Walter von Kanel is 78 years old, and in an unmistakable gesture that signals his analogue roots, the Longines CEO sits down for an interview at Le Meridien Hotel in Taipei armed with a thick sheaf of sales printouts. He frequently refers to them while discussing the launch of the brands’s new Master Moon Phase collection – “That is his computer,” his staff sitting next to him jokes. Von Kanel may prefer paper over digital tools, but his penchant for peppering his replies with hard numbers – many of which he rattles off from memory – makes it clear that he is as stat-driven as any hoodiewearing, AI-wielding proponent of big data. It’s a quality that has helped the Longines veteran of 50 years make the brand one of the world’s biggest watch businesses. With some 1.5 billion Swiss francs (S$2.08 billion) in annual revenue, it’s the third best-selling Swiss watch brand globally, after Rolex and Omega.
When asked about the reason behind Longines’s addition of a new moon-phase model to the Master collection of classic, dressy timepieces, von Kanel says simply: “The Master collection is 33 percent of my business worldwide. It’s by far the number-one collection in our assortment.” Never mind that what gets watch journalists excited is the brand’s Heritage collection of historical remakes, such as last year’s Heritage Military Watch, inspired by a pilot’s timepiece from the 1940s. Having led Longines as its CEO since 1988 – 19 years after serving in a handful of different sales and marketing positions – von Kanel knows that it’s not necessarily the sexiest product that sells best.
The new Master Moon Phase calendar watches include a moon phase and day display at six o’clock. They are elegant, easy to wear and powered by a new mechanism made by Eta – a movement-making behemoth that, like Longines, is also owned by Swatch Group. It is competitively priced as well, with a starting tag of $3,510. There aren’t any war stories behind them. They don’t need any. “(The Master Moon Phase watches) will be a tremendous business,” predicts von Kanel, with the confident air of someone whose billion-dollar business lies mostly (85 percent, he announces) in three-hand calendar watches. He expects to move 100,000 units of the new timepieces within a year.
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For the same reason that he is happy to focus on the brand’s bread-and-butter pieces, he is also adamant that Longines stay in the price segment that it dominates: This approximately ranges from 700 to 3,500 Swiss francs. Scribbling on a piece of paper, as he is notably wont to do during interviews, he outlines his guiding philosophy for Longines: “Consistency, continuation and focus – we have to always stay in our league.” Save for adjustments for currency fluctuations, Longines has not changed its retail prices for the “past six or seven years”.
This does not mean a lack of innovation: One of its big hits is its ultra-precise Conquest VHP (Very High Precision) quartz models, which the brand introduced in 2017. Aside from its exceptional accuracy and battery life, the watch is also able to self-adjust in the event that it stops after suffering an impact. Most VHP watches cost no more than 2,000 Swiss francs each.
It is this consistent, accessible positioning that he believes will enable the brand to appeal to the next generation when they are ready to enter the world of fine watches. Whether it’s Longines’ sporty HydroConquest dive watches, its exceptional quartz models, or its three-hand calendars, von Kanel muses: “Good prices, good products – and some day, when the younger generation gets fed up with their smartwatches and have become used to wearing something on their wrists, we will be here and ready.”
South Korean celebrity Jung Woo-Sung now sports some of Longines’ most elegant timepieces, but the actor-director-producer’s first brush with the brand was not the most auspicious. Speaking at the launch of the new Master Moon Phase collection at the Taipei Marriott Hotel, Jung shared that the first Longines he ever owned was a gift. It was only when he took the timepiece to a store for servicing that he found out that the watch was actually counterfeit. With a smile, he shared how working with Longines has now given him an appreciation for the brand and fine watchmaking. No doubt he will enjoy wearing the brand’s latest novelties: Distinguished by a moon-phase indicator at six o’clock and encircled by a date ring, the self-winding timepieces are available in 40mm or 42mm sizes, as well various dial variations – black barleycorn, silver barleycorn or blue sunray.