When Romain Gauthier founded his eponymous brand in 2005, he made the strategic business decision to limit its production and respect the values of traditional watchmaking that makes Swiss timepieces so famous around the world.
Today, his watches epitomise the holy grail of hand-finishing, including polishing, frosting, snailing, straight-graining and circular graining finishes. In his quest for aesthetic perfection, he focuses on the type of hand-finishing that can’t be matched by industrial finishing processes and can only be found in haute horlogerie rather than mass-produced watches. One technique in particular stands out: the “coin rentrant” (the internal sharp angle formed where two bevelled edges join up). This type of anglage, or chamfering, is the most difficult to carry out and can only be performed by hand and therefore in small quantities, as no machine can achieve it.
Gauthier says, “Depending on the design, you affect the price of your movement. More and more today, you see only curvy or straight lines, which is much more contemporary, but nothing sharp. However, it’s just machining. If it’s only machining and sandblasting, there’s no human value behind that. The Geneva Seal is very complicated, but it was also intended for production in quantity. The way we do bevelling is on another level: it’s state-of-the-art, it’s haute horlogerie. You can finish a bridge by hand to the Geneva Seal standard in five minutes. For us, it takes eight or nine hours per bridge, and the most complicated bridge sometimes takes more than 20 hours to finish.”
“The way that I treat design and finishing is like haute couture, which is the spirit of Swiss Made, but how many companies really do that nowadays? Not enough.”
He adds, “I like the vision of fashion. There is a benchmark that a lot of brands can achieve, which is like prêt-à-porter, then there is another step that is haute couture. The way that I treat design and finishing is like haute couture, which is the spirit of Swiss Made, but how many companies really do that nowadays? Not enough.”
With slightly over 20 employees making approximately 50 timepieces annually, Romain Gauthier is a fully-integrated manufacture. It has ensured that all the movements of its watches are designed, developed, produced, decorated, assembled and regulated in-house. This is extremely demanding in terms of management and logistics, but necessary to maintain its independence and to mitigate supply challenges to guarantee it is not at the back of the queue like other small brands dealing with third-party suppliers. Additionally, it manufactures complicated specialist watch components for other companies as a means to an end, as it would never otherwise have been able to afford the best tools for making its own name timekeepers.
“The most difficult thing in watchmaking is production,” Gauthier notes. “On tours of the atelier, it’s easy to show assembly by watchmakers in white coats at beautiful workbenches, but haute horlogerie is also about huge knowledge in terms of manufacturing. We use different types of machinery for every single part to produce ébauches. If you made parts by hand, nobody would be able to afford a Swiss watch anymore. You’d just be dreaming up things for billionaires. A lot of people can do everything up to 90 per cent, but finishing the next 10 per cent makes a huge difference. That part is really expensive. If a person is looking for the lowest price, there are a lot of possibilities, but after that, with maturity, passion and understanding about differences of quality, there is another dimension.”
“Well-established brands can draw on their history and reputation; independent brands start with nothing and have to work hard to gain credibility and earn the trust of retailers and collectors.”
Diversifying revenue streams, Gauthier relinquished some financial independence by striking a co-investment deal in 2011 with Chanel, which acquired a minority stake. Rather than a survival strategy, he calls it a long-term strategy that allows his company to have a clear vision for the future with the knowledge that it will be around tomorrow. He can concentrate on managing and developing his company while protecting his independence. “The biggest challenge for independent watchmakers is doing things properly, professionally and in a structured way to create a brand and timepieces that will last,” Gauthier comments. “Well-established brands can draw on their history and reputation; independent brands start with nothing and have to work hard to gain credibility and earn the trust of retailers and collectors.”
With such a small output, most Romain Gauthier watches are pre-ordered. He describes his retail and distribution strategy: “It’s quite complicated for retailers because although we are the soul of Swiss Made, we are not influential. It’s easier to sell a Hublot, a Panerai or an Audemars Piguet than to sell one of our watches because what we do is not common. If you don’t know enough about us, it’s complicated to translate that to the final client. Retailers need to have brands that give them the money to live. We are the little stars for collectors. Nobody can survive just with us, so they have to find the balance between those that bring them business and those that convey passion.”
“I dedicate quite a lot of time to be present for collectors because they don’t only buy a product; they want to build a relationship with the person who built all of this who is still alive.”
Although Asia used to be the brand’s No.1 market, the US has moved to the top spot over the past two years, with Gauthier travelling there up to five times annually. “I’m the designer, the engineer, the manager and the salesperson,” he concludes. “I clearly understand that I have to travel. If I travel to a place, things happen. Collectors can ask me questions and I will answer them, but for a retailer, sometimes it’s complicated, and now more and more, the collector knows more than the retailer. At our level of watchmaking, I need to have direct access to collectors. I dedicate quite a lot of time to be present for collectors because they don’t only buy a product; they want to build a relationship with the person who built all of this who is still alive.”