Really good read. Franck Muller interview

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Really good read. Franck Muller interview

Post by aztecknight » Tue Apr 02, 2013 11:53 am

Old (2007), but an interesting read, especially about JLC, Rolex, and Omega. I wonder how he would anwer some of these questions today.

Came from here, but the article is gone quote from DWC.

In today’s heady environment of would be, would be watch celebrities and later day horological saints, Muller still stands apart as the original. Indeed no one since Abraham Louis Breguet has been able to channel horological talent with such a degree contemporary vibrancy that he’s ignited a global hunger for his watches at such an unprecedented scale, until Muller arrived on the scene. I’ll give you his story as I know it.

Franck Muller was born of mixed Italian and Swiss parentage into the watchmaking hotbed of La Chaux-de-Fonds in 1958. He joined watchmaking school at the age of fifteen and graduated in 1978 at the age of 20. Even in watchmaking school Muller was literally one in a million. Like the high school quarter back with that arm of gold he was preternaturally gifted and like all gifted people he knew it.

Graduating from watchmaking school he was already being commissioned by some of the world’s most famous collectors for unique timepieces. By 1984 he had already created his first tourbillon wristwatch and worked on complications for well known brands. He was in other words a technical prodigy.

But his abilities were not related to watchmaking alone. Muller demonstrated enormous flair for marketing and self promotion. Even at an early age the seeds of a wristwatch brand were in his mind. Such was Muller’s brilliance that he was asked to restore Patek Philippe’s museum collection a job he did so well that to when many experts examine these watches today, to a large extent it is impossible to detect where his work ends and antiquity begins. During his time at the Patek Philippe Museum, Muller happened across a Patek Philippe Gondolo case that tapered elegantly at the lugs but filled out with Botero like volumetric insistence. This watch became the inspiration for Muller’s signature Cintree Curvex case and gave him the final component he was searching for in launching a brand of his own.

In 1992 Muller launched his brand and became the first modern watchmaker to merger real high end (haute de gamme) artisan watchmaking with a sense of contemporary sex appeal. His watches were almost immediately a hit and co-opted by the likes of Elton John who famously commissioned a Franck Muller watch for each guest at his star strewn Hollywood birthday party.

Up until then horology had been in the doldrums, nothing new had emerged and brands making their cautious forays back into the mechanical realm did so with baby steps. But not Muller, he smashed through convention ushering in an era of complication even adopting the moniker “Master of Complication.”

The second part of his story deals with a man that faces the business realities of life and is something I prefer not to go into, suffice it to say Muller at one point sought to distance himself from the company that he’d started. He’s since reconciled with his partner which is a very good thing indeed.

So why is Franck Muller a genius? On more levels than I can count. His commercial acumen is as sharp as ever, his analysis of the industry is done with a surgical precision and rapier sharp wit, his insight into building brand equity is brilliant and his talent for engaging our emotional cores with ever more ingenious watches is undiminished.

Like Jean Claude Biver or Nicolas G. Hayek he is one of the key figures in the rebirth of the mechanical watch industry and on some level his role surpasses theirs. While they create the infrastructure for horology’s rebound. Muller gave us back the dream of high end watchmaking. And for that we must be unconditionally grateful. So come back Franck Muller because the horological world needs you. It needs the poetry you dispense and the audacious kick in the ass you give it, it needs you to innovate and above all to lead. Because in a world dictated by CEO’s and financial reports Muller is an anomaly, a commercial genius who is at his heart a Swiss watchmaker of the old ways and a champion of true horology. On a personal note I’d like to thank Tay Liam Wee and Tay Liam Sze of Sincere Watch who made this interview happen. So here it is unabashed, undiluted and unfiltered… the State of the Watchmaking World according to the man who fueled its rebirth, Franck Muller.

Wei Koh

Do you think the lower priced tourbillons created by brands Like Jaeger-LeCoultre and Roger Dubuis will undermine the value of the tourbillon?

