The luxury watch industry is still extraordinarily successful, despite being in the middle of a slowdown that began with China President Xi Jinping’s crusade against corruption. Last year, exports of watches from Switzerland hit an all-time high. The biggest names in watchmaking are well known – Rolex, Omega, Cartier and the like – as are the men who run or own them. Richemont’s Johann Rupert, the Hayek family at the Swatch Group and the Sterns of Patek Philippe are all members of Swiss business magazine Bilanz’s annual rich list. But there are lesser-known though no less influential power players in watchmaking, who exert sway not with size or wealth, but by the power of their brands. Most of them are owners of independent brands. In fact, for many, their name is the brand.
Think of individuals like Maximilian Busser of MB&F (an acronym for Maximilian Busser and Friends), Richard Mille and Philippe Dufour. Take the market for high-end sports watches. It was created by the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak, then livened up by the Big Bang from Hublot. But it was Mille who took it to a whole new level, creating a segment all on his own for ultra-pricey sports watches that start at $100,000.
(RELATED: We interview Busser who tells us where he learned the meaning of the portmanteau “fugly”.)
Mille, a vintage car enthusiast who knows how to throw a party, has a remarkably successful formula that blends geeky engineering – think novel materials like carbon composites or suspension cables for the movement – with a distinctive case shape and healthy dose of celebrity glamour. Tennis champ Rafael Nadal, Hollywood star Sylvester Stallone and motor sport supremo Jean Todt all wear Richard Mille watches. But more potent is the brand’s appeal among the stratosphere of society that counts the likes of Russia President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman and Victoria’s Secret owner, Les Wexner. That formula worked well enough that luxury group Kering was in talks to buy the company for 300 million to 400 million Swiss francs (S$441 million to S$588 million) in 2013, but that eventually came to naught. The speculation in the industry over Richard Mille’s future is never-ending, but, when it does, it will surely be lucrative.
In contrast, Busser is always adamant about remaining independent. His brand does some 15 million Swiss francs in annual revenue, and he has become an important voice in watchmaking. His profile and persona have made him one of the leading advocates of independent watchmaking, a job he does very well. Busser travels relentlessly to meet clients; he is a motivational speaker, evangelist and salesman all rolled into one. He even moved to Dubai for a myriad of reasons, one being to be closer to MB&F buyers in Asia, his most important market. But beyond charisma and hard work, people listen to him because he has carefully and successfully shaped MB&F into a remarkably cohesive yet original brand.
MB&F creates watches appealing to the inner nerd-child hidden inside a wealthy adult, complementing those timepieces with clocks inspired by Star Trek and even music boxes that play the James Bond theme. More than the watches, these peripherals have helped raise the cool factor of his brand, turning it into more than just a maker of eccentric watches. In contrast to Busser and Mille, Dufour rarely travels, never throws a party and has zero appeal to one’s inner child. In person, he can be engaging – in fact, the Swiss ideal of a watchmaker, with his white hair and pipe – but never an overt salesman. Dufour has emerged as a grandee in traditional watchmaking, specifically old-school movement finishing, just because he does it so well. Exemplars in this field, his watches are coveted objects that sell for much more than they originally cost.
Consequently, many watchmakers and brands want a little bit of his magic, either by education or association. The artisans at Seiko’s Micro Artist Studio in Japan travelled to his workshop to learn the art of fine finishing, and A. Lange & Sohne treats him reverentially, inviting him to its events. It helps that Dufour owns a Lange watch that he actually bought. The appeal in high-end mechanical watches lies in their craftsmanship and romance. Some argue they verge on being works of art, which is why the artist is so important. That’s why even lone, low-key individuals with an insignificant output, like Dufour, can still be power players.