ? This question pops up all the time, couched in countless different terms. My answer is yes, but… It can be journalism, yet isn’t always, exactly as one finds in the automotive, fashion, or IT industries, as well as consumer goods, music, applied science, finance or politics. There are always interests at stake, with potential conflicts of interest, along with product and marketing plans that factor in, calculate and fund media coverage.

In our particular domain, across the entire media spectrum, there are of course many pseudo-colleagues who confine themselves to lauding watchmakers, merely copying and pasting press releases or press kits, without any perspective, professional distance or added value. This phenomenon has grown considerably with the web and social networks. Admittedly, some have launched into this area with an authentic passion for timepieces and display impressive knowledge of models and collections. But there are others, with an eye to profits, who mostly express their business sense through pitifully opportunistic approaches devoid of content or readership. We are clearly not exercising the same profession.

Experts galore
As an expert, how do you see the future of this sector ? Let me stop you right there ! The term is hackneyed and overrated, as you well know. If experts’ forecasts had been correct, Swiss watchmaking would long since have been extinct. As for those who are currently making such peremptory statements as “the Swiss watch industry has once again missed the new technology boat” in reference to smartwatches, they either amuse or annoy me, depending on my mood. The same applies to the pundits who parade through TV studios to dole out theories as if they were absolute truths, only to be challenged the next day and belied by facts the day after that. We simply have no real idea of what the watch industry or its technologies and markets will be like in 10 to 20 years. Let us rather look elsewhere for crystal balls and talk instead about what we know.

What was watchmaking like in 1993 ? A good means of getting an idea about what was going on that the time is to take a look at the famous L’Hebdo supplement that we had entitled La Passion Horlogère. The cover featured a watch owned by advertising director Kenan Tegin, a truly passionate collector who had been horrified by the low-end model chosen by the production team. He was backed by the editor-in-chief, Jean-Claude Péclet, whose old Tavannes watch that he picked up in Asia still testifies to his interest in watchmaking. They were all genuinely fascinated by the sector, along with Joël Grandjean who was at the time responsible for selling advertising space.

One session was enough to launch the project, after which I whizzed off to the mountains and valleys of the Jura to bring their wishes to life with the help of three colleagues regarded as authorities in the field and all based in La Chaux-de-Fonds : Gil Baillod, editor-in-chief of L’Impartial, known for his pithy writing ; Roland Carrera, former watch-industry supplier and Pascal Brandt, with whom he had created the watch news agency called the BIPH (Bureau d’information et de presse horlogère). It was the start of a longstanding cooperation that lasted in the case of the first two until their death, whereas the third crossed over to the other side to devote his talents to Panerai, Vacheron Constantin, DeWitt and lastly Bulgari. During each pause in his career, our readers were able to benefit from his well-informed articles and the results of his constant quest for the latest insider’s watch news.

Mentor and spokesperson
The first watchmaker I met, who was to initiate me into the field and explain the various horological complications, while doubtless amused by the naivety of my questions, was Philippe Dufour. I was pretty lucky to have him as a mentor. The eclectic contents of the supplement explored all aspects of the sector and the main concerns of the time, including the ‘Swiss made’ label, that are definitely recurrent themes. Antoine Simonin of the WOSTEP shared his insights on training ; the best-known designers of the time were Rodolphe and Ben Choda ; while TAG Heuer was involved in timing the roaring feats of F1 racing.

No need for earplugs as far as Rolex was concerned, since it had not yet joined this noisy circuit. We devoted an article to it entitled “Rolex ou le monde du silence” (Rolex and the world of silence) in which we gently derided its communication policy. This earned me an amusing reaction a year later. A lady phoned me and thanked me for the article about the pizza chef, which had given her a good laugh and had a major impact on her career. “I’m awfully sorry, but that must be some mistake, since I’ve never written an article on a pizza chef.” “Yes you have, Mr Arm, and I’ve got it right here in front of me. I can read it to you…” I had indeed written that there was an amazing job to be had at Rolex, that of spokesperson, whose mission was to say absolutely nothing to the press. A bit like a pizza cook hired to avoid making pizzas. And Mrs Dominique Tadion told me that this department had been entirely revamped and she had been appointed director of corporate communications and press relations. For more than 15 years, this fine and naturally expansive personality was to handle this function in a controlled and often humorous manner. We frequently met up at Baselworld, in an age when product presentations were not tailored for groups, but instead took the form of one-to-one conversations encompassing topics such as culture, history, philosophy… and a bit of watchmaking.

While the articles published in 1993 are a fair reflection of watch-industry reality at the time, the abundance of advertising also speaks volumes. Some of the adverts that appeared in the supplement are now clearly outdated, while others look as fresh as ever. Independently of the models shown, which reflect their era or showcase their classic and timeless nature, the actual mode of communication is revealing. And of course some brands have vanished and others have clearly changed category.

