It’s estimated in 2018 Rolex spent well over US$50 million dollars on advertising their products, with companies like Breitling and Omega catching up fast. Some could, and do, argue that many of today’s major brands should spend less money on advertising and more on manufacturing a superior watch. Rolex can perhaps be forgiven as when its founder, Hans Wilsdorf, passed away in 1960 he left all of his shares and hence the entire company, to the Hans Wilsdorf Foundation with stipulation profits should be re-directed back into the company or to various charities. Then again Hublot, an insignificant brand until the marketing genius of Jean Claude Beaver came along, injecting the watches with steroids (not literally) and, by spending a small fortune on advertising, he created a hugely popular monster of a company without specifically improving quality but just changing peoples perspective of it. If watch companies don’t have the funds to advertise heavily or seduce the media, how do they compete? What if you were a talented watchmaker today with a great passion and drive, good business ideas? How would you start? Alas, is money the key to everything in life?
With ETA’s decision several years ago to limit their supply of movements to companies, many new brands now require millions of Swiss Francs to design and manufacture their own movement or need to look elsewhere. Frankly, the life of an independent watchmaker can be a vicious circle. The constant dilemma; You want to build the best watch you can and gain respect in the industry, but start-up costs are prohibitively high. Then once you have invested every cent you have into your company, how do you pay for advertising? The independents are the unsung heroes of the industry, using their creative talents to bring new ideas to the market and always pushing the boundaries of what is possible.
Of course there is a vast spectrum of what could be classified as an independent. Traditional British watchmakers Roger Smith and Charles Frodsham could be one side of the spectrum, with Richard Mille or F.P.Journe on the other. With a different approach to customer service, Journe has opened a number of boutique stores around the world to control and prevent discounting of his watches. This is in significant contrast to Richard Mille who, since 2011, has been issuing a transferable 5 year warranty on new watches, as they understand it is the nature of watch collectors to trade, just don’t trade a special edition you were given the privilege to buy or they will know (trust me) and subsequent requests declined. Richard Mille is a theoretical independent with vast amounts of available funding and Audemars Piguet, who also own the research and development team of Renaud & Papi as major shareholders, hence they don’t suffer from the usual difficulties. Similarly, Greubel Forsey, who perhaps have the best of both worlds, remain strongly independent only producing around 100 watches a year under their strict quality control while retaining financial backing form the Richmond group, who own a 20 percent stake in the company. This investment allows the 70-strong company their own research and development team as well as a state of the art, environmentally conscious workshops.
MB&F, under the guidance of Max Busser is another classic success story, with 900,000 Swiss francs in savings, Max resigned from Harry Winston to establish his own brand. After initial struggles working on his own and with the support of other independents willing to help his drive, work ethics and ambitions, he has created a unique brand in the industry that refuses to adhere to the traditional aspect of watchmaking. Usually companies will manufacture what they feel the buying public want, instead Max, with his friends, designs and makes what he loves and then allows buyers to follow his passion.
Another brand that has successfully been able to create a niche market in the mainstream is Urwerk. Their signature design features a clever 3D revolving hour and minute instead of the traditional flat version and this had found them something of cult following with young entrepreneurs who liken the design to space-age watches they dreamt of as children. Of course no piece on independent watchmakers would be complete without the mention of British watchmaker Roger Smith. Roger is a rare, if not unique watchmaker in the industry as almost everything except the crystal is handmade. Yes, the screws, hands, dial, springs, gears, virtually every part. This was the technique of the legendary George Daniels and Roger Smith was his only pupil. With a production of around 10 watches a year, orders are taken ‘by request’ only, such is demand. Along a similar hand-made principle, Charles Frodsham, after perhaps two decades of preparation, have released their first production wristwatch with double escapement and it was worth the wait. Modern in proportions yet classic in design it is a masterpiece, alas with such low production the wait list is already several years long to obtain one.
One of the signatures of independent watchmakers is a very limited production. With Rolex manufacturing over 500,000 watches a year and even Peek Philippe presumed at around 50,000, Gruebel Forsey’s total production is around 100 watches a year, which brings into perspective how difficult it is to acquire a watch made by hand and the admiration received when someone realises what you are wearing. Independents are perhaps the ultimate watch for those seeking a modern escapism from the mainstream ideals of wealth.