At last fall’s WatchTime New York event, one of the busiest exhibitor booths was that of Jean Rousseau — a producer not of watches but of the luxurious leather straps that secure them to wrists. Recently, we sat down with Jean Rousseau’s brand president, Jacques Bordier, at the Jean Rousseau boutique and atelier in midtown Manhattan, to discuss what his company does and where it is going.
WT: How did the Jean Rousseau company start and how did you become involved with it?
JB: The company now called Jean Rousseau was founded in 1954 by a craftsman named Jean Rousseau. At the time, the name of the company was Cobra, which is an abbreviation of Companie de Bracelet; “bracelet” is French for “strap.” In the 1950s, all watch straps were made of leather – plastic, rubber and all those other modern materials weren’t yet in use, so expertise in leather craftsmanship was important. By the 1980’s it had become a partner of the Swatch brand, which was important in the life of our company because it forced us to be very creative and to develop new things. Unfortunately, at some point in time, there was apparently some disagreement between the Swatch people and the Cobra people, so they parted ways and Cobra eventually filed for bankruptcy.
I discovered it during its bankruptcy period, in 1999. I was looking for a company to take over, and after I visited it, I realized there was still a lot of know-how here that I wanted to use. But I also wanted to use that know-how in service to the higher end of the business rather than in the medium to lower end, where companies from places like China and India would be very difficult to compete with. I saw that the future of the business was in that high end, where we could create creative solutions that the big watch brands would be interested in. Based on that initial idea, we started to contact the first major Swiss brand, then the second, third, fourth and so on, and that’s how we grew. That is also when I decided that we would call our brand Jean Rousseau and that we would also have direct contact with the consumer.
WT: How is it set up? Is there still a Cobra brand supplying to watch brands, as well as a Jean Rousseau brand selling direct to end consumers?
JB: No. I changed the name of the company to Jean Rousseau, after the founder. I sold the Cobra trademark to someone else. In 2001, a little over a year after I took over the company, we opened our first atelier store in Paris. The concept was not only to have a boutique with a lot of strap options in many colors and many different materials, but also to have a craftsperson working on-site at the boutique. This way, the consumer looking for a custom watch strap would be able to choose the color, size, type of strap, et cetera, and the work could be done right there in the atelier. It was our first contact with the consumer, but at the same time it was taking the company back to its roots — not dozens of rows of workers making straps on an industrial scale but very traditional, very classical.
WT: Can we assume the company’s output is much smaller now than it was during the days of working with Swatch?
JB: Yes, definitely. It is not even comparable. In the days of working with Swatch, we would be making millions of straps. Now we make in the hundreds of thousands annually. We don’t anticipate ever to reach a million again, because volume is not something we’re interested in.
WT: Can you reveal any of the large brands that you currently work with?
JB: I can only tell you that we work for the Richemont Group, for the Swatch Group, and for the LVMH Group as well as some very high-end independent brands.
WT: Can you talk about how you actually make the leather itself?
JB: When the company was founded, in Besançon, France, it had its own tannery. My first reaction [when I took over the company] was that we didn’t need it. But after thinking it over, I realized that we were going to be doing more and more business in alligator leather. When we dealt mostly with Swatch, of course, we did almost nothing in alligator, only in calfskin. So when we started to do alligator, for the more high-end clients, we would purchase the skins from outside tanneries. This would lead to problems when one of our customers wanted a new color and would have to wait many months for the development. So, we thought, we know a bit about tanning leather, so why don’t we try and tan alligator leather? So we hired people, we invested in training and technology, and we managed to start tanning our own alligators. Very quickly, we realized we could be as good as, if not even better than, some of our tannery suppliers. Ten years ago, most tanneries were making alligator for use in wallets or belts, but not specifically for watch straps. Our main business was watch straps, so we took great care in emphasizing research and development in our own alligator leather techniques, to deal with problems specific to watch straps — sweat, allergens, and such. So, after 15 years of work, I would say we have the best possible tannery of this type in the world.
WT: So, when a consumer comes to the boutique and brings in, say, a Rolex or a Patek Philippe, and they want to put a new strap on it, how does the process go?
JB: We would first take all the measurements then execute the strap… when the strap is finished we would call the customer, who would come in so we could fit the strap on the watch. Although we are not ourselves watchmakers or watch retailers, we handle the fitting because we’ve learned from experience how to do it well. We have the proper tools, and in some cases we also sell quick-release systems that the consumer can use themselves. Some customers, especially ladies, love to change their straps often — to go with a certain dress or a tie, for example.
We have a form the customer fills out where he or she can check boxes to choose things such as the thickness of the edges, the type of lining, even the type of scales, like large or small or square or round. It’s very detailed. The idea is for the customer to have as many choices as possible. Even the threading and the pinholes are customizable. Some customers just want one hole in a bespoke strap since it’s made to measure for the wrist.
WT: How much of what you do at the boutique is bespoke business and how much is “off the rack,” for lack of a better term? Can a customer walk in off the street, point to a strap, say “I want that one,” and walk away with it that day?
JB: It depends. I would say our aim is that most of the time, when a customer comes in, that customer will want to leave the boutique with a strap. So we show him what we have, we advise him, we ask questions, such as whether he will be using this strap every day or if he has other choices. After this interview with the customer, we try to find one of the ready-made products that would fit his needs. If not, we suggest that our craftsperson take all the measurements and execute a custom product.
WT: So, the form is only for someone who wants something very detailed and specific.
JB: Yes. And we have our own studio a few blocks from the botuique where the actual straps are made. Thus, you can either walk out with a new strap or you can order exactly what you want.