We are all a bit like children and like children we love to dream. As such it is important not to destroy the dreams of children. A tourbillon is a dream. It is magic. You think of something very technical, visually enchanting a piece that is the jewel of your collection. Because it is a dream it must be a bit inaccessible. How do we measure inaccessibility? In today’s world it is the price that determines this. But you make the tourbillon suddenly very accessible, do some degree you destroy the dream and you break the magic.

But is there a real rationale for this high price of tourbillons today?

The price of things is often not just related to the material value that goes into it. But also by the number of units that are made. If you make only a small amount of tourbillons by hand then because of the immense human labor involved they will be expensive. If you successfully industrialize the tourbillon and to a large extent minimize human labor needed then you dramatically bring down its price.

Is exclusivity one major reason we buy tourbillons?

The price of the Jaeger-LeCoultre tourbillon (at 35,000 Euros) doesn’t completely destroy the magic as you are still talking about 35,000 Euros which is a substantial amount of money. But if tomorrow a new brand introduces a tourbillon at 5000 Euros will people want to buy tourbillons? You might think this is funny but this is actually happening already, not in Switzerland but in China where they are making tourbillons at ridiculously low prices. If you suddenly render something accessible you may well destroy the entire attraction for the tourbillon. Because if previously the tourbillon was something your dreamed of owning but now everyone has one, the question is would you still want one?

Is there any precedent for this in horological history?

A very similar thing happened to rattrapantes (split second chronographs) if you look it, it is exactly the same phenomenon that is occurring to the tourbillon today. In the past a real rattrapante made in the artisan ways was considered on a par with a minute repeater in the complexity and the finesse it took to properly render the watch. But then the industry suddenly came out with really low priced rattrapantes (IWC and then Jaquet) and totally destroyed the dream of owning a split second chronograph.

What about the Lange & Sohne Double Split or Patek Philippe’s 5959, is there a future for the rattrapante?

I’m inclined to believe there is not too much of a future for the rattrapante. Yes there are some nice watches today but it is not a question of making 10 watches here and there. A real hand made rattrapante costs minimum 50 thousand Swiss Francs and suddenly you’ve got a guy who has one on his wrist that costs less than 10 thousand Francs. How will that make you feel if you paid 50 thousand Francs? Once the dream has been broken you cannot repair it and this should be the greatest cautionary tale to what is going on with the tourbillon.

How important is the technical merit of a watch versus its emotional appeal?

It’s like me I bought a sports car. There are an enormous amount of buttons and I have no idea what they do and I have to say I don’t understand anything. And the time it would take me to understand it all would be considerable. But the truth to luxury is that it is not necessary to understand things on a very technical level to want to own them. You are buying more of the dream, the image and the magic and less of the technicity. Indeed the technicity serves to primarily to support the reputation of the brand.

What do you think of the use of the term “in-house movement” today?

I think the whole obsession with in-house movements is completely a marketing tactic and largely ridiculous. When the Swiss watch industry started all movements were in-house in that they were created by farmers who needed something to do during the winter months. They fabricated these movements in-house. After this they came down from the mountains and they sold these movements to brands like Vacheron Constantin or Patek Philippe. These brands would take these movements case them up and put a dial on them with their brand name on it. So even at this period you were getting in-house movements in their watches but the house they were made in was not Patek Philippe of Vacheron Constantin. In fact Patek Philippe never made their own movements before 1933, and this is something they have openly expressed in their own history. But these brands would create the perception that every thing was done by them.

Can you elaborate on how they create the perception of being in-house?

It is something of a paradox and it is for this reason I said that you have to pay attention to the dreams expressed by high Swiss watchmaking. Patek Philippe for example would have you believe that they are a predominately mechanical brand but they are one of the largest producers of quartz movements (for their ladies watches) in Switzerland. Further this isn’t even an in-house quartz movement they buy it from the Swatch Group and modify it.

