Recently, Germany-based watch blogger Zurab Zazashvili sat down for dinner and an extensive interview with Jean-Marc Pontrué, CEO of the haute-de-gamme Swiss watch brand Roger Dubuis. In this Q&A feature conducted for WatchTime.com, Pontrué covers a variety of subjects, including the brand’s recent focus on skeletonization and its dedication to achieving the Geneva Hallmark for all its watches.
WT: Roger Dubuis is still a very young brand. How did you successfully establish Roger Dubuis in a world characterized by tradition and histories? What makes Roger Dubuis different from other watch brands?
JMP: The story of Roger Dubuis began in 1995 and the idea of [differentiating] ourselves was born at the same time. For everything we do, whether it’s the concept for the product or the marketing or the people with whom we surround ourselves, we never use the standard profiles that are typical in the watch industry. We want to be innovative in every aspect. More than 700 brands make watches in Switzerland. As a young and independent label, Roger Dubuis can only survive and thrive if it differentiates itself from brands that are shaped by their traditions and have been in existence for 100 or 150 years. Our policy is to plan for the long term, for a lifespan that isn’t limited to just 10 or 20 years. And instead of letting tradition inspire us, we rely on our competence, because our manufacture is situated in the very heart of Geneva. Roger Dubuis sets itself apart from other brands through its product concept and its marketing. Ever since our manufacture was founded, we have adhered to the principle of fabricating all our watches so they can earn the prestigious Geneva Seal. Furthermore, a very strong and eye-catching design distinguishes all our products. Our fine calibers, and the limiting of our wristwatches to small series, guarantee credibility and exclusiveness. We want to distance Roger Dubuis from other brands by creating things that others haven’t yet. Roger Dubuis’ special DNA is an inherent trait in all our products.
WT: What must a watch brand like Roger Dubuis do if it wants to remain successful nowadays?
JMP: We don’t chase after a new trend or a particular tendency each year. Instead, we focus on exactly what we want to make. We’re in an expansionary phase right now, the so-called “youth phase” of the brand. The 300 people on the Roger Dubuis team always keep their gaze focused on our goal, which we all strive to achieve together. This demands perseverance and the awareness that this process necessarily takes time. It’s a tremendous opportunity for us to be part of the big Richemont Group of companies; Richemont is renowned for its numerous success stories. Our brand isn’t one that tries to make a quick profit: we think ahead, we plan for the long term, and we work toward writing successful new chapters in the future. Our membership in the Richemont Group gives us the opportunity to take our time – as much time as we need — for our ongoing story.
WT: There have been many headlines about the Swiss franc and its sudden appreciation in value. How has the costlier franc affected Roger Dubuis’ development and how do these macroeconomic circumstances makes themselves felt for your brand?
JMP: The exchange rate between the euro and the Swiss franc was 1 to 1.6 when I came to Switzerland from Germany. The rate became 1 to 1.2 shortly afterward. Switzerland’s unemployment rate is 3% and the level of Switzerland’s exports, when considered per capita, is comparable with Germany’s. Switzerland’s economy is resilient and its competitive position is strong. This country has been Europe’s center since 2000 and it will maintain its stability over the long term. Roger Dubuis defrays the greater percentage of the costs with Swiss francs because we’re headquartered in Geneva. Of course, it remains a challenge to keep all the expenditures in Switzerland. The exchange rate between the euro and Swiss franc is currently 1.00 to 1.06. This means we have only a 10% loss, but it’s more of a problem for smaller shops near the Swiss border. We’re very confident and we regard it as our good fortune to be headquartered in a country with a strong currency.
WT: Roger Dubuis repeatedly surprises connoisseurs, for example, with new items in 2015 such as skeletonized microrotors and bezels with diamonds in rubber settings. In your opinion, have there been discernible changes in customers’ expectations when they buy luxury watches and in the aspects on which they focus their attention? Do technical innovations play a role?
