Despite being classed as an ‘independent’, 30-year-old Fiona Kruger is a rebel in her own right. Curious about this feisty new kid on the block, Luxury Society sat down to discuss her recent Baselworld debut and her business.
As the Wall Street Journal once noted: “Female master watchmakers are a rare breed”.
Yet, as a millennial watchmaker, seasoned traveler and dynamic artist who admittedly fell into watchmaking “by accident” – Kruger stands out for much more than just her gender.
“ One gets the sense upon talking to her that she is unafraid to stake out new territory ”
Welcomed into the wings of the independent watchmaking collective – already distinguished by their avant-garde attitude – by mentors such as Kari Voutilainen and Max Busser of MB&F, and forging her way into a sector not only primarily dominated by men, with significantly more experience in the field, but also by giant behemoths such as LVMH and Richemont – she has managed to carve out her niche, and she is certainly a force to be reckoned with.
Her approach to watchmaking – and to the odds now facing the industry as a whole – is both refreshing and candid; and one gets the sense upon talking to her that she is unafraid to stake out new territory, and is in fact, excited by the challenges ahead.
Learning more about her history, reveals a few clues into where this pioneering spirit of hers originated. Having lived in Mexico from the age of 10, before moving to Brazil, then Scotland, then South Africa – it’s difficult not to be swept away in a sense of wanderlust – and it’s these globetrotting experiences which have undoubtedly shaped both her vibrant character – and her unique watch designs.
“ I thought to myself: ‘I’m so unprepared. I’ve never exhibited at Basel before’ ”
As an artist first and foremost, Kruger delivers a novel take on the art of watchmaking and has consistently pushed the boundaries where it comes to traditional timepiece trends – blending new shapes, colours and mechanical prowess to craft collections that are at once distinctive and unconventional.
To say that she has succeeded in making her mark – despite having just launched her business in late 2013 – would be an understatement; and while she’s endearingly modest about her achievements – the fact is that her combination of technical skill, artistic flair and fresh attitude have already won her the admiration and support of many in the watchmaking industry.
Her first exhibit at Baselworld 2016 of her eponymous brand is a case in point – having been invited into the fold by renowned independent watchmaker Kari Voutilainen, whom she met and inspired just over a year ago at SalonQP in London.
“In July, Kari phoned me and said that he was going to be submitting at Basel. He goes every year with two other independent brands. He said that there was a space that had just opened up in the Palace that he was taking, and he wondered if I wanted to come with him on the stand. I just said yes. But at the time, I thought to myself: ‘I’m so unprepared. I’ve never exhibited at Basel before’.”
She needn’t have worried. Walking past her stand earlier this month at the height of the colossal watchmaking event, the most I got to interact with Kruger was a quick “hello” as she rushed back to her base to meet with media, retailers and watch aficionados alike. Eager to sneak a peek at this prodigy in the making, I made my way over to find the booth buzzing, and Kruger meticulously showcasing the inner workings of her creations with a captivated client.
All signs point to a star on the rise – and if the watch industry is poised for a downturn this year, Kruger may just escape unscathed.
“ Having being borne into this digital era, Kruger arguably has an advantage over the rest ”
While many of the more established watch brands scramble to adapt their business operations, marketing and designs to the changing market, where the power is increasingly shifting into the hands of the next generation of demanding luxury consumers – Kruger again has an ace up her sleeve. She’s one of them.
Having being borne into this digital era, Kruger arguably has an advantage over the rest. She doesn’t necessarily need to adapt – she’s already 10 steps ahead. And while, perhaps a few years ago, the traditional structure of the industry – and its seasoned veterans – may have made for a baptism by fire, in this present day, it’s what distinguishes her from the rest which is in fact, her greatest strength.
In fact, and perhaps inadvertently, in eloquently balancing the fine line between rule breaker and beacon for the future of the industry, she’s exactly what the watchmaking sector needs to get a new spring in its step as the market churns with the volatile winds of change. As someone who doesn’t necessarily fit the mold, she somehow represents this turning of the tide – and any who needed any further evidence of that can see it reflected in her businesses’ bottom line.
“ Apparently, last year was a really tough year for the watch industry, but I didn’t notice in terms of my own business ”
“Apparently, last year was a really tough year for the watch industry, but honestly, I didn’t notice in terms of my own business. I think it’s because I only started up quite recently. So, in that sense, I’ve been quite fortunate because I don’t have anything to compare it to. I sold more last year than I did the year before.