Exceptional responsiveness
One of the brands definitely stood out and the story is worth telling. Two weeks before the publication date, I accompanied an intern to Paudex to provide moral support for his interview with head of Blancpain. Jean-Claude Biver blew his top when he found out that we were going to publish a watchmaking supplement, that his brand would not be advertising and that all the prime spaces had been sold. The windows of the building shook as he expressed his anger. I calmly told him that we weren’t there for that purpose and that he would have to contact Kenan Tegin directly, and he did so immediately. The result was both unexpected and spectacular : 10 pages of publicity, of which eight were written by him.

The other day at TAG Heuer, we leafed through this famous issue to record his comments on the overall evolution of watchmaking communication through this particular prism. Upon reaching page 76, he carefully read the following pages and concluded with a grin : “We weren’t that bad, were we ?” Quite the understatement. He had been incredibly quick off the mark and the result sums up his exceptional ability to make use of all available means, pull out all the stops and never miss his target. Hats off to a consummate artist ! This responsiveness has remained as sharp as ever. Time has gone by, but my contemporary is still, whether people like it or not, the king of marketing.

Mido’s kitchen secrets
Tell us about your first watch ? It was an automatic Mido Ocean Star I received for my 11th birthday. It was rightly considered as rugged and perfectly water-resistant, which was ideal for a fairly sporty boy with a taste for risks. I was given the same model when I turned 16, this time with a date display. They were both restored to life in 2003, when I was writing a feature on Mido and travelled to Biel to meet the brand’s former owner (until 1971). Walter Schaeren was 82 by then and I naturally told him about my watches and admitted that they were in a drawer and no longer running. “Bring them to us and we’ll get them working again.” The ‘we’ was particularly touching, instantly rolling back the years.

There was in fact only one retired watchmaker in the former Biel-based factory, who in his spare time handled the filing of documents. Mido had since been transferred to Le Locle. It was there that I enjoyed the opportunity to observe the unique water-resistance recipe for the ‘star of the seas’, and which was still in use at that time : the crown was insulated by a piece of cork simmered in a saucepan on a hotplate in the basement of the Tissot factory. Current CEO François Thiébaud burst out laughing when I told him about this recently. “That method was dropped a long time ago, since it no longer met our production standards.” Mido’s production volumes have also rocketed since then, as confirmed by the official COSC statistics.

Audemars Piguet’s double stroke of good fortune
Do you have any other stories like that up your sleeve ? While on the topic of ancestors and corporate sagas, why not continue with that of Audemars Piguet ? When writing about the company history, I interviewed the father of Jasmine Audemars, my former colleague who at one time served as editor-in-chief at the Journal de Genève and has for many years chaired the board of directors of this remarkable family firm. Jacques-Louis, who had naturally retired by then, still paid daily visits to the factory. His personal memories took us back to the early 20th century, when he had met figures taking us back to the 19th. History is also very much about such first-hand testimony to daily life. The company was headed at the time by a contrasting pair : Steve Urquhart, who was reserved if not uptight at the time and who shortly thereafter moved on to Biel where he came into his own with Omega ; alongside the smiling and affable Georges-Henri Meylan who was to find his sea legs with Alinghi in the America’s Cup. This marketing stroke of good fortune doubly rewarded his tenacity after an initial fail with an uncompetitive Swiss challenge.

Another interesting lesson from the story of Audemars Piguet is that of regional solidarity. When the main Joux Valley movement producer, which had been bought up by German corporations (VDO and subsequently Manesmann), experienced certain difficulties in the 1980s, Audemars Piguet came to the rescue of its historical supplier Jaeger-LeCoultre by buying up 40% of its capital. No one could have imagined that the return on investment would prove colossal. In 2001, the watchmaking portfolio of the Mannesmann conglomerate, which also featured two more modestly sized brands, IWC and Lange & Söhne, was acquired by the Richemont Group for the sum of two billion euros, considered truly astronomical at the time. The jackpot thus earned by Audemars Piguet enabled the brand to maintain its independence, hold its rank and even gain in stature.

Winning twosome
Continuing the series of CEOs, a salute to Philippe Merk, before welcoming the arrival of François-Henry Bennahmias in 2012. After joining AP in 1994 and serving as manager of the American market since 1999, this energetic, voluble and somewhat maverick figure has shaken up the company on his return to Le Brassus and visibly boosted sales. While it is always hard to get a precise idea of the real state of business in the watch industry, all estimates, comments and testimony put AP, along with Richard Mille, among the handful of brands that grew in 2015 and 2016 and are doing very nicely.

Giant domino set
Speaking of Richard Mille, there’s another incredibly charismatic personality, inspired by cars, famed for sparking a dizzying succession of creations and success stories. I first met him in Le Locle on the premises of his supplier Renaud et Papi, a subsidiary of Audemars Piguet. So have we come full circle ? Yes and no, as many other different names associated with the region spring to mind, as a series that one tends to remember. The watch industry is a giant domino set. We started in Le Brassus with Audemars Piguet, but we could also have begun in Le Sentier with Philippe Dufour, who introduced us to so many youthful talents still unknown at the time. We could also have kicked off in Sainte-Croix with François-Paul Journe and the magnificent network he left behind, including Denis Flageolet, Vianney Halter, Dominique Mouret and François Junod (WA005).