Another marketing tactic is to make you believe that an in-house manufactured watch is somehow better than the one that uses out sourced parts. But how can a manufacture perfect every single one of the crafts needed to create a watch because there are well over 100 of these. Are they saying they can do each of these crafts better than everyone else? The watch industry was one that from the beginning outsourced parts such as screws, wheels and other components from specialty suppliers.

Is there any other high luxury industry that operates through out sourcing?

It’s a bit like the automobile industry. You may not know this but one of the biggest sites for the automobile manufacturing was located in a place that was previously well known for watchmaking. The big factory of Peugeot is located Montpellier which previously had a specialization in making pendulum clocks. The system of outsourcing that was so strong there made it perfectly suited to set up car manufacturing. The outsourced organization and mentality for cars and clocks was exactly the same. “In house” is uniquely a commercial message. Also it is unrealistic for anyone to be one hundred percent in-house. For example we fabricate parts for A. Lange & Sohne. We make parts for a vast number of different brands.

What do you think of brands that had no tradition in in-house movements now joining the in-house bandwagon such as Panerai?

The problem with Panerai wanting to assert itself as an in-house manufacture and also a haute de gamme manufacture is that it is impossible to elevate your brand beyond its natural limitations. Panerai was not created to be a high watchmaking brand so even if they introduced a tourbillon or an in-house movement they will not be able to move up to the ranks of haute horology. You can certainly move down, but the shift in positioning upwards just doesn’t happen. The DNA of the brand is based on its status as a pragmatic heroic watch and it just doesn’t work as a high watchmaking, technical brand.

How would you explain then that Panerai does manage to sell its high complications?

Well it’s simple. Panerai fans are very loyal and within this group there are unquestionably several who are willing to purchase a very expensive watch like a Panerai tourbillon. But just because there are several willing to buy this watch doesn’t mean Panerai has successfully climbed the ladder doesn’t mean they can communicate the high end dream that makes you believe they have the legitimacy to create high complications.

Why has in-house become such a hot topic today?

The market has become highly competitive and many new brands have emerged and many old ones have re-emerged. It is often a message pushed by brands that don’t have great haute de gamme legitimacy and try to establish this legitimacy by pushing the message that their movements are in-house. If you look at the real haute de gamme brands, Patek Philippe, Vacheron Constantin, Audemars Piguet they have never pushed this message as the criteria for their elevated status. They already have brand equity and so they don’t need to.

A brand like Glashutte Original or Jaeger-LeCoultre that wants this status pushes the in-house message hard. But that is because they don’t have the brand equity and historical status of the haute de gamme brands. I tend to believe that either you are haute de gamme or you aren’t.

Is Jaeger-LeCoultre haute de gamme (high end)?

Jaeger-LeCoultre is an interesting paradox. Because it’s product is naturally high end or haute de gamme. From finish to design to quality their watches are excellent. But because they’ve enlarged their market and produced so many watches they descended to milieu de gamme or mid range. They have descended not because of the quality of their watches which is exceptional but because of the quantity of watches they make relative to demand and correspondingly because their prices are low.

How do you define haute de gamme?

One good benchmark is this. You take away all subjective considerations related to aesthetic etcetera and think about it this way. How many brands do not have a watch that costs less than 5,000 Swiss Francs? In fact there is not that many of them or 5-6 brands. Price is related to quantity. Your collection is on with a price that is high end and you are limited to how many watches you can sell because this price point is prohibitive. But for example if you drop your price of your basic watch to between 4000-5000 Swiss Francs your potential expands enormously. So Jaeger-LeCoultre makes a high end product but lowers the perception of its brand equity because it prices this watch too low.

We (Franck Muller) are by definition haute de gamme because our basic watch starts at a price point 2000 Francs higher than that of Audemars Piguet. We start at 7000 Francs. We don’t do men’s quartz watches. But we did a study and discovered if we lowered the basic price of our mechanical man’s watch to 5000 Francs we could easily sell 100,000 more units per year. But we didn’t do it because it would have negatively impacted our brand equity. It would undermine our image. This is very dangerous. You have to choose which direction you want to go in and stick with it.