“Maybe, if I’d started my business, say, six or seven years ago, I might be thinking: ‘Oh, God, it’s not that great’ – because my comparison would have been different. But, for me, it’s actually been fine. And there are still people interested. My sales are still going up. I’ve signed new retailers, and actually recently, rather than me contacting them, I’ve got them now contacting me to ask about selling.”
Additionally, department store Harrods has recently given her the nod of approval and will be hosting an exhibition of her creations for the first time in the Harrods Fine Watch Room from today (March 31) until April 27.
Game, set, match. The playing field is changing – and this new kid on the block is far from being an underdog.
Here, she talks to Luxury Society exclusively about her entry into the industry, the formation of her self-titled watch brand, and her plans for the future.
How did you get into watchmaking and start your business?
Well, I started the watch business in September 2013, but basically I got into watches a bit by accident.
I actually studied fine art in Scotland, and then I lived in South Africa, where I worked in an art gallery, then I went to Switzerland to do a masters in product design for the luxury industry, with the intention of going into teaching, but it was on the masters course that I learned about the watch industry, because one of the sponsors of the course was a watch brand, and they asked my masters course to design a watch for them.
At the time I didn’t even know who the brand was – I’d never even heard of them – and I didn’t know the difference between a quartz and a mechanical movement, so I was a real newbie.
But it was through that workshop, that I kind of fell in love with the watch industry, and watches, basically. Then, I produced a watch as my diploma project, and that’s the piece that I then took on to build my company and brand around.
In terms of the business, as I said, it was started in 2013. I launched the first edition of pieces in September 2013, and they were finished by December, January. I then launched a prototype of the second series, which is the black skull watch, in March 2014.
“ I’ve been going to Baselworld for the previous three years, but in 2014, I met there what became my first retailer ”
This year was your first exhibiting at Baselworld –how did that come about and what was your connection to the event before that?
I’ve been going to Baselworld for the previous three years, I think, just to kind of see what was happening. Then in 2014, that was the year that I went and I met what became my first retailer, which was Chronopassion in Paris.
Laurent Picciotto is the owner, I bumped into him, also by accident. Before I went to the fair, I thought, well, okay, great, now I have this product and nobody knows I exist. I was doing a lot of research online trying to find journalists and emailing them etc. One of the journalists had actual been emailing Laurent pictures of my watches, unbeknownst to me. When I met up with the journalist at Basel, he told me this, and literally, two minutes later I was in the Palace, I notice this guy and it was Laurent, so I just went up to him and said: “People have been sending you spam email with pictures of my watches, and by the way, it’s me”. Then we had a quick chat. I went to go and visit him in Paris the week after, and then he came onboard immediately.
Then following that, 2014, at the end of that year, I did I trip to the US and Mexico to set up retailers there. So they’re also in Westime in Los Angeles, Provident Jewelry, just north of Miami in Jupiter, and Berger Joyeros in Mexico.
“ I absolutely love Mexico, and I loved living there. Spending time there was one of the things that kind of inspired me ”
I can see a lot of Mexico reflected in your pieces, in the design, and the colour schemes – would you say that particular part of the world has been a big inspiration in shaping the creative direction of your label?
Yeah, it was during the time in Mexico, actually, that I got the idea for the third piece, which is the multi colored one. I actually grew up in Mexico. I lived there for three years — in Mexico City — when I was a child.
I absolutely love Mexico, and I loved living there. Actually, it was the whole like … Spending time there was one of the things that kind of inspired the design originally, anyway, because my most vivid memory from that time was when we first moved and we went to this craft market. That was the first time that I saw the ‘Day of the Dead’ festival.
When I was younger, basically I grew up in France and then we moved to Mexico City when I was 10, so I lived there from 10 to 13. Then after that we went to Sao Paulo, Brazil, so I lived there for three years, until the age of 16, and then went back to Scotland, which is where I finished high school and went to university, and then after that, South Africa. So I’ve kind of hopped around quite a bit before I wanted to do my master’s and set out with the business and everything.
But when I went back to Mexico – the first time I’d been back in about 16 years – it brought to mind the whole idea of time and mortality, which for me are linked. And that was kind of the basis of the concept behind the design originally. The Mexican tradition of ‘Day of the Dead’ was something I sort of brought into it. For them, death isn’t the end, it’s part of a bigger journey, so for them, it’s more about celebrating your life.
I really like that idea. So, that was why, with the new piece, I really wanted it to be much more about that. Then when I went to Mexico, it was like, okay, if you’re going to do something with color you really have to go all out or don’t go there. So that was where the design for the celebration skull came, and all the colors that were used in it, each color has a specific meaning in Mexico pertaining to the Day of the Dead. So, those are only the colors that they use in that celebration. That’s why there’s no green or anything in there, but there’s orange, yellow, red, black, white, blue, and purple. Each one of those has a specific meaning.
