Searching For Meaning In The Watch Industry

01 July 2020
Breitling, CEO, Georges Kern, INTERVIEW, Luxury Watch, Chronomat collection, Watch industry, Covid-19, Coronavirus, Business
As Breitling relaunches the Chronomat collection, CEO Georges Kern asks whether the watch industry is about to change forever

Georges Kern has a theory. A thought or two on what the world will look like post-Covid-19, and the Breitling CEO is quite excited about it all.

To Kern, excessive luxury is about tobecome a thing of the past. It’s just a thought, of course, a voice amongst many. But the more he talks, the more it makes acoming from the man at the helm of a high watchmaking house.

Right now, Kern has Breitling operating on a skeleton inhouse staff. These are the men and women carrying out essential works and preparing for life after the global reboot. His own day revolves around video conferences and occasional forays into the office – for the CEO, a presence is often necessary, especially, some might argue, in the current climate. But life is changing, and Kern firmly believes that it might never be the same again.

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“I think after Covid-19, things that were excessive just won’t be acceptable anymore,” he says. “The world will slow down. Things will be uncertain, at least for a time. People will want something to hold on to in a world that feels shaky and unpredictable. They’ll want craftsmanship, analogue products, like mechanical watches, more than ever. There will be a renaissance,” he says, rolling the ‘r’ for all it’s worth.

If you took all of this at face value, it could easily risk just sounding like a new spin on why you should (still) buy a super expensive mechanical watch. But that would be to miss the point. This is not about excess for the diamond-encrusted sake of it, rather a laser focus on quality, and why the dedication needed to get there matters more now than ever.

So it’s the perfect time, you might say, to relaunch the Chronomat, a watch that helped bring mechanical watchmaking out of the quartz crisis in 1984. And although Kern is quick to point out that the collection was two years in the making, and its timing is just coincidence, you can’t deny that the distinct Rouleaux bracelet just seems symbolic of a moment when we need to refocus on what’s important.

“Behaviours will change. Attitudes will change. And if you really want the truth,” says Kern, shifting back towards his Corona theory, “I think some watch brands that were once thought of as cool will have to question their approach, too.”

 Breitling CEO Georges Kern

You can certainly never accuse Kern of being the type of CEO to shy away from laying down the gauntlet. The 55-year-old has a reputation for emboldening brands with a philosophy that can resonate beyond the excellence of product, and he’s proven a bombastic influence on the watch industry for almost two decades.

After 17 years at Richemont Group – and a youngest ever CEO accolade for his time helming IWC Schaffhausen – Kern made the leap to an independent in 2017. He trimmed the product line and offered focus, shifting Breitling from stoic success to sustainability and a zeitgeisty cool. It was hard yards from the fussy rigidity of the industry, and while it took time to digest (“It was a very intrinsic, stomach-feeding type of process”), it’s a move that Kern feels will help Breitling resonate more than ever in a post-lockdown world.

“We will see millions of newly unemployed in the coming months,” says Kern. “And you will see that unemployment, in many cases, leading to poverty. This will have a huge impact on the subconscious of our customers who will not look towards excessive luxury, but to sustainable brands. People will want brands that they can relate to… they’ll want brands that are meaningful and that have purpose.”

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This is no jump on a market trend. In fact you only have to see the sense of sustainability Kern imbued at IWC – certified carbon neutral since 2007 – to appreciate a long-held dedication to shaping the industry in a more planet-friendly model. “The world is changing and brands have to adapt,” says Kern. “What was a cool brand 10 years ago, could suddenly become an embarrassing brand today. And what might have been unusual before – say like being vegan – has suddenly become cool.”

You certainly can’t argue with the strides that Breitling has made already. From shunning the traditional watch associations – it has coupled itself to surfing as opposed to F1 or golf – to its support of the Ocean Conservancy and the brand’s Econyl Nato straps made out of recycled ocean plastic. Sustainability is a Breitling buzzword, but the methodology is very much deeds not words.

“In the second half of the year, we will introduce another sustainable initiative,” says Kern, justifiably proud.

Elsewhere, the entire customer experience has changed, with the aim of attracting a new base of younger, more dynamic watch lovers. Nowhere is the shift seen greater than from the confines of the Breitling boutique.

 “For us it was about framing the boutique in an entirely different way. How do we talk to the customer, what music do we play in our boutiques, what do they smell like, what do the staff wear? Breitling boutiques have bars, pool tables, motorbikes. People tell us that they’d like to move in.”

But while a shift in brand aesthetic is one thing, quality needs to remain at the heart of the operation. Which is why relaunching an icon like the Chronomat plays such a huge role in establishing its new market position.

“The Chronomat influenced the industry for 20 years,” says Kern. “But, of course, with time it became diluted with lots of products that looked rather similar, so it lost a little bit of its identity. But its name and some of the design elements are absolutely iconic. So, we decided to go back to the codes of the 1980s – in a modern way – and relaunch.”

But reworking a classic can be fraught with danger. And just as Kern had to be sensitive when it came to the heritage of Breitling when he took over, he would have to tread with equal care when it came to the new Chronomat.

“It’s just so recognisable, even from a distance,” he says, referencing the rounded Rouleaux bracelet. “We worked hard for two years, then took it around the world. We showed it to collectors, experts, journalists… and when the prototype came out, everybody loved it.”

You could argue that watches like this aren’t just timepieces, they put down markers of reassurance. Not simply nostalgia in an uncertain time, although that surely plays a part, but anchors that Kern thinks people are lacking right now. And while the Chronomat collection might hog the deadlines this month, the Superocean Heritage ’57 capsule collection offers these anchors, while also enforcing Breitling’s updated cool aesthetic.

“This was a product I just loved,” says Kern. “A watch of the 1950s, but we’re not about dusty vintage – this is Modern Retro. So, with this watch, we talk about the very origins of surfing, driving a cool pick-up truck with your board in the back, all soundtracked to music like the Beach Boys. I just love this image.”

It’s true, a nostalgic image can be easy to love. But heritage, iconic watches and Modern Retro aside, Kern is under no illusions on the role that tech plays. Now more than ever. In April, Breitling held its first ever webcast to present the Spring Novelties. A way to reach the masses under lockdown and tease them with what the brand will do next. It’s a crucial move, but not one that Kern thinks will ever replace the need for that real-world touch.

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“We have to be flexible, of course,” he says, as our chat comes to a close. “And yes, you will have technology and progress. But at the end of the day, people will still come to a boutique to hold and feel a watch before they buy it. They will look at it, inspect it, enjoy the 360-degree brand story. This process will never die. The key, I believe, is to do it all with meaning.”

The Chronomat Collection

Redesigning an icon

The Chronomat is a rugged sporty timepiece that helped the mechanical watch industry through the darkest hours of the quartz crisis, and with its distinct Rouleaux bracelet (right) it’s quite rightly revered.

So, cometh the hour, cometh the Chronomat, and the relaunch just happens to be at a time when we could all do with a little joy. The new collection retains the Rouleaux bracelet (as well as other options, above) the classic butterfly clasp and the sense that you can wear it anywhere and look great.

Powered by Breitling’s caliber 01 movement, whether you’re aiming for the red gold infused B01 42, the special edition collab with Bentley, or the limited edition tribute to Breitling’s 1983 Frecce Tricolori watch – the one that inspired the original Chronomats – it’s hard to argue that it’s about to introduce itself to a new generation in style.