One of the first things that Breitling CEO Georges Kern did when he assumed his role back in the summer of 2017 was reinvent how the brand marketed itself. Some of the ways that the brand had presented itself in the past, such as with an over-the-top focus on scantily clad women, were immediately jettisoned; while longtime partnerships, such as with Bentley Motors, and the brand’s focus on aviation, remained in clear view. Perhaps the largest way that Kern repositioned the brand was through the “Air, Sea, and Land” initiative that repositioned the brand’s product offerings thanks, in part, to the success of the Héritage Superocean II immediately prior to his arrival.
With the “Air” and “Sea” categories taken care of, the land category was in need of some attention. Enter the Norton Motorcycle Company, one of the most beloved and storied firms in the entire motorcycle world. Not just recognized for the high degree of horsepower and mechanical potency found in each bike that bears the Norton logo, the company also imbues each of its motorcycles with classic good looks that echo the golden age of racing. This combination made it the perfect partner for Breitling, a brand that has its design heritage focused squarely on the century between 1884 and 1984.
The first result of the partnership between Breitling and Norton Motorcycles came at Baselworld this year. Breitling released a new limited edition take of the Premier B01 Chronograph 42 that was first launched in the fall of 2018 directly inspired by Norton branding. Using a very attractive Café Racer-esque design with a heavy dosage of gold and mocha-brown on the numerals, hands, and minute track set across the deep black dial, the watch immediately stands out with its strong vintage appeal. Running along the left side of the case is an engraving of the Norton Motorcycle logo and inside the 42-mm stainless-steel case is the manufacture B01 caliber, with column wheel and vertical clutch, that offers up an approximately 70-hour power reserve.
Recently, at an event at the Breitling boutique on Fifth Avenue in New York — the same evening we spent time with actor Adam Driver — WatchTime had the chance to talk with Stuart Garner, the CEO and owner of Norton Motorcycles about the Breitling relationship, the crossover appeal between watches and motorcycles, and bonding with his fellow CEO, Georges Kern.
Can you discuss how the partnership with Breitling began?
The guys [at Breitling] called us and said they were looking to change the dynamic of [the brand]. They saw motorcycling as part of the “Air, Land, and Sea” [messaging]. They sent a few guys over [to the UK] who lived with us for a few days and checked us out to make sure we were what they thought — they learned what we’re doing with our brand and what Norton is all about. We got on so well that we then went back and checked them out and made sure we knew who we were dealing with.
So you flew down to Switzerland?
Yeah, I met Georges [Kern] and had lunch and some private time with him. It went really well. And as we spoke about the synergies of the brand and the history, and the design, and the culture, it just went like that. It was unbelievable how we synergized and how everybody’s view was that this is where we want to go.
The customer base, ultimately, for a mechanical watch or a motorbike, it’s a bit of a bloke thing. If you ride your motorbike, you probably have a garage; if you’re a guy into mechanical watches, you probably have a workshop with tools. It’s clear that’s what Breitling wanted to connect with — that independent, adventurous spirit. And we got that, that’s exactly where our customer base is for Norton. So it just fitted. We all got on so well. It was just, “God, this is going to be a right blast.”
Later on, we were in the South of France and Georges and I spent some time racing on motorbikes. You just don’t see that, you know, two CEOs blasting around on motorbikes. I think it’s wild.
This isn’t the first time that Norton has worked with a watch brand. Are there any specific ways you can highlight how the partnership with Breitling has been different?
I think Breitling has a much stronger global spread. There are a few mantras that run through Breitling that are so similar to Norton. So, we’ve got a very exclusive product, whether it’s the watch, whether it’s the motorbike. But it’s marketed and put forward in a very inclusive way. It’s all about the watch, it’s all about the motorbike, and whether the guy earns a thousand dollars or a million dollars, it’s irrelevant. It’s not about what you do or who you are.
And other brands might have just a little bit of, I don’t know what it is, a bit of arrogance, or they feel a little aloof. Where it’s just maybe overrefined and I think Breitling has been able to reconnect with that inclusivity. And being available to everybody, while still making an exclusive product. It’s a really small area to populate and to do well in, but it’s something that we have been doing at Norton. And if you speak to Georges and see where Breitling is positioning itself, it’s something that they also clearly see.
It’s an area where you can aspire to it, but it’s also generally accessible.
