What Are These Guys Up To?

TechnoMarine's Executive Trio

TechnoMarine made a big splash a decade ago. A new team is hoping to do it again.

The image of (left to right) Christian Viros, Vincent Perriard, and Steven Cohen, nearly up to their necks in water, is designed to make us wonder what these three bobbing Pep Boys are up to. The image is apt because that’s exactly the question lots of people in the watch world are asking.

These three have teamed up to try and revive the TechnoMarine watch brand. TechnoMarine, you may recall, was the world’s hottest watch brand 10 years ago. It burst on the watch scene in 1999 with a watch called TechnoDiamond that turned a faux pas into a fashion statement by brazenly combining diamonds with (egad!) plastic. It had 1.1 carats of diamonds in two rows around the bezel and a translucent plastic band that came in colors ranging from transparent to mauve.

TechnoMarine’s TechnoDiamond created a Techno-craze. Fashion and watch magazines hailed Franck Dubarry, the French advertising executive who created the company and the design pretty much on a whim, as a genius. Dubarry moved the business to Los Angeles and made quartz TechnoMarines a fixture of the jet set’s weekend wardrobe.

For a while. Dubarry had a good run, but eventually the brand fell victim to the two demons that plague all overnight-sensation watches: knockoffs and the need for a second act. (Think of Carlo Crocco’s gold-and-rubber Hublot and Severin Wunderman’s Corum Bubble.) Diamond and plastic watches proliferated. Over time the novelty wore off and the brand got tagged as a “one-hit wonder.” By mid-decade, the wind had come out of TechnoMarine’s sails (and sales). In 2006, Dubarry sold the company to an investor group and pursued other interests.

TechnoMarine made a splash combining diamond-set cases with plastic bands, as in this Cruise Star model.
TechnoMarine Cruise Star

TechnoMarine seemed destined to fall even farther off the watch world’s radar except for one thing: among the investors in the group that purchased the brand was Christian Viros.

Viros has a golden reputation in watch circles. From 1988 to 2002 he was one of the most important figures in the watch world. He is the man who devised and executed the strategy that catapulted Switzerland’s struggling Heuer brand into the international superstar that is TAG Heuer.

When the French company Techniques d’Avant Garde (TAG) acquired Heuer in 1985, it hired the Booz Allen Hamilton consulting firm to develop a plan for the business. Viros, then with BAH, led the team that devised the strategy. When he and his two BAH colleagues, Luc Perramond and the splendidly named Philippe Champion, presented to TAG management their recommendations for what to do with Heuer, TAG management said “Great. Do it.” TAG hired the three and, indeed, they did it. With Viros as CEO, Champion running the Japanese market and Perramond in the USA, TAG Heuer sales soared, primarily on the strength of strong design and superior sports marketing. The watches in those days were mostly quartz analog chronographs, made for TAG by Roventa-Henex and other Swiss suppliers.

The best measure of Viros and company’s success is that 11 years after they took over, TAG sold the brand to LVMH for an eye-popping 1.15 billion Swiss francs (equivalent to about $740 million at that time). All three had a grand payday and Perramond and Champion left the company.

After the 1999 acquisition, Viros became head of LVMH’s watch and jewelry division for a few years. He left the post in 2002. Since then he has been a consultant and an investor in various business. His resurfacing as the chairman of TechnoMarine has made the brand much more interesting.

It got more interesting still this summer when Viros announced that he had hired Vincent Perriard as TechnoMarine’s CEO. The news surprised the watch industry. Three years ago, the Movado Group had recruited Perriard to reposition its Concord brand. That he has done, giving the brand a radical new identity as an avant-garde, expensive sports watch. Under Perriard, Concord has introduced a number of eye-catching, attention-getting models like the SUV-inspired Concord C1 Chronograph and this year’s $480,000, structurally unorthodox C1 QuantumGravity.

First Viros. Then Perriard. Wassup with TechnoMarine, watch wags wondered. Perriard quickly hired former Movado Group veteran Steven E. Cohen as CEO of TechnoMarine North America. Previously Cohen was president of Ebel North America.

Recently WatchTime met with Perriard and Cohen in New York to discuss what’s going on at TechnoMarine. Details at this point are scarce. What’s clear is that Viros and Perriard are in the process of creating TechnoMarine’s second act. The situation is very similar to what transpired at Hublot earlier in this decade. Hublot founder Carlo Crocco startled the watch world in 1980 when he put rubber straps on gold watches. Crocco rode his concept as far as he could, but he never took the brand beyond the rubber strap shtick. It took an outsider, Jean-Claude Biver, to develop Hublot’s second act, the Big Bang watch.

TechnoMarine’s situation is similar to Hublot’s. The new management team will relaunch the TechnoMarine brand at Baselworld in March. “There will be a complete new brand concept and a new set of products,” Perriard says. What won’t change are the brand’s price points; it will remain in the $300 to $3,000 range.

“We need the magic touch,” Perriard says. “Franck Dubarry had it with plastic and diamond. We cannot do TechnoDiamond again. We have to come with something more.” Nevertheless, the new team intends to stay true to the spirit of what Dubarry did. What they want to do, Perriard says, is “to recreate a clash between two universes that don’t belong together.” That’s easier said than done. Nobody knows that better than Perriard, who has gone from one nerve-wracking, “create-a-new-identity” mission (Concord) to another.

Which is why TechnoMarine is turning into a compelling little drama. The new gang is far more watch savvy than in the Dubarry era. Viros has assembled an experienced team, including Michel Beziat, a former product development director at Jeager-LeCoultre. The pressure is on them to unveil something dramatic in 2010. No doubt they will. But we peanut-gallery critics should remember that Perriard only arrived in August. The new team deserves a full season to show their stuff. Given the lead times required to develop product, it will be the Baselworld 2011 collection that reveals the true new TechnoMarine.

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