Are there brands that make high end products but have successfully gone mass?

A good example is Rolex. Now, a Rolex watch has enormous value relative to its price. It is really excellent value. It is the accessibility of its price that allows Rolex to sell 1 million watches a year. But have you ever looked at a Rolex movement? These are incredibly high end movements. They are high end in the manner they are made, in the way they are decorated in the way that they are designed, and they are in-house. I look at Rolex objectively I would say they are incredible because you have tremendous value. The same thing goes for an Omega Constellation chronograph. You look at the price and then you realize for this relatively low price you are getting a high end movement.

So emotional impact is one of the key components to success?

The perception of a brand’s status is not related simply to how nicely decorated the movement is, or whether it is in-house or out house but how much this brand evokes in you the desire to own it. This is the magic; this is the dream of a true haute de gamme brand. Audemars Piguet has this kind of magic. Patek Philippe has this kind of magic.

What do you think of the huge number of new brands that have emerged in the past few years offering ever more creative products?

When we look at Picasso, everyone thinks “Hey I can also be a Picasso,” but what everyone forgets that Picasso first mastered classical painting before he became inventive. It’s the same with watchmaking if you want to contribute then you need to have a full understanding and respect for horology before you invent.

Today people have computers and they like to play around with imagery to create wild watches, but they often don’t make watches that function – which means they are a bit like false Picassos. One of the people doing great work today is Giulio Papi but you must understand that he is a watchmaker at heart, his father is a watchmakers and he comes from this great tradition. Michel Parmigiani and Philippe Dufour and others like them also come from the culture of watchmaking. The problem is the public sometimes doesn’t distinguish between real watchmaking and trickery.

What do you think of the success of Richard Mille?

Richard Mille hasn’t yet established a horological legitimacy but from the perspective of bringing new ideas and new concepts breaking new ground he is necessary to the industry. He is feeding it new life blood which helps to sustain its future. There is a new generation introducing new aesthetic perspectives into watchmaking. This is very important for the watch industry because it brings creativity to horology. It shows watchmaking is alive and relevant today.

What do you think of Jean Claude Biver’s Big Bang?

When I saw Hublot’s Big Bang I telephoned Mr. Biver to tell him look this is going to be a huge success.

What do you think of Roger Dubuis?

I think its strong financial results speak for themselves. The old watchmakers had this saying, “Horology gives you a lot but it also takes a lot from you.” This means you can have these huge financial peaks where the enthusiasm for your product is incredible. This reoccurs in history. After this people invest more because they always think that they will earn more money. And then they lose everything that they gain.

You were the first high end watchmaker to be embraced by celebrities was this a key component to your marketing strategy?

The first time Gianni Versace saw my watch was when he was shopping in Paris with Elton John. Elton John collects many different types of watches but with a particular interest in Franck Muller watches. By the time I had left watchmaking school I was working for numerous different well known collectors and celebrities. But the most astonishing time must have been while I was eating and my staff chased me down to tell me Barbara Streisand was waiting for me in my atelier. Today the use of celebrities to sell watches and to root it in contemporary culture is very strong. A lot of people say our success is associated with stars wearing our watches. But I disagree. They bought our watches because our watches were successful first. But we never paid anyone to wear our watches. Never! They purchased their watches.

What do you think of Francois Paul Journe?

I like his watches. I really encouraged him when he was starting out. I used to tell him, “Make your watches!” I think we got on because we were both a little different from others. Initially like me he was making very few watches for a small group of collectors and I encouraged him to start a brand. At first he was resistant he was saying this is not horology in the pure sense.