It’s not our top priority to orient our brand according to customers’ needs. Roger Dubuis primarily stands for innovations. Our clientele’s expectations are much higher than the expectations of customers who buy from other watch manufacturers. When we launch our globally unprecedented innovations, we think above all about our concept rather than about the few people who’ll be able to afford these particular new creations. We don’t want to use the same innovations or the same materials as our competitors; we want to think beyond the boundaries and to create more. We don’t want to be mentioned in the same breath with other brands that have developed something similar or identical. That’s why we strive to develop incredible ideas, like diamonds set in rubber. This takes plenty of precious time, but the pleasant surprises that we trigger always pay off for us. Sometimes we work simultaneously on many as ten projects, of which only one ultimately comes to fruition. We also invest heavily in market research: perhaps there’s no demand right now for diamonds in rubber settings, but who else – if not Roger Dubuis – could accomplish that feat? The success rate for such innovations is high because we have a base of customers who already own everything else, who expect something surprising from us, and who gladly invest in our products.
WT: How would you describe the typical wearer of a Roger Dubuis watch?
The typical wearer of a Roger Dubuis watch is someone who, basically, already has everything. Those possessions may include automobiles, homes, and, of course, other wristwatches. A watch is only one possession among many for these individuals, but they want one that’s unique and that sets its wearer uniquely apart from everyone else. I come from [the world of] haute couture, where there’s a keen interest in one-of-a-kind items. The situation is comparable in haute horlogerie: a person who is prepared to invest 250,000 euros in a wristwatch wants to be sure that the same model won’t tick on anyone else’s wrist.
WT: Let’s talk about the new models unveiled at SIHH. Why such a big focus this year on the theme of skeletonizing, and in so many variations? What’s special about it?
Roger Dubuis has made skeletonized watches for 10 years now. Ever since my first day at this brand, I’ve enjoyed wearing our double tourbillon. If you drive on a well-engineered autobahn day after day, you no longer notice how superlative it is because it becomes the norm for you. The situation is similar with our watches: we didn’t notice that we’d created something extraordinary with our skeletonized double tourbillons, so no one had the idea of making a heroic story out of it. [For this year,] we didn’t want to create another family alongside our other worlds. Instead, we wanted to emphasize a specific technical aspect that could also be transferred into our other products.
WT: Why do you believe that the Roger Dubuis manufacture should be regarded as a trailblazer in modern skeletonized watches?
These watches make it clear that Roger Dubuis is the first brand to pursue a path other than that of traditional skeletonized movements, most of which have small, round shapes. Modern skeletonized calibers such as ours are different: for example, we sometimes use a star as a graphic element in their design. We pursued a modern, technical and geometrical approach to create our own unique story. Unlike other brands, skeletons generate a large percentage of our revenues: they’re the cornerstone and the core business area of our development. Roger Dubuis is 20 years old, and we’ve been developing modern skeletonized watches for the past ten years, so skeletonizing comprises a large part of our history.
WT: Why did you choose to present three distinctly different calibers: the Skelett Technik, Skelett Automatik, and Skelett Kreativ?
We definitely wanted to equip our concept with the same power sources, but with different finishing. We developed a new movement with a microrotor that relies on the same concept as a tourbillon or a double tourbillon, except that it’s a self-winding caliber. We also have the technical “Outdoor Spider” concept and the creative Jewellery concept. Alongside skeletonized watches, which are primarily conceived for [men], we’ve been able to develop a good design which makes this concept equally appealing for ladies. We’ve discovered a theme that we can translate in different directions: technical, self-winding and creative.
WT: Why is the overall concept for Roger Dubuis’ skeletonized calibres called “Astral Skeleton”? And how will your stand at this year’s SIHH convey this theme?
Three stars are integrated into the watches. There’s one central star and two others. This is unique, so instead of naming it after one “star,” we’ve used the theme “Astral Skeleton” to [bring attention] to the entire ensemble. Roger Dubuis’ whole world at this year’s SIHH was associated with this story. The press conference, the 3,000-fold-magnified images of watch movements, the special eyeglasses that let people experience the Astral Skeleton’s world — everything was dedicated to this theme. Unlike in haute couture, where you must present everything in a few short minutes on the catwalk, we have five full days to meet with journalists, TV people, bloggers and customers, whom we introduce to the world of Roger Dubuis for the upcoming 365 days. We’re not satisfied to merely make our message technically feasible: we also want to find and phrase or message so people can understand it. The world of watches is quite a complex universe, so it’s not advisable to make it seem more complicated than it already is. This has to do with authenticity. The message should capture the core of the whole and should give people the feeling that they can find themselves in the story.