So, basically/ blue means trust, yellow actually means death, red means life, white is purity, pink is celebration, purple means grief, orange means sun, and black is mortality.
It’s interesting that you mention Latin and Central America as such an important influence in your business, because, even though it is becoming an emerging market for luxury – much like India – many luxury retailers are still very wary of investing in that part of the world in any way at this stage.
I agree with you about Latin America. Especially if you’re a business that’s set up and based in Europe. There is a little bit of kind of wariness. The thing that I find really interesting is the fact that everybody was talking about Brazil. And saying: “Brazil is this new, emerging market”, and it was going to be this massive deal… But, at least for watches, it’s kind of not. There’s nothing really happening there.
Whereas, Mexico, there really is a sort of culture of luxury buying and luxury branding and that kind of stuff. The thing that I think would be really amazing would be to see more, rather than Mexico kind of bringing in that sort of branding from the outside, is kind of showing what they do in a kind of luxury way, because they’ve got such a rich craft culture and artist’s culture. So, yeah, I just think there’s so much to do there.
“ In Mexico, they’re more, interested in the craftsmanship, the storytelling, the emotional side, and the design side ”
So, on that point of luxury consumption in Mexico, would you say that there is an emerging culture for the appreciation of watch art and collectors in Mexico?
My experience is that there is one. I think it depends on what you’re comparing it to. The other thing to know is that in Mexico I have one retailer, and they’re in Mexico City. So it’s very specific to that.
The thing that’s really interesting is that that retailer, they carry my watches, but also other independent brands, and that, for me, says that there definitely is a culture of watch collecting, because they obviously have clients who aren’t just buying like Rolex and Patek and whatever. They’re have more of a knowledge, and so more of an interest in kind of watchmaking, and then that then leads to an interest in kind of independent brands who are doing something a little bit different.
Whereas, if I look at, so when I went to Dubai, there’s also a retailer or two that carry independent brands, but it’s definitely much more difficult. I think it’s just because people there haven’t been collecting watches for that long, maybe. For me, that just says that there is definitely a watch collecting sort of culture in Mexico. Then, if you look at the kind of market in general, like the biggest market for independent brands has been Singapore for a long time. So maybe if you compare it to Singapore it’s nowhere near the same thing. Yeah, I think that there definitely is.
I think the other thing that I found when I went there and I was doing press interviews, is that they’re more, I think, interested in all of the craftsmanship sides, and the kind of storytelling, the emotional side, and the design side. Then, in a second time, the kind of technical aspect.
Which I found really interesting, because usually you think, okay, watch collectors, they like all the technical stuff first. Actually in Mexico, that’s not what I found. So I don’t know whether that’s just because my watches are very much like … Well, the design of them is probably the strongest element, and then all of the kind of technical and handmade aspects are support to that. I don’t know whether it was biased because of my watches or what, but that’s what I found.
“ I think I have more freedom in general, because the company is me. It’s literally me, and my computer, and my sketchbook ”
You also have retailers in Mexico, which again, is interesting. Do you feel that being an independent watchmaker gives you a little bit more freedom in terms of your distribution structure to tap niche markets that perhaps other brands, bigger brands can’t justify?
Currently I have six retailers. So, to that question I would say sort of yes and no. I mean I think I just have more freedom in general, because the company is me. There aren’t any assistants, there’s not even an intern. It’s literally like – me, and my computer, and my sketchbook – and that’s about it. So, that just means that I can be really flexible.
So, if somebody’s interested it doesn’t have to go through the ranks, like with those massive brands where you know, first you have to email and make an introduction, and then you speak to the sales department, and on it goes – and it can take forever. With me, because of the size of my business, I can be much more reactive, and it also means that the relationship with my retailers is much more personal and I’m very hands-on.
For example, I don’t set up a retailer unless I’ve been to visit them, because I think it’s important for me to know how they work, to see their boutique, meet their staff, and all of that – because they’re the people who are going to be selling my product.
I just think if you’re a niche brand that nobody’s heard of, especially a nice luxury brand – so you’re at a certain price point – you need the people who work in the boutiques to be passionate about your watches to be able to sell them. I don’t see how I can expect them to do that without me going there myself. So, that’s what I’ve done so far. Then if they have a client in front of them, it’s more like they’re telling them a story rather than regurgitating a sales pitch – if that makes sense?