But during first ten years I launched my brand I would tell him you should do this too because, you bring a different vision to watchmaking than what you see from the big brands. And he eventually did and has seen great success. I can reduce his success to the fact that there is something very original in his timepieces, there is a perspective or vision that is both classic but unique.

Please tell us, when will you personally come up with a new Franck Muller watch?

What I’ve been focused on is not so much in unique pieces but on new concepts of mechanisms. I like really the idea of producing watches that use their indications for multiple functions. I have actually finished a watch, a Master Banker but with two chronographs. Here the second and third time zone indicators and subdials also serve as a separate chronograph. This is what is unique about the watch. It has two independent chronographs but when the chronographs are not in use these subdials can be used as multiple time zone indicators. I finished this watch two years ago. I can put the case in the Master Banker because then movement is the same dimension as the current one. But I have also worked on a new case design something completely new.

Why has this watch not been brought on the market, it sounds brilliant?

Unfortunately this watch is not on the market but this is a question of internal politics (at Franck Muller Watch Land)

What do you think of Pierre-Michel Golay the watchmaker behind your new Aeternitas collection?

Oh, he is a fantastic watchmaker of the old artisan ways. He made every single high complication for Gerald Genta and when I was in watchmaking school I considered him to be a hero, one of the grand masters… I regarded him as an icon of watchmaking. That was because at the time there was no one working in high complications except for Gerald Genta, it was the only brand focusing on complications and for me the most thrilling.

Back to the question of many new brands emerging, which ones will remain?

There will be brands that remain and brands that disappear. Horology will continue because it fulfills something important in the human spirit. It is at its core the very essence of luxury. But the motivation for many to become involved in the watch industry varies significantly from person to person. For many they want to be involved in the glamour. They want to exist. And they are wiling to loose a lot of money to exist because on some ways owning a watch brand gives them social credibility. There is a large component of ego involved is this. But the reality is that very few brands actually make a great deal of money. It is like car brands or even films, very few make real money.

When you first started Franck Muller it was something of a rebellious act because no new brand had ever emerged at the time. Were people antagonistic to you?

At the time when I started Franck Muller you have to understand the environment was not like it is today. Many people were angry; they said “How dare you start a brand?” The implication was that only the old brands had the right to but their name on watch dials. I was thinking as I was restoring watches from the great masters Berthoud, Janvier and others. How did these men start? In the end it is because one day one of them did something extraordinary and put his name on it. I wanted to prove to myself and to my professors at watchmaking school that I could do it. I felt that if I did something good then someone will buy it and the process for building a brand is engaged.

Did people make efforts to block you?

There were efforts made when we expanded. When we arrived in a new country other brands would threaten to pull out of shops that would carry us. Brands would also threaten to pull their ads from magazines that wrote about us. But I always believe that you will find those courageous individuals that refuse to be told what to do, they will not compromise. But you can only do this when you are young because the struggle when everyone tries to block you is like masochism.

Are you happy to see that things have changed quite radically since your pioneer days?

I was on the committee for the SIHH and they wanted to create a law that said that for a brand to be high quality it must be in existence for 100 years. So I left because the implication is that no one new could enter the world of haute horology. Today I am happy when I see the situation with new brands emerging, because watchmaking is like life and it is important to have children to continue life. It is wonderful to have so many new ideas and new talents it adds breadth and complexity and social relevance to horology.

Who decides if a new brand succeeds?

In the end the street decides. It is a person walking by a shop window and stopping and buying your watch rather than someone else’s.

You were the one who showed people that it was possible for a new comer to gain huge success. Would you agree?

It was important that I showed people that it is possible for someone new to come into the industry and succeed at my level. When I was finishing watchmaking school several graduates got together and formed an association, it was called Les Cabinotiers Genvoise. It was a group of people dedicated to passing along the knowledge of watchmaking and to help people overcome technical hurdles. We would help each other out because the knowledge of watchmaking at the time was diminished as a result of the Quartz Crisis. 13 years ago we started and Michel Parmigiani and Philippe Dufour were our presidents. Many great watchmakers from the big brands joined our group. At the time the big brands tried everything they could to break up this group because they identified us as a threat. They didn’t want their watchmakers to see another watchmaker become the head of a brand to them this undermined the entire hierarchy of the Swiss watch industry. But they couldn’t stop this from happening and over the years more and more watchmakers have become brand owners.