WT: How is Roger Dubuis structured to satisfy the demands and the expectations at the SIHH?
Roger Dubuis is the only watch brand with a creative director. We’re not organized like a typical watch brand, but more like a fashion label. Two departments collaborate closely: movement manufacturing, which is our creative centre; and the design centre, which is responsible for our products. If you compare it to the fashion industry, movement manufacturing would be the couturier and the design centre would be the designer, who invents the story around the central idea. Teamwork and sharing are very important in a small business. I explain to our creative director what I see as the core of the story and then he independently develops a suitable concept. Afterwards, at a joint meeting in July, we determine whether the concept is genuinely viable and effective. Our creative director is tremendously talented at telling new stories and developing unprecedented concepts. We’re in a very hot phase right now because we want to prepare everything for the SIHH in 2016. Our products are ready, but we haven’t yet decided how we want to translate them into a new Roger Dubuis world.
WT: Roger Dubuis is globally unique because each of its watches is stamped with the Hallmark of Geneva, or Geneva Seal. What challenges does this create? What types of expertise are required and how much time must be invested?
From our very first day as a brand, the Geneva Seal has always been the defining principle of our identity. It takes much discipline and many watchmakers who know how to perform these specialized tasks. You could compare it daily physical exercise. It’s a healthy habit — athletic skills become automatic and intuitive because you practice them every day. Athletes learn from experience, so they know exactly what to do and how to do it. That’s no different from our work: fabricating our products so that they qualify for the Seal of Geneva is an inherent part of our working methodology and it’s the norm for our staff. Forty percent more time must be invested to fabricate a movement that earns the Geneva Seal than would be necessary for a comparable movement without the elite hallmark, but the seal is integral to our work’s culture and our quality standard. We’re proud to be the only brand that crafts each and every one of its movements so it can be stamped with the prestigious Geneva Seal.
WT: Your brand celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. Looking back, which successes fill you with the most pride? And looking ahead, how do the next 20 years look for Roger Dubuis?
The story of Roger Dubuis is really an incredible tale. We rank among the world’s 40 largest watch brands and it took us only 20 years to attain this status. Not very many other brands are so young and occupy such a high rank in this highly competitive industry. Every member of our staff can be proud to be part of this brand and to be able to conduct projects almost without limits. Naturally, there are certain limiting parameters such as prices, distribution, marketing and the like, but the transformation of fantasy into reality is associated with fewer limits at Roger Dubuis than it is at other watch brands. We’ve preserved this trait ever since our earliest days. We’re also fortunate that [brand founder and namesake] Roger Dubuis is still part of our company. He, too, can confirm that the brand that bears his name has maintained its principles and values unchanged ever since its founding. Our goal for 2016 is to continue on this successful trajectory. When I think about the coming years and a strategic plan, I naturally see hundreds of smaller and larger products, new materials, new dials, etc. But we must also think about the basics — the brand, boutique concepts, people, movements, quality standards. We must continue to support and deepen these crucial factors. Ultimately, it’s important to continually create surprises for our clientele by challenging our talented employees and encouraging their creativity.
WT: Could you reveal anything exciting we should expect from Roger Dubuis in the remainder of 2015 and beyond?
The SIHH is the year’s biggest event for us. Of course, we also unveil new items at Watches & Wonders [in Hong Kong]. But at the SIHH, we present all our new products and tell our most important stories: as you know, the chapter of the Astral Skeleton was written there. For 2016, we’re preparing a “story” for women, but there’s still plenty of work to do to guarantee that the element of surprise will again be on our side next year. The central story, and the one that we’ll tell at the SIHH, accompanies Roger Dubuis at various events throughout the entire year. The concept for the Astral Skeleton was conceived in April and May, which means that we’re currently in the creative phase [for 2016].
All photos in this article by Zurab Zazashvilli (Instagram.com/swisswatches)