If their sales guys don’t care about your product, unless somebody goes in there specifically to buy it, the likelihood is that you’re not going to sell. So, they need to care about you, or me, and care about the watches that they have in front of them as well.
So, to your theme, in that respect it does give me a lot more freedom, but at the same time, I think it’s a funny one because unless a retailer is used to selling and dealing with independent brands it’s impossible to get in the door, because they expect a certain margin and they kind of lump you in with the bigger brands.
The reality is that the production cost if you’re a small independent are super, super high. So your margin is already like minuscule, whereas with a bigger brand like Rolex or something like that, obviously they do all their stuff in house as well, so it’s just a completely different business model, and you can’t really apply that business model to an independent. So that, in itself, already kind of determines the retailers that you’re going to be able to work with. Or at least that’s been my experience.
Then, at the same time, the bigger brands, because they have that sort of buffer of being a big brand and an already well-established name – and potentially belonging to a big group –for them, the risk of opening something up in a new market, comparative to an independent, is negligible. Conversely, for an independent, it can be a big risk, but because you have the flexibility it’s just up to you engage your brain and do it in a way that is going to work, basically.
On that point of difference, as fairly new brand, basically forging your way in an industry which is dominated by bigger brands with huge luxury conglomerates behind them or more than a century of history and heritage to fall back on. How do you carve a competitive edge?
Well, I think it’s just because I’m not trying to do what they’re doing, basically, because as you said, I don’t have like a 200 year history behind me. I mean, I’m only just 30.
It’s, like, totally a different thing.
The thing is, when I’m designing the watches, like the current collection is all over in that theme of time and mortality, which is kind of nicely packaged into that skull symbol. Even that, when I was designing that, it wasn’t just based on my own personal memories. The design also stemmed from watch making history, because one of the visits that we did when I was doing the workshop, originally, was to the Patek Phillipe Museum in Geneva. It was actually at there that I fell in love with watches, because their historical watch collection, I think it’s just unbelievable. Like they have watches in lots of different shapes, so they have one shaped like an angel and then another one shaped like a lamb and then there was, like a watch but also kind of animated object, it’s actually shaped like a pistol, and it’s got a bird that comes out the end of it.
So they had all of those kind of objects, and I just thought, okay, so a watch, it does not have to be round and flat, they can actually be anything that you dreamt up. When I was doing my research, skull watches and skeletons have been a huge part of watch making history, actually. If you look back, I think it was in the sixteenth century, skull shaped pocket watches were like the fashion item for women, actually. It was like the same as having a Louis Vuitton handbag.
So it was that heritage that I wanted to bring into the design, and even with future collections, that is something that I always refer back to when I’m designing, because, I think, the history of horology itself is so fascinating and so rich, that for me it’s a really interesting and inspiring kind of tool to be able to use when I’m designing. So, I’m not talking about my own history like a brand would, but I do always refer back to general watch making history. I have a lot of respect for that as well. Which, I think, is something that was quite important. I’m not saying that, oh, that was all rubbish, and I’m going to do something better. It’s more like, kind of picking out the bits from that history that I think are really interesting, and then finding a new way of translating those into a product which hopefully kind of makes people sort of daydream a little bit. That’s kind of what I try to do.
In other ways, honestly, when I started I just didn’t think about the market at all. I didn’t even have a business plan. I just had this product or this kind of prototype from university, and there were some pictures that went up online, and then I started getting emails from people asking where they could buy it. I thought, okay, so there’s more than just me that thinks this is interesting.
That was kind of how it started. So, yeah, it was a very, I guess, kind of gut feeling thing. I think the only reason why I’m still here is because I’m really, really passionate about it and I work bloody hard, and the fact that I’m just blissfully ignorant. If somebody had given me a list of like all the potential pitfalls and all the work that goes into it, I think it would have been: “Oh, never mind with this. I’m going to do something else.”
“ When I’m designing a watch, it’s actually quite a selfish process ”
What is your target client profile then? Who do you design for?
It’s quite a mix. When I’m designing a watch, it’s actually quite a selfish process in that I don’t really think ever of the end client, which is terrible.
So, it was totally selfish in the beginning, and then obviously, over the last three years, from speaking to retailers and meeting collectors, and speaking to clients – because it’s always really interesting to hear what they think, because otherwise, I’m sort of in my own little bubble when I’m designing and producing the piece. But once it’s out there, it doesn’t belong to me anymore, actually, it belongs to everybody else.