How has your success inspired the next generation of watchmakers?

To a large extent this ability to go from watchmaker to brand owner has directly inspired many young people to join the watch industry. Because, they can now see opportunities beyond being employees for their entire lives.

Why were you the first independent watchmaker to really make a mark in high watchmaking?

I am like a painter that can paint well in the traditional, classic manner. This is why Patek Philippe gave me their collection to restore 13 years ago. In the beginning the only ones interested in starting their brands were Sven Anderson, Michel Parmigiani, Philippe Dufour and Roger Dubuis (the watchmaker). Each of us wanted to take classic watchmaking and give to it a vision that was singularly our own.

The reason I was the first to emerge with a brand was simple. I had the top collectors in the world as clients. At the time they were only interested in pocket watches. But then I saw that they had slowly developed an interest in wristwatches. I saw that a new world was coming for the wristwatches. And then I saw the opportunity to create something really different in wristwatches. I decided to created world premiere technical achievements in wristwatches.

So you are responsible for a huge number of technical world premieres in wristwatches…

Well to be honest when I started it was a lot easier simply because no one was doing anything. I was the first to make the commercially produced wristwatch tourbillon, chronograph tourbillon, jump hour tourbillon because no one had done anything in wristwatches in this period. Today it’s a lot more difficult because I’ve done so many of them. At the same time I was the first to create components for big brands. I was the first to create a full calendar with moon phase for other brands. I started doing this for Ulysse Nardin and others.

How would you like to be remembered?

I think my greatest achievement was to open the door for the new energy and new watchmakers in the industry. I think my primary interest now is encouraging and helping the next generation. You know in the Olympics they have this relay event where the runners pass the baton from one to the next. I would like to be thought of as one of the people that passed the baton from one generation to the next. That in some way I continued the wonderful story of high watchmaking. I need the new generation to show me the way and to inspire me. I look at Biver’s Big Bang or Richard Mille’s watches and I see new visions. The energy, the inventiveness inspires me.

What is the one word of caution you would tell young people?

My one word of caution is don’t be motivated by money. Look at Roger Dubuis he was really motivated by money and look at the result. He wanted to have a big factory and everything too soon. Look at Francois Paul Journe he was not money motivated and look at the result. He built his brand up stone by stone. I won’t bullshit you – everybody needs money. But the money must be the result of what you do and NOT the objective.

How did your association with Sincere Watch begin?

That’s an entertaining story. I met two people from Singapore. One was Dr. Henry Tay (owner of the Hour Glass) and he had basically all the brands at the time. We met and he had many questions to price points etc. But in my head I was thinking, how much attention will he pay to my brand when he already has all the others? In addition we were not from the same generation. When I met Tay Liam Wee (owner of Sincere Watch) he was not a distributor, he had shops but he was from the same generation as me. So I decided to work with Liam Wee because together we could grow together and because I felt he was more capable of building our brand and transmitting its message. Liam Wee and I were both motivated because we had a lot to prove. I think we did well together.


We thought that perhaps the person best suited to comment on Franck Muller is that other father of the independent watch movement, the always insightful Philippe Dufour.

What has been Franck Muller’s impact on the watch industry?

A milestone. He achieved something great. Starting alone to become a major player in the industry.

Do you think that Franck Muller has shown that an individual with vision can start a high successful and commercial watch brand?

Completely, I have to say that Franck Muller is the only independent watchmaker who really made it.

What can we all learn from Franck Muller?

With will, courage, a bit of arrogance, a lot of taste, the right choice at the right time and a part of luck, everything is possible.
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