There are probably only a few individuals in watchmaking as distinctive as H. Moser & Cie CEO, Edouard Meylan. A champion of straight-talk in Swiss watchmaking, Meylan has never been afraid to ruffle feathers, going so far as to create watches that poke fun at time-honoured conventions. “You know, we Swiss tend to be X, Y and Z…I’m Swiss so I can say this,” is how Meylan has typically framed certain matters.
As far as interviews go, this is great for watch specialist media. Indeed, all too often the challenge is deciding what things we can print without upsetting other brands, even though we are not the ones making the points. Follow-up questions are almost entirely unusable because we would have to break certain codes in watchmaking to press certain points. We admit that we have cut brand call-outs from previous Meylan interviews, but we will not be doing so this time.
For old school professionals such as myself, an interview with Meylan is like a throwback to the days of the late Nicolas G. Hayek and Luigi Macaluso. For a time, the only person who dared to speak so freely was the irascible Jean-Claude Biver.
In an era when the famously secretive nature of the watch trade — often an unwelcome and unnecessary encumbrance — has come under fire in the name of sustainability, we think more industry leaders need to come out on the right side of this. Mechanical watches are indeed sustainable, in some senses of that inherently problematic word, but the trade does itself no favours by obfuscation.
To begin with, there is the matter of Swiss Made, and here you know Meylan does not hold back. We can just imagine Meylan fixing us with his steely gaze and explaining how wrong we are about the potential of Swiss Made… But that is a conversation for another time, and we are sure it will happen.
For now, Meylan does have a few thoughts about the current green wave washing over watchmaking in general. As the most vocal top executive in independent watchmaking who believes in transparency — with the possible exception of Code41 — we absolutely had to have Meylan’s perspective. In full, not just a quote.
We heard the news that H. Moser & Cie has beaten the down watch market in 2020 so congratulations! How did you grow by 24%, if we have our numbers right?
It’s much more than that. Market was down 22% and we were up 12% so that’s 34%. It’s not just us I think; of course there is a lot of hard work from the team in turning around this brand (from the time the Meylan family took over in 2012). But I think there is a shift in the behaviour of collectors who are now looking at independent brands. Thanks (in part) to social media and the hype around the various watches. Once collectors have everything they want from the big brands they turn to the independents. They are looking for the next rare thing. What are rare watches? This is what independents do, and Moser being at the forefront here definitely benefits us.
How did the pandemic affect things at the manufacture? As we have noted before, we are happy to see watchmaking persevering, but we would hate to think that people are risking their lives and health to make watches.
I think saying we may be risking lives is a very big thing; I would never have my people at the manufacture risking their lives to produce watches. No, we follow all the guidelines from the Swiss government, which are pretty strict, and keep everyone safe. There are a lot of procedures in place to deal with COVID-19. We had some cases but never a cluster. But yeah we have to be really really careful and at some point, we have people working from home. We have a lot of flexibility for our people and we trust them a lot and I think we’ve managed pretty well. Now we also have new people so we have to be careful to tell them all the right things to do.
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Yes we heard about the expansion. Tell us about the decision to add more staff. Was it difficult?
It’s difficult yes but it’s an easier decision than having to let people go. In terms of risk, I know my order books are filled (until 2023) so we are ok. I know exactly what we should produce and what we can sell. It is even growing every month; we’ve never had so much visibility. So the decision (to expand) is not hard. What is hard is to adapt the structure of the organisation. Today we need to be much more professional. Being agile and reactive is one thing but when you get to the level where you ship a few hundred watches a month, it is a different type of logistics. You have to have more processes in place. People need to change their mindsets in some cases. This we have been doing slowly but now it is accelerating. So we know where we need to improve, where we need to be better.
We were impressed by the Endeavour Centre Seconds x Seconde/ Seconde/ which is one of those humorous pieces you have gained so much attention for. Was this a watch that the market wanted?
No definitely not! We took a stand at H. Moser & Cie that, if we have a purpose it is to disturb the market, to do things a little differently. There are enough mainstream brands (serving the market) that can do the rest. As an independent brand, we have to try something different to stand out. You know, we are not like MB&F and Urwerk, creating watches that are so crazy that they speak for themselves. We have to do something else to communicate our ideas and philosophy while keeping the classicism, elegance and traditional nature of our watches. That’s not easy, and probably H. Moser & Cie is the only one that could do it.
So how do we do it? Symbolism. This is something that we played with. The Swiss Mad watch was a symbol; the Swiss Alp Watch Zzzz was a symbol; the Moser Nature watch, talking about sustainability, was a symbol. Seconde/Seconde/ was something that we wanted to do (in the same vein). It was something we had wanted to do for years (and something the brand did communicate about).
Seconde/Seconde/ says stop putting all these lines on the dials (of wristwatches) as if they are real instruments that people’s lives depend on. (TImepieces) are not guiding ships, and pilots are not using flyback chronographs to find their way on planes. Today, watches are works of art. So stop putting branding messages, instructions and certifications on the dial…I see some watches with full instructions (and certifications) on the watch and this is what you would do on an instrument, because it is so important to (have confidence in the device) and to know how to use it. It is important for the user’s survival. Here (with contemporary mechanical watches) we are talking about something nobody needs. Something that is supposed to bring emotion. That’s the definition of art.