So it’s really interesting to hear their reaction to it. Then, that’s obviously stuff that I sort of take on board when I’m designing going forward. Like it’s just things that you sort of learn from if you know what I mean. Rather than it being like: “Okay, this guy said he likes green, so all the watches now have to be green”. It’s just more that you’re aware that certain things that I thought maybe were really important, nobody else noticed. Then other things that I didn’t think about, people are like: “Oh, it would be great if x, y, and z was included in it”.
From what I can tell, in terms of the final clients, it’s really a mixed bag, and that was actually also something that was important to me when I was coming up with a design, was part of the reason why I thought the skull was a great choice of symbol is because it’s one that everybody can relate to. So, you don’t have to be a super watch geek to be able to relate to the watch, but likewise, if you’re a watch collector and you know everything about watch making and Swiss watches and movements and everything, it kind of ticks all the boxes for a watch collector. That was a very conscientious thing for me. I think it was from working in an art gallery, I remember people coming in and almost being a bit embarrassed because it was like, you know, they didn’t know who all the artists were so they didn’t want to make a fool of themselves. It was that kind of elitist like excluding people thing, which I’m just not into. I think it’s more if you like something, then that’s good enough. For me, the skull symbol is something that everybody can relate to, so it made sense to kind of use that for the design.
So, hence, I get quite a mixed bag of people, and it’s really depending on regions as well. Like, for example, women in Indonesia like really, really big watches. Like apparently they’re not really wearing much smaller than a 42mm size case, which is quite big. So, it means that all three of the designs work really well over there. In India, the coloured one, men really like that. In France, there’s more, I’d say, the black and the silver.
I think it’s people in Paris who are a little bit more of like conservative or kind of edgy, and the coloured one is quite vibrant. In Mexico, it’s really kind of all three, I think, because culturally that symbol has such a strong resonance over there.
It’s really mixed between the men and women also, and also mixed between people who are watch collectors and they kind of have everything and they’re looking for something that not everybody has and also was made, by like, a real person with a real idea behind it. So they’re not paying for marketing, basically, they’re paying for a proper product.
Then, I also get people who are not really that interested in watches, but the relate to this one because of the skull, for whatever reason, and so they’re interested in it.
“ There are definitely more and more people who are younger who are in a financial position to be able to buy at the price point of my watches ”
On that note of clientele – statistically, the ultra-wealthy are becoming younger and younger, there’s a new generation coming into power – the ‘millennials’. Do you feel like you’ve got a bit more of an affinity with them, because you are part of that same segment?
I think that’s also a bit of mixed bag. In terms of my actual end customer, I do think it is mixed, but yeah, there are definitely more and more people who are younger who are in a financial position to be able to buy products that are at the price point that my watches are at. I am 100% not in that category. Like if I wasn’t making them, I would never even get anywhere near a product at that sort of price point.
For example, the first two retail for 15,200 CHF. The colour one is 25,800 CHF, and then, the new pieces this year, the price point hasn’t been set, but it’ll be around the 13,000 CHF mark. For me, it’s just, honestly… that whole concept of people being able to afford products in that price point is totally alien to me, because I don’t come from that whatsoever.
So I don’t really think about the kind of financial side until I have to do my accounting, basically. So you’re meeting these people and just sort of chatting with them, and then suddenly, like a week later, that you’ll sort of sit and realize, like: “My God, that guy, the watch he was wearing is this brand and that’s around that sort of price point, and it’s just like it’s completely insane.” Especially when they’re like 23.
I do think that that is important, because especially for watches, I think they fall a little bit into the category of things like cognac, where people previously had this idea of somebody that’s like, my dad’s age, in a library with a cigar and their watch. That’s fine, because I think for a long time it was like that, but it’s not anymore.
That younger generation is also big on digital and social media – what role does that play in your business?
I think things like social media and Instagram are super important. Like Twitter, I’m not really that bothered about, but Instagram, I think, is amazing, because obviously it’s visual. I just think that brands who don’t kind of use it are missing a bit of a trick, actually.
For me, it’s a really useful tool, and I know that there’s a watch boutique in London and their social media manager told me that, or ex social media manager, was saying that they sold like 50% of their watches via Instagram.
So, for me, digital as a whole is huge, because while I still traditional advertising is great, the reality is that a lot of brands like me, I just don’t have the budget for that kind of advertising. Because, for example, for a one page advert that lasts for a month, the price points are just astronomical.
So I have to consider things like, you know – sometimes paying for an ad in a magazine is more expensive than what it would cost me to get on a flight and go and see a client face to face. So I would rather use that money that way, if that makes sense.