Or we could have got things rolling with Renaud et Papi, with its lengthy roster of people who have spent time there before distinguishing themselves elsewhere, either alone or with others. Perhaps I could do an article on that in the next issue of Watch Around ? Just kidding !

Whatever the starting point, without any major effort to jog the memory, it would be tempting to review the entire Swiss industry, successively placing the domino pieces based on intensely human, personal ties. Isn’t that what really matters at the end of the day ? There is doubtless no need to provide a plethora of examples, but perhaps just one more for the road.

Max and his friends
With Max Büsser, networking has become a concept. When I first met him at Harry Winston, he was fresh in from the Joux Valley, where he had worked for Jaeger-LeCoultre. I admit to having worried that he might find himself fettered within this brand that was fairly untried in watchmaking, and end up being weighed down by more than carats. That was a serious underestimation of his own potential to sparkle. He reenergised the watch industry by creating the Opus, starting with François-Paul Journe before offering this fantastic platform to a string of creative watchmakers, whose mechanisms were innovative and whose only obligation was to show formal respect for Harry Winston’s particular style.

In 2005, the Special Jury Prize for the Watch of the Year, which Kenan Tegin and I had launched in 1994, was won by the Opus 5. Devised by independent creator, Felix Baumgartner, it featured the first ever display by three rotating satellites, as well as an after-sales service indicator. The Urwerk genes were already there. Nonetheless, it was not Felix who was called to the platform to receive the prize, but instead the representative of the brand. Max ? Not him either, since he had just left Harry Winston. Backstage, I whispered in the ear of his successor, Hamdi Chatti, that he should not forget Max when expressing his thanks. He smilingly replied “Of course !” and although he had me on tenterhooks by waiting until the last sentence of his speech, he did so in a suitably elegant manner.

Celebration tinged with unease
To toast the 10th anniversary of the Opus family in 2010, an extremely friendly evening was held in Plan-les-Ouates, bringing together all the protagonists in this exceptional adventure : a distillation of watchmaking talent, a group of buddies. There was however a slight sense of unease due to the absence of Max, who had not even been invited. Nobody could understand why. An oversight ? Not at all, this was a deliberate choice by the brand, as Fredric de Narp confirmed without batting an eyelid. He had succeeded Hamdi Chatti who had moved off towards classier environments, at Montblanc and Louis Vuitton. Meanwhile, Max had successfully developed his broadened concept, transforming his multi-facetted network of watchmaking talents into far more than just a social club, but instead a full-fledged brand : MB&F.

MB&F constitutes several pieces in our giant domino set. Let’s draw one, almost at random : the watch designer, Eric Giroud. For the first issue of Watch Around, he had spent an entire day with Max in our Neuchâtel premises, in early 2007 to prepare together a “Backstage” column dedicated to the first MB&F Horological Machine and entitled “Goldorak and the Rotor”. Last December, in preparing the present issue, we asked Giroud what he had been doing in 1993. “In the autumn of 1993, I was just emerging from two failures, first in music and then in architecture. I had to put my ego on the back burner and do various internships in different fields, a truly humbling experience. By 2006-2007, I had been designing watches for around eight years. The MB&F commission represented a major step in a pivotal period, taking me from the shadows to the limelight associated with a new and innovative project. A fine token of recognition.”

This particular domino piece referred us to Max, whereas another might have guided us towards Jean-Marc Wiederrecht, with whom Eric Giroud jointly created the Opus 9. And from Jean-Marc, we would have veered off towards a series of brands that have greatly benefited from his disconcerting retrograde displays. But it’s time to put our dominoes back in their box.

Hydroponic farming and Basel encounters
Do you think Baselworld is still the most important watch show, or is it Geneva ? Both of them, naturally. When Alain Dominique Perrin, who had a gift for catch phrases, spoke about the whiff of grilled sausages at Basel to justify creating his own elite and plush Salon in Geneva, he definitely lit a fuse. And the watch-show war spilled a lot more than just ink. Returning to cooking, one can state that after a number of bubbling controversies without actually breaking any eggs, of agreements and disagreements regarding dates, of events that overlapped and were then clearly separated between spring and winter, the heat in this particular kitchen has been more or less reduced to a slow simmer. With a dainty starter and a main dish, perhaps everyone has found what they were looking for, except perhaps those who have to travel to Switzerland twice instead of once. The preference for Geneva’s hydroponic farming or the smell of earth in Basel is merely a question of taste. Paradoxically, apart from hotels and the Palexpo exhibition centre, the annual rendezvous is barely noticed by the rest of Geneva, despite its centuries-old tradition as a major production hub and showcase for watchmaking. Conversely, the entire region and its population beat to the tune of Baselworld, and this can be sensed in all public areas until late in the evening. The event is the scene of ritual extra-mural get-togethers for the large international watch family. Geneva’s equivalent of Baselworld is in fact its annual Motor Show.

What are you going to do now ? Sorry, time up. You’ve seen by now how loquacious I can be, but we agreed on an article and we’re not going to turn it into a book. Let’s stop before I start rambling. OK, I know, it’s a bit late for that…