Sometimes I think the watch industry is still stuck with this idea that the more I put on the dial, the more I’m likely to sell the watch, or to sell it for a higher price. We try to really shift away from all that, and now it is really established that H. Moser & Cie is trying to make pieces of art. Now we wanted to strengthen that idea so (it is) with Seconde/Seconde/.
I’ve known the artist (Romaric Andre) for awhile, and I like his work. I think he has a great way of expressing ideas using symbolism (look at his Instagram for example). A few years ago, I invited him to come to BaselWorld and use our booth to show his work; at that time, I told him that if he was ever inspired by our brand we would love to work with him. Then he came up with the idea for the watch – his take on H. Moser & Cie. It was his idea, not mine, and that’s what I like. It matches what we want to achieve, and it is his interpretation of the brand. To launch it on April 1 was of course a fun thing to do.
That was fun, and if not for the brand’s reputation we might have been fooled! Speaking of words on the dial, including numerals and the like, this is something brands like to play with. Collectors respond by elevating some models with certain choice variations. How does H. Moser & Cie play with this given that the dials are so clean and absolute in their minimalism?
Look at the escapement. You have sometimes a secret purple escapement [Editor’s Note: the purple balance wheel and balance spring on the Venturer Small Seconds, which also has a purple fume dial, for example] or blue or green. You don’t see it (dial-side) but it is there. I hope people say one day, if the watch is at auction that ‘oh that was the special series where the escapement was in purple, and no one even knew’.
I think that’s more significant than something to do with the signage and other non-functional elements. I like these sorts of secrets, rather than those sorts of things that are just done to make the watch stand out. This is more our philosophy — something more subtle.
I hope the transparent logo might be similar. From the first time we used it, to maybe different applications for it. Imagine if the second version is maybe less transparent, or something like that. There are going to be things like that, if we manage to continue to grow this brand.
Speaking of which, you frequently remind us all about the rough times H. Moser & Cie went through. This is very different to most other brands that only bring up negatives when one asks. Why do you lean into this?
I believe in transparency. There are a lot of codes in Swiss watchmaking; you don’t talk about competitors, you don’t talk about other brands that inspired you, you don’t criticise… I don’t mind talking about what I like… I love what Jaeger-LeCoultre has done this year, and the dials of Swatch.
The same thing happens (in our work)…You know, I see a lot of great watches here at Watches & Wonders 2021 that we made the hairsprings for but I’m not allowed to talk about them. We make 200,000 hairsprings a year and these are certainly not all for us. When we do something with Agenhor, we say it.
Why not? They are doing amazing things. It’s not going to make H. Moser & Cie watches less attractive. On the contrary, collaborations are exciting. [Editor’s Note: H. Most & Cie collaborated with Agenhor on the Streamliner Flyback Chronograph last year.]
Similarly, maybe there are parts of the brand’s history that are less glamourous, but it is still part of the brand’s history. We’ve been through the highs and the lows, and we need to acknowledge (both). We don’t mind. Yes H. Moser & Cie probably died in the 1980s, and almost died in 2012. H. Moser & Cie would probably be completely different if not for (this history).
The fact that we got so close to bankruptcy, and we had to figure out how to innovate with no money…we learned a lot. We are growing now and I hope it continues like that. Now that we are doing well, we still have to be careful — and I think that is a good thing. It’s not like we are suddenly going to start flying people in for big parties or anything — that’s not our way. I always remind my team that there are many things not within our control. I hope that we will continue to grow, and I think that we will continue to grow.
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In this issue, we are discussing sustainability in watchmaking and there are some ideas from brands on recycling and transparency. What’s your perspective and can one brand really lead the way on this?
I don’t think recycling is the way to go, and I don’t think it will be down to any one brand. Certification and transparency is the way to go. Using recycled materials… this feels like greenwashing to me. You need to think about reducing your carbon footprint; about how sustainable your supply chain is… I think what makes the most sense is the Responsible Jewellery Council (RJC) certification [Editor’s Note: see our Sustainability feature for more on this].
We spent two years and a lot of hard work and auditing to get this certification. This means that today we work with RJC-certified suppliers, which means they too (are doing the right things for sustainable production). We pay more for certified sustainable gold, but not much… maybe 10% more, and I wonder why more brands don’t do this.
So, it has to be an ecosystem. This is the only way to make this industry greener. It is not about making proclamations about 100 per cent recycled watches. This does not matter if you (are not controlling for) all the parameters. The RJC certification is the best way to start.
Having said that, we are not the dirtiest industry. Mechanical wristwatches are sustainable products – they can always be repaired (or restored). This is as opposed to smartwatches that will get thrown away in a couple of years. I think also (in terms of business travel in the trade) we have seen in 2020 that we can do things without travelling all the time [Editor’s Note: ordinarily we would have had this conversation in person, probably in Geneva, but Meylan might come to Singapore once or twice a year, perhaps even more often].
You mentioned the fairs [Editor’s Note: we spoke about the relevance of physical watch fairs]… this year will tell us more! Now we have no choice but to experiment. Of course, we still need to meet face-to-face but maybe not as often.
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