So it means then, that social media and digital ways of doing stuff are way, way more important for me, because it’s the only resource I have. It’s also one that I control 100% and it means that because I’m also doing it, I can kind of check what things people care about, what’s not working so well, like what people respond to and what they don’t. So, for me, it’s really interesting, because it’s direct feedback, and it’s also a way to interact directly with customers and it doesn’t cost me anything apart from time and effort.
So, yeah, my marketing mix is like heavily digital and I’d say zero advertising, but I am very lucky in that I’ve had a lot of support from press in general. I think, because, I don’t really fit the traditional profile for somebody in the watch industry. Like I’m not male, when I started the business I was 27, and I’m not Swiss. So I just don’t fit in with what the ‘normal’ idea is at all, and the watches themselves are quite different.
So I think for the watch press it’s an interesting story I suppose, and then on top of that they’ve been very supportive, so I’ve had a lot of really good editorial content. Which, for me, is actually more important because it’s more interesting for me to tell people about the product and what I’m doing than to have a fancy advert in a magazine.
“ I definitely have had a lot of support from the independent community, that’s for sure ”
You’ve also received a lot of support from people in the industry itself – for example, Kari Voutilainen, if I’m not mistaken?
Yes. I met Kari just over a year ago. I went to SalonQP, which is this watch fair in London.
I got invited out to a dinner thing afterwards, and Kari was at that dinner. I was talking to somebody about what a pain it was to try and get any sort of samples made of dials to try and play with color and stuff before you decide on the final thing, just to get test pieces made – it was just an absolute nightmare because it took ages and it was so expensive and blah blah blah.
So I was saying to this person next to me, I can’t believe that it’s such a stress. Then Kari was at the table, and he said that he had the same issue, and that he had just brought over this dial factory, actually, to help him with his dials. I was like: “Right, okay…” and then he just said: “You should come by and come over to the watch shop, and then I can take you to the factory, you can have a look at what they do”.
Obviously, I was like: “Yes, that would be amazing”. So not long after after QP, we set something up. I drove down and visited him in his workshop, and then he gave me a little tour of that. So that was amazing. Then we went to go and see the factory, and I met Jose, who runs the factory.
So, then I thought: “Ok, I definitely want to do something with him”. A couple of weeks later, I phoned him up and said: “Look, the visit was amazing, and I’m going to be doing new pieces for 2016, and could I maybe speak to you about doing the dials at your factory, and he was up for it. So that was kind of how we started.
That conversation happened, I guess like, April or May of last year, and then in July he phoned me and said that there were going to be submitting at Basel. He goes every year with two other independent brands, and he said that there was a space that had just opened up in the Palace that he was taking, and he wondered if I wanted to come with him on the stand. I just said yes. But I thought to myself: ‘I’m so unprepared. I’ve never exhibited at Basel before’. But, yes, it happened pretty much like that.
Then I’ve been speaking to him as well, recently, about some other projects I have in mind to do with all of the stuff I’ve learned doing the dials with him. To use all the skills that they already have, but maybe in a bit of a different way. So not necessarily watches, but some other products, and he’s quite excited about that as well.
So, yeah, I definitely have had a lot of support from the independent community, that’s for sure. Like Max Büsser, of MB&F – he was actually on my diploma jury when I was doing my master’s, so I had to present my watch project to him. He was one of the five jury members.
So you could say, in a way, I only got my good grade because Max liked my project! So, I’ve known him for quite a while.
That’s the one thing that I think is really, really amazing with the watch industry. In that, all the people behind the scenes – like everybody who’s actually involved in the actual making of the watches – are really up for collaborating and working together. I think that’s amazing, and they don’t really get a lot of recognition. But, yeah, I think they’re great. I love the independents as well. I mean, there is competition, obviously, because it’s a business, but it’s healthy. It’s not nasty.
“ The other thing which I just don’t understand, is why all women’s watches have to be either pink or with diamonds ”
One thing I noticed at SIHH 2016 is that there aren’t many brands really focusing 100% on women’s watches. As a woman in the industry – what is your opinion on that?
Well on that point, Faberge is actually one of the brands I really admire on that point. When they launched their new watches last year, what I liked, especially with the kind of ones with the more complicated movement in it, it is quite traditionally feminine, with the diamond settings and everything, but it was a very poetic watch and had a proper watch movement in it – which, for me, was such a big deal, because the number of brands that have probably thought: “Yeah, but women don’t care about mechanics, that’s why we put quartz movements in it, because they can’t be bothered and just cover it all it diamonds. It literally kills me, because I just find it so patronizing.
Because my first reaction was like: “Oh, that’s a bit sexist, not making a certain type of watch for a woman because they’re sort of painting us all with the same brush”. I don’t like that.
