While the Jura Valley and Geneva are famous in watchmaking circles, this is not to say that there aren’t interesting watchmakers in other parts of Switzerland. The most famous, arguably is IWC, based in Schaffhausen right on the banks of the High Rhine, but this is not the little town’s only claim to fame. It is also home to one of my favourite chocolatiers, Thomas Muller, and a host of other makers of little-known but excellent indulgences. This story isn’t about any of that. Instead, it is a chance to discover what makes the funniest (Chapelle-levels, we kid you not) name in fine watchmaking tick.
Of course our introduction to this tale no doubt tipped our hand, but if you know H. Moser & Cie at all then it certainly comes to mind when you think about Schaffhausen. I bring up the subject of chocolates not only for giggles, but because Edouard Meylan, CEO of H. Moser & Cie – upon discovering my penchant for Swiss chocolates – asks if I have ever seen any cacao plants in the Alps. It is a variant of something he talked about when introducing H. Moser & Cie’s controversial-but-captivating Swiss Mad watch – you know, the one with the cheese case (the tagline in the hilarious advertising video was “It’s pasteurised and doesn’t stink.”)
Meylan is in Singapore to celebrate a new partnership between his firm and regional distributor Pacific Time as well as watch retailer Cortina Watch. Once again, if you already know H. Moser & Cie, then you of course know that it has been with a number of retailers in Singapore. This is something Meylan addresses in his chat with us, as you will discover below, but there are some important matters to clear up before that.
Meylan has a rather famous last name. His father, Georges-Henri, was in charge of Audemars Piguet at La Brassus for years – Edouard and his younger brother Bertrand (whom we interviewed for Hautlence last issue) were raised in the little town. Growing up, Edouard even spent his summers working at Audemars Piguet, so he has quite the wealth of experience in watchmaking. This is probably what gives him his famous audacity in criticizing the Swiss watch trade; the H. Moser & Cie Swiss Mad watch was no one-off, being followed by the Swiss Alp Zzzz. While the former takes aim at the Swiss Made regulations, the latter pokes fun at smart watches and other wearables.
For those who follow the watch trade, Meylan might also be remembered for his part in the luxury mobile phone firm Celsius X VI II SA back in the heady days of 2008. This was before Georges-Henri quit Audemars Piguet and began an adventure that would eventually see the Meylan family take control of both H. Moser & Cie as well Hautlence. Alongside these brands, the family also controls Precision Engineering, one of the few independent firms that makes hairsprings and balances. This is the powerhouse behind the brands’ Straumann balances.
It goes without saying then that the following conversation has been edited to spare various watchmaking brands some blushes.
Moser & Cie has made some provocative pieces in the past, including its no-hands minute repeater, the Swiss Mad Watch and so on. In an industry that tries to stay as sober as possible, why have you chosen this approach for both the watches and the marketing campaigns (who can forget Make Swiss Watchmaking Great Again)?
(Guffaws) Well, a lot of people call it a provocation but for me it’s more an expression of opinions. We know that we have various means to express ourselves that work well, for example a movie, or something that brings across a message in an unconventional way. So when people asked if we wanted to make connected watches – if connected watches were a threat to the Swiss watch industry – our response was no, but we can bring those two worlds together. The best way for fine watchmaking to survive is to concentrate on what it knows best, which is creating beautiful and meaningful watches. At the same time, we can get inspiration from the world around us, and that means taking connected watches and new technologies into consideration. This is why we created the Swiss Alp Watch. We were not the only ones to have this idea but I think we expressed it best.
With the Swiss Mad Watch, it was all this about this talk of a revolution in the watchmaking trade because of the change in the Swiss Made laws blah blah blah. For us this was bullshit because we do everything in Switzerland…many brands just use “Swiss Made” as a marketing tool to justify a price. We do not want to be associated with that. So we removed “Swiss Made” from our dials, and produced the most Swiss watch ever made, the Swiss Mad watch. And I think that worked very well. At the end of the day, we also want visibility and for that we have to be on the edge. The closer you are to the edge, the higher the risk that you will go over… Sometimes we go too far, but we learn from that.
As a brand making essentially classically styled watches, what motivates you to push the envelope?
We are the most funky of the traditional brands, and that’s where we want to be. It’s just a question of how far to go. So when you have the Purity Funky Blue fumé like we have in the Endeavour Perpetual Calendar, it creates this tension between tradition and modernity. H. Moser & Cie’s position over the years has been let’s be traditional but let’s not be boring. Let’s build a bridge between tradition and modernity. It is not the case that just because people have been doing the same for 150 years that things cannot be done differently.
