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How independent watch companies are making the most of being in a lockdown

Watchmakers that have carved a name for themselves in an industry dominated by conglomerates discuss these challenging times.

The Maverick: Maximilian Büsser

Max Busser

Maximilian Büsser, founder of MB&F

One of the most outspoken independents in the horology business is Maximilian Büsser, founder of MB&F, a Swiss brand best known for its out-of-this-world designs inspired by Büsser’s childhood imagination. In March, MB&F unveiled the Horological Machine No. 10 (HM10) Bulldog, a timepiece with a rounded, compact body of titanium or red gold and what may just be the coolest power- reserve indicator ever: the Bulldog has a jaw that opens to reveal sharp, shiny teeth when the watch is fully wound. As the power reserve of 45 hours winds down, it starts to shut.

A global pandemic, of course, is not an ideal time for any brand to launch a new watch – especially for independent companies that may not have the same kind of financial backing as conglomerate-owned brands do. Nonetheless, Büsser shares that there is always a silver lining.

“Our HM10 Bulldog launch on March 24 was arguably one of our most successful ever. Virtually no brand launched a piece in the two weeks before ours so the media was probably happy to finally have something to sink their teeth into. It gave us incredible visibility. The HM10 Bulldog is super cool – if I do say so myself – but I am not sure if we would have gained that much traction in normal times.”

The Dubai-based Swiss entrepreneur shares his thoughts on adapting to the Covid-19 crisis, life in lockdown and man’s best friend.

Many MB&F creations are inspired by things such as spaceships and cars, which you have loved since childhood. Did you have an actual dog in mind when creating the HM10?

I grew up with dogs. From the age of nine to 22, my dog was a golden retriever – not a bulldog – named Flash. Like most goldens, he was a source of unconditional love and fun. I was lonely growing up and Flash provided incredibly important emotional support in my younger years. He would sleep on my bed every night – we would battle for space as I grew up! – and whenever I was sick, he would not leave my side. He would just run out to gobble his food and come back immediately afterwards. Unfortunately, since he passed away 31 years ago, I have never had another dog. I would love to have one now that my wife and I finally have a family and a house – but the logistics of living in Dubai and then travelling around Europe in the summer make it complicated.

It’s early April as we speak. How is life in Dubai and how are you surviving being housebound?

The rules here have gotten stricter by the day in the past five weeks since they closed schools. We are now in total lockdown. Except vital and support-system sectors, virtually everything else has been closed. Having two young daughters doing home-based learning for the past five weeks has been a daily challenge, to say the least. And then, of course, there is managing MB&F. We are constantly working on the following months. Not knowing what to expect has been extremely intense. So, contrary to what might be expected, I have not had a second to myself.

Since 2013, you have stopped the growth of your brand by limiting production – even though demand would have allowed otherwise. Has this strategy proven useful in the current crisis?

Indeed, we decided in 2013 to stop the growth of the company even though demand kept increasing. This is one of our stronger assets in this crazy moment for humanity. That said, from 2013 to 2019, business increased gradually from 15 million Swiss francs (S$22.1 million) to 17.5 million Swiss francs. This year, we have decided to cut production by half and will probably finish at around 10 million Swiss francs.

Even though 95 per cent of our retailers have had to close their physical operations, they have continued selling. Six pieces were sold by the end of March. Our sales in the first three months of 2020 achieved 25 per cent of our target, which means that we will only craft the remaining 25 per cent over the next nine months. That’s about six watches a month for the whole world. The most important thing is that we always produce fewer pieces than what the market wants to maintain desirability and rarity.

You have been in the horology business for 27 years, during which you have experienced crises such as Sars. How does the current situation compare?

Covid-19 has nothing in common with what we have lived through up to now. Never has the whole world shut down at the same time. Previously, with each crisis, we would still see pockets of growth that helped to compensate. Here, the world appears to have come to a halt. Still, there is always a light at the end of the tunnel; we just do not know how long that tunnel is.

Before, we all more or less knew what needed to be done. Now, the only thing we are sure of is that we are sure of nothing. Long- term strategies have become useless. Hail the reign of the agile, the nimble and the smart.

You have said that even though the big brands are financially strong, independent ones are nimbler. What do you think all brands will need to survive this far-reaching crisis?

The big groups have incredibly deep pockets and can weather any storm. How many employees will still be working for them by the end of the year is another issue. The real questions for brands, big or small, should be: What will watch aficionados want at the end of this insane tunnel? Will people prefer more human, emotional and creative pieces or will they be still as focused on status? I hope humanity and genuine emotions will have a greater place in our hearts.

