Five Things to Know About Bovet, Straight From The CEO

Bovet chief executive Pascal Raffy is a man passionate about watches who bought a watch company, turning it into a manufacture specialising in high-end complications housed inside its patented convertible case. A lawyer by profession, Pascal Raffy acquired Bovet 1822 in 2001. Based in Fleurier, also the home of Parmigiani and Voutilainen, Bovet was then merged with Swiss Time Technology (STT),  the dial and movement manufacturer Raffy took over in 2006. Bovet’s history, however, stretches back centuries. Founded in 1822, Bovet was established to manufacture high-end timepieces for the booming market in Imperial China. One of the most prominent names in China in the 19th century, Bovet’s lavishly enamelled pocket watches, often set with pearls, are rare and valuable today. That distinctive, ornate aesthetic is echoed in the style of contemporary Bovet timepieces, the product of Raffy’s vision for the company. Bovet is an independent, haute horlogerie watchmaker that makes 3000 only watches a year “When you have a wedding, you go to your tailor, you take your time. He even asks you to come back two, three, four times. That’s normal, because you are doing something handmade.  True luxury is only three things: a clear identity, very little quantities, and handcrafted. If you have what everybody has, then it is not luxury. If it is made in [numbers] of more than 8000 to 9000 timepieces per year, it’s not luxury; it is an industrial process. Of course that luxury in little quantities is more expensive because for the same number of employees you do one-tenth of the quantity.  Take your loupe, to every single detail – anglage, polishing, engraving, miniature paintings – you must find perfection. Or nearly perfection, knowing that true perfection does not exist. Every single component is hand-finished, polished, angled, engraved. And I sign my certificates, every single one, by hand. The 3000 timepieces we do per year we handcraft. What is the capacity of Bovet? Six thousand pieces per year. Do I want to go above that number? No. Perhaps it’s the luck of being independent. You don’t have to report to your shareholders, you must give them 20% dividend every year.”

Detail of a hand-engraved Bovet dial

Bovet is vertically integrated manufacture that produces many of its own movements, and also supplies other brands with movements and parts “Is it important to be able to handcraft your own movements? Yes, to sustain one thing: passion. As my general manager says, the big luck we have in Bovet is that the owner is not a watchmaker. I made a decision to offer my collectors more than what they are paying for, because I am a collector. And how do I do it [and remain viable]? It’s a mixture of passion, wisdom and perhaps good management.  When I took over the facilities, some brands were clients of Bovet. I respected the existing clients, but after [the contracts ended], I wanted to concentrate on my babies. And we respected every single existing contract, in dials, movements and hairsprings. Nowadays we still have a few of them, not as a necessity, but to behave as gentlemen.” Bovet’s signature is the pocket watch inspired-Amadeo convertible case that can be swiftly transformed from wristwatch to pocket watch to desk clock  Referring to the Amadeo Braveheart tourbillon: “You have a baby here with six patents, from the bow to the crown to the dial to the cage – everything is symmetrical. The Amadeo system is a patent; the fixed bridge for the tourbillon is a patent.

Amadeo Fleurier Braveheart

By pressing [on the buttons in the bow], you can open [the Amadeo case] smoothly, and you can wear it on the other side. It’s the most unique expression of time on the market. This case is 130g of platinum.  This angle [for the stand for the watch as a desk clock] took seven years of study. I put my timepiece here [on the desk], and I can read the time without moving.” Bovet specialises in tourbillons, because Pascal Raffy loves them “I love tourbillons because I am a man of passion and I need to see the heart beating. Not because it’s the fashion. And on top of everything, [the Amadeo convertible case] is the true meaning of tourbillon, which was invented for a pocket timepiece, not for a wrist timepiece.  I need a timepiece to talk to me. If a timepiece from another house talks to me, I collect it. I’m not closed because I’m the owner of Bovet. I need to find substance and true values.”

A Bovet tourbillon regulator

Bovet was one of the first Swiss watchmakers to arrive in China, and the recent economy slowdown there has had little impact “Never has Bovet left Mainland China since 1822. But have we reached the position in China that I am dreaming about? No.  Am I sad? Not at all. Because when I took over Bovet, I promised myself that I would restore the brand, and it took me 14 years. To accommodate the demand from China you have to be prepared. It’s exactly what we did for the last 14 years. So in 2016 we will return significantly to Mainland China. The big luck we have is that 80% of our turnover is done in the other 43 countries [we are in]. I’m not in a position where Mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan is 70% of our turnover. Because of that, the way we consider Mainland China is much more serene. It is a bonus; it’s not a pressure at all. When we go back, we go back home.”