That, for me, is a big pet peeve. I have to watch myself though, because otherwise I’m going to get on my soapbox and have a massive rant about it.
But that’s actually one of the areas I really, really, really want to get into – the women’s segment for already existing brands. Either to do design or to do consultancy, because I feel, basically, that there a lot of brands that have really good intentions, and I do believe that, but they design watches for girls rather than watches for women.
And there’s quite a difference between the two. I think a lot of them fall into the girl category, and it’s just because … Well, I don’t know if they involved women at any point in the discussion where they’re coming up with the designs or anything, but I think they should. I’m not saying that every women’s watch has to be designed by a woman, because there are some great male designers who do a brilliant job, but I just think they should involve women in the discussion at some point, if they’re not involved in actual designing.
The other thing which I just don’t understand, is why all women’s watches have to be either pink or with diamonds or with flowers. I’m not saying that you’re not allowed to make a pink watch with flowers on it. That’s fine. What I’m saying is that women have a much broader range of tastes, and not all women like just that. Like if you look at, say, fashion, which is your background, you don’t have every designer doing pink floral outfits. You have kind of more androgynous style and you have quite a spectrum of things, and the watch industry just doesn’t seem to do that at the moment.
So I think they’re really missing a trick but not doing that. Honestly, I don’t actually know of any women’s watches that, if I had the money, I would actually buy. All the watches I like are what people call men’s watches.
So, what is your brand actually producing each year, in terms of volume?
Well, the first series was 12 pieces, and that was down to the fact that I made the decision that I wanted the pieces to be made in Switzerland, and obviously the only person who was going to invest in the business was me, and I’d never done it before. So I thought, okay, 12 is a good number that I can follow the production properly, make sure that the quality is exactly what it should. Investment wise, it was a number that I could actually manage.
So, it was 12 for the first edition, 12 pieces for the black edition, the colored one is 24 pieces, and then the new ones for this year, there are three different designs, and each are limited to 18 pieces of each design. So I’ve slowly gone up in quantity year on year, but at the same time, once a design sold out, it sold out.
So, If somebody said to me, I want exactly the same thing, I’d say I couldn’t do it, because for the other clients who’ve bought one of 12, and then all the sudden there’s another three or 10 or however many of those watches appear, and it’s just not fair, actually. It kind of devalues the product. What I could do, is a version for them, which has the same kind of overall spirit as whatever the watch they liked, but it’s not exactly the same one. So that’s always possible.
“ In terms of the whole Swiss Franc Euro thing, honestly, I think I’ve been really lucky, because I’m so niche ”
So, seeing as you have expanded, it seems your business is going quite well and there’s a strong market demand for it?
Yeah. It’s a combination of retail expansion demand and then, from a production point, it’s also better if you can go up a little bit. It’s just a little bit less risky. It also depends on price point, because the new pieces are going to be slightly lower in price point than the celebration skull.
It also makes more sense, then, to potentially produce a slightly larger edition number. So there are a few different factors. It’s kind of a mix of demand and then production and then kind of my own gut feeling, actually.
Has the issue with the Swiss Franc affected your business at all?
In terms of the whole Swiss Franc Euro thing, honestly, I think I’ve been really lucky, because I’m so niche and the volumes I produce are so small. I’m not doing something like a bigger brand, where you go to your retailers and you force them to take a certain volume per year, that volume being huge.
All my retailers take pieces of every collection, a minimum of between two and four pieces, and that’s it. I’m not forcing them to take 20 to 100 pieces a year. Because of that, actually, it’s been okay, and all my suppliers are in Switzerland, so from my point of view, it doesn’t really have that much of an impact. It’s more in terms of the sales afterwards and more, really, in Europe with the fluctuation.
Basically, for me it hasn’t really had an impact, because my pieces are so limited anyway. So it’s been all right, actually. I think if I was in my 10Th year, with a much bigger production volume, it would be a different thing, potentially.
“ I think I want to diversify a little bit, so at Basel this year I was showing prints alongside the watches ”
So in saying that, what are your plans, in terms of expansion, for the future?
Well, the plans are, I’d say, two fold. One is, I have concept for another two collections in mind. With a completely different concept behind it, which means a completely different shape, so an entirely new design.
That’s something that I’m kind of working towards, but the first piece from that, is probably going to take, I don’t know, I’d say a couple of years, to get it to the point where I have prototypes in production and everything. In terms of the watches, I definitely want to keep doing watches, that’s the plan, and then just branch out into different collections.