(In other conversations, and in an interview published by “Bloomberg” two years ago, Meylan noted that he saw H. Moser & Cie as a startup, and expects everyone to pitch in and come up with ideas. The marketing campaigns that have disproportionately captured public attention have come from brainstorming sessions with employees and friends, with a notable recent exception – Editor)
You’ve taken the bold step of taking the brand name off the dials of some watches. Why?
It is a bold move, surprising customers. It creates trends, and moves away from the marketing trend of having the brand name on the dial. The purpose of the brand names on the dial is to create advertising campaigns, but we think our watches speak for themselves. Yes, people have told us that they miss the brand name, but this is because our brains are trained to look for the brand names. Eventually (in some cases) clients told us that they wished they had gotten the versions without the brand names! It might be a different matter if you have ‘Chronometre’ and ‘Water-Resistant to XXX,’ and of course ‘Swiss Made’ but we have gotten rid of everything. In any case, we don’t need everyone to understand, just 1,500 people a year!
To be real, we had long discussions about removing the logo from every single watch, and we didn’t do it. We felt that maybe not enough people would understand it, if it was for every watch. I’m still questioning myself today, whether we should have take that step a few years ago. One day we might be “brand-less!”
Give us an example of where you had an idea that you didn’t think the market was ready for, but went for it anyway.
We did this campaign about “size matters” and it was perhaps not the most elegant thing. (We saw it when it appeared, and it lacked the easy charisma of the videos featuring Meylan himself, but it certainly wasn’t terrible – Editor). It is better to try things, make mistakes and learn from them. As an independent brand, you have to try new things. The Swiss Icons Watch of course was extremely painful, for everybody in the team. It was difficult to go through this period when we received a lot of threats, and there was a lot of uncertainty. But we had to go through it because we learned how we can do things better. On one side, we need to grow the brand but then again, we also need to protect the brand. From this experience, we learned a lot about that balance. I still think it was a great idea, but it was not well-implemented, and that’s a mistake on my part.
(The Swiss Icons Watch was a combination of iconic design elements from very famous watchmaking brands, that was interpreted as either a tribute or an attack. It was never made available in any form – Editor)
On the other hand, we love the character Henri (of Ask Henri on the website) very much. How important are stories like this to H. Moser & Cie, and to haute horlogerie watches in general?
The idea came from our agency in Paris actually. After the episode with the Swiss Icons Watch, we decided that we need expertise to keep us from making big mistakes. We work with them to create content. I felt we were very good at provoking, as you said, but we weren’t very good at talking about our history and production capabilities. It can get boring very quickly. We wanted to still have a sense of humour while doing this, so that’s how Henri – the son of the founder Heinrich Moser – came into the picture. He really was a dandy, a crazy character…looking at our brand through his eyes was interesting and fun…rather than just (doing a history lesson).
It’s always about the human story. We also have Roger Balsiger (the Honorary Chairman of H. Moser & Cie, and the great grandson of Heinrich Moser) to tell the story of the H. Moser & Cie company. Unlike Henri (of Ask Henri), Roger is still with the company! So we have Henri, who’s dead, and Roger, who’s alive! We have our master watchmaker, Olivie,r too, to tell the story of the movements…whatever it happens to be, whether it is humour or something technical or historical, there has to be a human element. So it is not always about me, which it has been in the past, but it should not be. Because there are lot of people (at H. Moser & Cie) who are more important than me.
When will the Pioneer Tour (where the watches are travelling the world unsupervised by the brand) conclude?
As long as the watches don’t get stolen, broken or lost, the two watches should come back to us in a year. It’s now out of our hands so if it goes longer – and more people want to try the watches and take care of them – that’s fine. The idea here was to have as few rules as possible. There are specific hashtags (and general guidelines) but that’s it. I mean, what’s the worst that could happen? We lose two watches in our entry level collection… It’s less than the cost of an advertisement in a major paper but (what we gain is) that it’s fun; we meet people; we invite them to events; and people get excited. For a lot of people it is the first time they get a chance to wear a H. Moser & Cie so they share the story with friends…I mean there’s tonnes of benefits for us. Even if they get stolen, or lost, maybe we will talk about it.
What’s your best market, and what do you think of the Singapore market?
For us, China was the biggest market, but it has suffered in recent years. We have developed Europe a lot, and now we see growth in the Middle East and the USA. Since we’ve been working with Cortina in Singapore (for about three months at the time of this interview, in August), it’s been an amazing start. Singapore and Malaysia have always been good markets for us. There’s a lot of very knowledgeable collectors here, and less work that we have to do to get people to discover us.