Exactly. And I think that for me there’s still that ostentatiousness of a big watch and a very expensive watch. It’s still there, but I don’t think that’s as strong or dominant as it was a few years ago. Everyone is looking for something a little bit different. Nobody wants to be mainstream and have a watch that everybody else has got. So that leaves a little bit of space where you’re exclusive and different but it’s still overall affordable. So you would say you can aspire to it and almost whatever wage you’re on, if you work hard and save and look forward to it, it’s affordable. And, equally, if you’re a higher earner it’s still a product and a brand that you would like to have.
So, there’s a commonality of the space that we’re occupying whether it’s a watch or a motorcycle, it’s the same space. And I think, you’re right, with other brands, we had a partnership, we built the teamwork, and all of those factors weren’t in there. And the thing that Breitling has is global scale and global ambition. And that absolutely drives Norton, we’re in Japan, we’re in Australia, we are just opening in India and in China.
We’re building that global spread that only Breitling can match and could give us. But it wasn’t just that; honestly, when we met the guys at Breitling, we just got on so well.
Looking at the watch again, when I saw it at Basel, it really impressed me. I think it’s absolutely gorgeous. I’m not just saying that, I really think it’s a beautiful piece. How much input did Norton have on the design itself?
Quite a lot. Almost by default because we met at Basel, a few years ago, with their design guy. And we sat down and we got hundreds of watches out and said, “Well give me a little bit of input, where do you see it?” I looked at all the big watches and said, “No, it won’t be those.” All of the sports performance pieces, “Not those.” And then all of the overrefined, “Well it’s not those.” And I was going, “Oh, well that’s all those gone, that’s all those gone.” And there was just a little tray left in the middle.
“Shit, I’ve kind of excluded everything,” and then we looked at what was left and it was the original look that [you see now] that was left. And we said, “Look, what this is telling us is that it’s all about the history and the heritage of the brands being communicated in a modern way.” So we don’t want to make an old watch because it is kind of an old watch, but we want to connect that heritage and the history that connect the brands, we want to bring that forward into the current day. And for me, that was best done with classic features of a watch, so a black face, gold numbers and just classically plain if that makes sense. But do it in a modern way. So you look at it and you go, “Wow that’s nice.” Rather than you look at it and you try to understand it because it’s a bit overcomplicated.
We say that about Norton, that if you asked a young kid to draw a motorbike, he’d draw that classic motorbike silhouette. I think if you ask a young kid to draw a watch, they’d draw that classic watch silhouette. I just wanted that timeless look that shows some history and heritage, but equally, you can see it’s thoroughly modern at the same time.
So not only did Breitling release a Norton watch, but Norton released a Breitling motorcycle, the Commando 961.
We knew what the watch would be and we knew the colors. We wanted to put some more “Breitling” through the motorbike without just sticking big “B’s” or the Breitling [logo] up the tankard, make it just a little more subtle. With a few colors and a few connections in the manufacturing process and some subtle touches with the clocks and the numbers, et cetera. So that you could see the partnership and the connection was there but if you stand back, it’s still a motorcycle. But when you go and have a look you go, “Oh yeah, there’s the Breitling touch and I get the color and I get this and I get that”. Hence we’ve gone with the black and the silver and a little bit of gold there which is very similar to the face. But the motorcycle looks nice on its own without having to be supported by Breitling. It was just a merge of trying lots of different colorways, aesthetics, logos, and finishes until we’d found the subtlest combination of the two.
Watch partnerships have been a success for Norton. Can you speak to the crossover appeal between watch enthusiasts and motorcycle lovers?
We followed some of our oldest vows, that the weekends, if they’re not on their motorbike, they might be hunting, fishing, shooting, they might be doing other motorsports, they might be doing a contact sport. Whether that’s rugby over in the UK or football here, baseball maybe, but they probably won’t be doing tennis, and they probably won’t be doing cricket. They don’t generally do the softer things, they’re more men’s men.
And you see the “Air, Land, and Sea” and “Squad on a Mission” platform running through Breitling. And “Air, Land, and Sea” is about adventure and independence, being a free spirit and enjoying our lives. You don’t have to wait to be in a corporate hospitality suite watching golf. You go and do it yourself. And I think what Breitling is saying with the “Air, Land, and Sea” messaging is: “Go have your own adventure. Go and be independent. Go and do your own thing with passion and excitement.” Which is absolutely what our guys do on their motorbikes. And when you talk to motorcycle guys they love their mechanical watches. Because they get it, it’s mechanical, it’s moving, it’s being manufactured, it’s being engineered. There something living or breathing about a mechanical watch that you just don’t get with digital.