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EDITORIAL: The Rise of Personalisation For Luxury Watches

Luxury watches are less rare than they once were, with the cumulative quantity in circulation increasing every year. With the slowdown in fine watchmaking, watch brands need to make the client feel special.

Luxury goods are supposed to be exclusive, perhaps unique, demonstrating the savoir-faire and patrimony of centuries old maisons. Critics, on the other hand, allege that is no longer the case. There is lots of evidence to back up those claims, since the biggest luxury houses like Louis Vuitton, Hermes and Chanel each do several billion dollars worth of business each year.  Though the watch industry is smaller, it is equally prolific. The three largest watchmakers in Switzerland – Rolex, Omega and Cartier – between them produce nearly two million timepieces every year. Even the preeminent name in haute horlogerie, Patek Philippe, has an annual output in the mid-five figure range. Fine watchmakers are also just as global as luxury fashion houses. Leading watch brands have outposts everywhere, even at the frontiers of global capitalism, boasting stores in Africa and Central Asia. Can luxury watches continue to be special?

Personalisation is one obvious solution. It is now common amongst leather goods brands. Bags and wallets can be be engraved, embossed or painted with initials for a modest fee, with custom motifs also available for a little bit more. For watches personalisation is still nascent. While major high horology brands offer their best clients – meaning those who spend millions – custom watches, such timepieces are extraordinarily expensive. Custom watches often emerge at auction, providing a glimpse into what those with unlimited budgets can achieve.

Vacheron Constantin‘s recently launched most-complicated-watch-ever is a one kilo example of a wealthy client can demand. Amongst the best known are various Patek Philippe complications fitted with unique dials or laden with precious stones. Despite their ostensible rarity such watches regularly appear at international watch auctions.  For the ordinary consumers, large watch brands strive to offer a standard product, both to enjoy economies of scale in production and to build brand equity. A consistent product and image, achieved via product and also boutiques, is necessary in order to build up a strong brand identity. That’s why the average buyer has to contend with a Henry Ford-inspired philosophy of being able to have it in any colour, so long as it’s the one in the catalogue.

Consequently, almost none of the established watch brands offer any sort of personalisation on a commercial scale, save for Jaeger-LeCoultre, which fortunately enjoys a ready-made canvas for initials with its swivelling Reverso watch case.  Independent watchmakers, however, need to go the extra mile to survive, which is why most offer personalisation. Small scale independents are typically open to any request. In fact, it is more unusual to find an independent that refuses custom orders. MB&F is one of the few that almost never creates one-off timepieces, for the same consistency and brand equity that big brands strive for.

A custom Roger W. Smith Series 2 with a horse motif

Times are a changin’

The situation, however, should change, and probably will. Big watch brands will offer more personalised products, because it’s what clients want. The popularity of personalised leather goods at Louis Vuitton demonstrates. Even if it is a product every other person has, a monogram still makes it special. Offering options, just like in an automobile, is the simplest form of personalisation.

Right now the only option available to a watch buyer is the colour of the watch strap. Why not the colour of the hands, hour indices and dial? But technology will like more sophisticated personalisation easier. Unlike bags and wallets which are “soft” luxury in industry parlance, watches are “hard” luxury; leather is easier to personalise than metal. The most common form of personalisation on metal is engraving; watches are usually engraved on the case back. That process is relatively costly, even when done by machine.

Advances in manufacturing technology, especially the spread of 3D printing, will make personalisation cheaper. Historically manufacturing technology has been subtractive, meaning that material is removed in order to create the component. Watch parts, both movements and cases, are mostly made in this way. Cases are often stamped from a block of metal, and then milled to give them additional detail and shape. Those processes are all subtractive and expensive, requiring costly computer-controlled machines. The material cost is also high: to create a gold watch case requires a block of gold significantly larger than the final shape.

In contrast 3D printing is additive, meaning that material is added, drop by drop, to form a part. That means less material is needed to start with, an important factor when using expensive precious metal. And 3D printing itself is affordable. Basic 3D printers which work with thermoinjected plastic are available for about a thousand dollars online; some hobbyists even manage to assemble 3D printers from off the self parts. More advanced models, which cost more, can work with metal.  It’s getting progressively cheaper as the technology grows more popular and sophisticated. Technology like this opens up an enormous number of possibilities in terms of customisation for watches – a case back with initials or symbol can be easily and affordably created.

As is already happening, personalisation will start with the smaller brands, those hungry to make a mark and earn the interest of collectors. Though it might conflict with the goal of building brand identity with a consistent product, watchmakers are shrewd enough to adapt to consumers’ demands. Eventually the larger brands will give in and offer clients that little bit more. Watchmaking often lags behind the luxury fashion industry, but it will catch up.

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