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    Man’s best friend

    Horological Machine No. 10 Bulldog in red gold and titanium.

(Related: How luxury brands are pivoting to produce medical supplies)

 

Leading Light: Stephen Forsey

Stephen Forsey

Stephen Forsey, founder of Greubel Forsey

Together with fellow veteran French watchmaker Robert Greubel, British- born Stephen Forsey launched ultra high- end brand Greubel Forsey in 2004.

It most recently unveiled a new version of its Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Geneve (GPHG) prize-winning perpetual-calendar timepiece, the QP à Équation, which has been updated with a chocolate-coloured gold dial and red gold case. Having suspended activity at the Greubel Forsey workshop last month, Forsey talks about staying true to one’s values in tough times from his home in Neuchatel, Switzerland.

With the travel restrictions worldwide, how have you been showing new watches such as the QP à Équation to your clients?

In partnership with our retailers, we’ve built strong and close relationships with collectors over the years, and we keep in touch with them through social media and over the phone. After deciding to leave SIHH last year, following our participation in 10 editions, we staged an intense Greubel Forsey World Tour last autumn. It was a great success and we will embark on the next one as soon as we can guarantee the health and safety of our partners and collectors.

Because of its intensive creation process, Greubel Forsey has limited output. Has this helped the brand in these unpredictable times?

We have a team of around 100 people that creates about 100 timepieces per year. The number we can build is due to the considerable amount of time and effort devoted to hand-finishing – between four and five months of man-hours are necessary for a single timepiece. For 20 years, Robert and l have stuck to our fundamental values of excellence through authenticity and credibility. Working as independent watchmakers means we can adapt to new situations very quickly – and that we aren’t bound by some of the constraints of larger brands.

With the partial shutdown in Switzerland, what’s a typical day like for you now?

Home for me is the Swiss Neuchatel mountains, 15 minutes from the Greubel Forsey Atelier in La Chaux-de-Fonds. Robert and l still talk every day. One major challenge of being creative is that we still have plenty of ideas, so this situation is frustrating as we cannot progress as we would have liked to. It’s been a good time to catch up with people even though it’s all done at a distance – unsurprisingly, people have been very easy to reach.

Spring has brought mostly fine weather, so the views are spectacular and it’s been a treat to see the trees come into leaf. In other years, we would have been travelling or participating in watch events at this time.

QP à Équation

QP à Équation in red gold.

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The Intellectual: Felix Baumgartner

Urwerk Felix Baumgartner

Felix Baumgartner, founder of Urwerk

“No round case, no hands, no traditional complications.” For Felix Baumgartner and his Urwerk co-founder Martin Frei, these principles have defined their timepieces since their brand was formed in 1997. These qualities are demonstrated once again in the brand’s latest novelties: the UR-111C Two-Tone (with a linear time display) and the UR-100 Gunmetal (with Urwerk’s signature wandering-hours display). Both are new variations of existing timepieces in the brand’s distinctive portfolio. Shortly after launching both designs earlier this year, the Swiss watchmaker found himself – like many of us – housebound. He talks about how his team is remaining productive and why he has started a domestic table-tennis tournament.

You unveiled your first two novelties for 2020 in January and February. On hindsight, that now seems pretty timely.

We launched the UR-111C TT (Two-Tone) and the UR-100 before the pandemic became global – which seems like ages ago now – so we were lucky to have presented the pieces live. We had planned a few trips but all had to be cancelled. Just like half of the world, we are now in a lockdown situation. Since then, we have not launched a new timepiece but we are still working hard on developing new creations.

How has Covid-19 affected operations so far?

We decided to close the Geneva office. All administrative matters are handled from home. Most of our watchmakers have a bench and tools at home, so they can work on some parts of the mechanisms. We are keeping in touch via phone and video-conferencing, and have never been more talkative than we are now. This has made us feel the need to remain connected.

How are you making the most of life in lockdown?

I live near Lausanne with my love and our two girls. My time at home is devoted to homeschooling the girls, videoconferencing and bench work. I also cook a lot and I have started to make our bread at home. And at the end of the day, it is ping-pong time; we have created the “International Baumgartner” tournament.

You and Martin started Urwerk 20 years ago. How does the current situation feel different from previous crises?

The Covid-19 situation is global. We are scared for our loved ones and our elders. It has put into focus the value and fragility of our older folks. I think and hope the world can learn from this virus and come closer to help each other as well as find new ways to protect us and planet Earth. I want to remain fiercely optimistic.

 

ur111c

UR-111C Two-Tone in black PVD and brushed steel.

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