The other aspect is, I kind of can’t get away from my ‘arty farty’ background. It always sort of comes back up, that artistic side. Even in my watches, it is really a kind of integration of fine art with traditional watch making.
So, because of that, I think I want to diversify a little bit, so at Basel this year I was showing prints alongside the watches. Just because it kind of completes the whole story, and that’s the thing that I want to kind of do going forward as well.
I think, because my background is in art and design, I don’t just have watches on my brain. They’re a huge part of it, because a lot of the ideas come up when I’m designing a watch and that whole universe, but then I kind of spin off into different things.
So, I’m definitely, going forward, I would say fine art, and then accessories, are the two areas that I’m looking at going into. They’re always things that compliment the watches or basically come from the watch design, so the watches are at the heart of everything, and then those things will kind of spin off.
Petit Skull Collection, 2016
Looking ahead again, many are saying that the watch industry should be poised for a downturn – is that on your radar?
Yeah, it is, because I get up super early in the morning, and then I’ll watch the news, and the international correspondent there is talking about the Asian market and how it’s collapsing, and I think: “Oh, brilliant”.
But at the same time, apparently, last year was a really tough year for the watch industry, but, honestly, I didn’t notice it in terms of my own business. I think it’s because I only started up quite recently. So, in that sense, I’ve been quite fortunate because I don’t have anything to compare it to. I sold more last year than I did the year before.
Then, if I’d started my business, maybe, six or seven years ago, I might be thinking: “Oh, God, it’s not that great”, because my comparison would have been different. So, for me, it’s actually been fine.
There’s still people interested. My sales are still going up. I’ve signed new retailers, and now, rather than me contacting them, I’ve got them now contacting me to ask about selling.
But I do think that there is a big difference between the independent market and the big brand market. So, if the market in general is sort of slowing down, I don’t think you can of paint the independents and the bigger brands with the same brush in that sense, because the products are completely different. The way we sell is completely different.
“ Every market, for me, is equally as important. I don’t like putting all my eggs in the one basket ”
What are your markets of focus, geographically?
Well, in terms of Asia – I have a retailer in Hong Kong, and another retailer in Japan.
For the retailer in Japan, it’s really interesting, because I went over to Tokyo more just to get a feeling for what it was like. I really didn’t think that I was going to sell over there. I found one retailer who I thought would be interesting to meet up with, because he was also selling independent brands. And they’ve been my best retailer in terms of buying. They buy more than any of the other retailers, and they’re selling super well.
Nobody is more surprised than me, because everybody told me that I would never be able to sell in Asia. And that’s just not the case. I think it’s really interesting that it’s Japan, because they’re kind of known for being an early adoptive culture.
So, Asia, for me, is important, but it’s not everything. Every market, for me, is equally as important. I don’t like putting all my eggs in the one basket and just pushing in the one area. Mainland China, I haven’t really approached, and that’s a little bit because my experience is that they Chinese market is huge, but it’s huge for really big, well established brands, like your Rolexes and Patek Phillipe, etc.
Whereas, in Singapore, guys there want the independents, because they want something that nobody else has or something that’s quite different. Whereas, I think, at least in mainland China, from what my experience has been, they’re not really that interested in that at the moment.
Southeast Asia is also a really, really interesting market that’s quite new and kind of coming up, and also very adventurous.
So I would say Japan, kind of Singapore, Southeast Asia, are the kind of areas that I find really interesting.
So, in terms of expansion, it’s definitely those markets I’m looking at, and then India.
“ Making a point of excluding people, that’s not something that I’m interested in. I don’t buy into that at all. ”
You mentioned earlier on in the interview, that this idea of excluding people from things is not really down your alley, yet you are a luxury brand – and that sector has always been defined in a sense by that notion of being quite ‘out of reach’ to the majority. So what is your own definition of luxury then?
Well, when I did my masters course, one of the things I had to do was actually think about ‘what’ luxury is. So, I’d say, in terms of a product, things like precious materials like diamonds and gold, etc.
But just because a watch or a product is made with those kind of materials, doesn’t, for me, necessarily make it a luxury product.
So, I think it’s more the skills involved, the craftsmanship, that for me, is the real luxury. Like if you find an artisan who’s the best at what he does – that is worth more than anything under the sun. Especially in terms of watches and products like that.
I do think though, that heritage is something that’s really important also. Heritage and tradition, for me, itself, is also a luxury. And time – because there’s never enough!
But making a point of excluding people, that’s not something that I’m interested in. Like with my watches, whoever likes them like them, they just buy them and that’s great. It’s not like you have to be a certain thing to be able to buy it. I don’t buy into that at all.
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