Selling Happiness

16 March 2020
Though founded in 1846, Ulysse Nardin’s fresh, marine-inspired aesthetic is still loved by  millennials.
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Though founded in 1846, Ulysse Nardin’s fresh, marine-inspired aesthetic is still loved by  millennials.

Ulysse Nardin CEO, Patrick Pruniaux, is offering up a different kind of disruption to the watch industry

Having started his career with LVMH nearly 20 years ago, before moving onto TAG Heuer and later Apple, Patrick Pruniaux boasts of a hefty CV. But when he was approached to become the CEO of luxury Swiss watch manufacturer Ulysee Nardin in 2017, it marked the beginning of a journey that’s really starting to bloom.

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Following the launch of the brand’s Diver X Antarctica collection, GQ journeyed to Paris and spoke with Pruniaux on watchmaking for millennials, dominating social media, and one seemingly indestructible watch of his own.

Where did it start for you with watchmaking?

“It began with a Mickey Mouse watch when I was six. It evolved over time, and my dad offered me a watch when I was 18. I can’t recall the brand but I remember it was a decent. Actually, there is an interesting story behind this watch. When I was in the army, I lost it while parachuting – the chute opened and one of the strings pulled the watch clean from my wrist, dropping it somewhere in the middle of a forest in France. I then left the army, and five months later, my colleague called me to say that a German tourist, strolling past the drop zone, had found it. Even more impressive, it still worked.”

How does Ulysse Nardin steer towards a millennial market while maintaining its core DNA?

“The game has certainly changed in the last 20 years. Where once the younger generation would be influenced by the older, now it seems to have switched, and the millennials are leading the discussion. The way we see it, it’s still about having a great story to tell, having a great product, of course, and building some hype.

I always make sure that whenever someone is interested in a watch [the following happens]: if they know the brand then great, if not then they’ll ask themselves why they don’t know it – and they’ll feel guilty that such a brand has been around for a long time and they didn’t know about it sooner.”

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Does your love for sailing and kite surfing act as an important narrative in your work?

“It is a great privilege when you do a job that correlates with your passions. It isn’t only about manufacturing for money, but having a story behind what you do and being in tune with what you like to do in life. That reflects on our ambassadors, too. When they put the effort in coming all the way to our factory for the first time, and they discover our world and we discover theirs. We portray that experience in our designs. So the narrative is very genuine. We do not pick people with the highest number of followers, we pick people with the strongest stories and authenticity.”

What informs your creative process, and what stories are you telling about people who wear your watches?

“One of the fascinating things about watches is that they can be very modern. In our case, we have five collections and we don’t want to do any more. So, when we create something new, it’s an evolution, not revolution. That doesn’t mean that there could be a lot of changes to the watch however, it’s an extension of a collection.

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We obviously think about the design, but it all starts with the product and it goes all the way down to different ways of communication; it’s a very comprehensive approach to design. We ask ourselves: What’s the purpose of the product I am making? Why am I making it? And who could be my potential client? Of course, you don’t want to get too distracted by who your potential client might be, because you don’t want to lose that genuineness in the process. When you work on a product, you’re also building the narrative about it... you’re creating a story, and we try to do it in a very comprehensive way.”

How do you feel about social media and its importance to heritage watch brands?

“I think what matters the most is the followers that have true interest in what we do. In social media, we aim to communicate in quite an inclusive way so that no one feels left out. You see, it is great to be exciting, but we want to speak to people who, perhaps, can’t yet afford the watch, too. For instance, when we post a well-curated picture, even if it is not the watch directly, we want our audience to enter our world.

It is very good to connect. One of my wildest dreams is to somehow share the same level of excitement that people get when they visit our manufacturing headquarters. If we could do that through social media, with a global reach, I would be so pleased. When someone comes to visit, they are speechless. But if I am able to translate the journey that goes into making our watches through social media, it will be even better. The more we open the watch industry via social media, the better for everyone; we are making it more approachable and understandable. Remember, this is not a product, this is the result of 170 years of experience. This is the sum of probably more than a hundred people who have been making watches by hand with such attention to design and detail. People want to understand this process.”

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What is the craziest idea you’ve had for Ulysse Nardin?

“We have plenty of those and sometimes, they come to life. We are so lucky, because we’re working in an industry where we can be bold and informal but also professional at the same time. We’re so privileged, and, to me, the greatest privileges are selling pleasure and happiness to people. I once saw someone in Dubai buying a luxury watch and paying for it in cash with small notes. I think because she had been saving for probably two years. You should have seen the smile on her face when she bought the watch. I am in that business, the happiness business. To me, that’s way better than being in a commodities business.”