Unless you are an astute observer of the luxury watch industry it is very likely that you have never even heard the name Christophe Claret, or at the very least don’t fully appreciate its significance. You are, of course, not to blame for this as many of his customers in the past have chosen to downplay his involvement in the development of their projects (although it is generally common knowledge in the industry.) You see Claret, along with his state-of-the-art manufacturing facilities, has been behind some of the most mind-blowing, exceptionally complicated watches ever made.
Don’t believe us?
Well, there was the groundbreaking Chapter One for Maîtres du Temps, the Opus 4 and Tourbillon Glissiere for Harry Winston and let’s not forget that his company has produced every single eye-popping piece for the Jean Dunand collection so far. Keep in mind though that these are just a few recent examples of the high-end brands that actually acknowledge the integral role he has played in the creation and realization of their timepieces.
There are many more, including larger mainstream brands, who also seek out his expertise with high end complications although they’ll never say it publicly.
Last year Christophe Claret SA celebrated 20 years of existence and took the first real steps towards creating their own identity in the market with the release of the highly anticipated Dual Tow. Last week Mr. Claret took some time to sit down with us and reflect on how far his business has come, how they’ve weathered the financial storm and what the future may hold for this extraordinary company.
TWL: A belated Happy Birthday, Mr. Claret!
CC: Thanks! We reached 20 years last year, and to celebrate we created the Dual Tow. However, we did not achieve this in a single day. After the first decade, when we were still relatively small, we spent 5 years from 2000 to 2005 building the brand, and saving money so that we could have financial reserves at our disposal. Following this we invested a further 5 years in development and expansion, focusing especially on our production tools.
We were just 35 staff back in 2005. Now we are 105!
The sublime Jean Dunand Shabaka, made a reality by Christophe Claret © Christope Claret SA
TWL: Wow, your company is growing very fast! Some observers say that universities can deliver around 50 very high level watchmakers per year, while in reality the industry requires around 10 times more. How do you face this challenge?
CC: We have built relationships with many universities around the world and are very active in this area. We send our own experts around the world to find the best students and hire them as trainees. And sometimes they come back with one or two as employees!
TWL: Remaining independent is key to you, isn’t it ?
CC: Yes. We produce 80% of the final product in house. I’m the only shareholder of Christophe Claret SA. I don’t rely on any bank, and don’t contribute any additional funds. I run the company purely on the cash flows it generates. I am using the company’s cash reserves to ride out the uncertainty of the crisis.
TWL: Which represents…?
CC: Approximately another 2 years of funding requirements. But I do hope that the crisis won’t last until then!
TWL: Do you think it will, though?
CC: I’ve learnt a lot from the past 1998 crisis. For now, I think things will improve within two years. By 2015, we should see a return to strong market of 2006-2007.
TWL: So, how does the company look today?
CC: We have 18 customers for which we produce movements all year long. We lost a very limited number of them during the crisis, but I’m quite confident that new ones will arrive pretty soon.
For our clients, we work simultaneously on 40 different movements. At the same time, we create 5 new movements per year. Our maximum was recently reached when we created, in one single year, 8 new movements! Currently we produce around 400 units per year, for a revenue of 20 million CHF in 2009.
TWL: How many new movements have you produced so far?
CC: Around 64 since inception.
Highly complicated movements are manufactured and put together by the best watch-makers in the industry. © Christope Claret SA
TWL: What process is required for these movements to go from concept to reality?
CC: We have a strong Design / R&D department, of around 10 people (the industry average is around 3! – Ed.).As I am first a watchmaker, and then a manager, I am actively involved in the entire creative process.
Up until 2009, we only produced movements to order, based on the specific requests of our clients. Since this year, we have started creating our own movements, which our clients then discover once they are finalized. Now we have currently 5 movements under creation. 2 to 3 will be presented to our clients, the remaining will be for our own production.
TWL: This could be a bit risky! Are you sure your clients will buy these new movements without having seen their plans before?
CC: No I’m not. But I have more than 20 years experience in this field working simultaneously with the clients of Christophe Claret; consequently, I feel I have quite a good overview of the market trends…!
TWL: Talking about market overview, what are your thoughts on this crisis, is it really over?
CC: We’re not through yet, but we’re heading in the right direction. To get through it, some companies bet on their iconic models. Some reduced their production. For my company, I put the emphasis on our manufacturing equipment. This will be key to our success when the crisis is truly behind us. Certainly though some suppliers of movements will fail under bankruptcy proceedings and there will certainly be (and already have been) market adjustments to reflect these difficult times.
In the end though, when demand rises again, there will be a strong need for companies that are able to react very quickly and produce movements in a very short timeframe. Companies such as Claret, that already have all the required equipment in house and ready. In addition, having our own in-house equipment allows us to remain completely independent.
TWL: Do you think the rise of Asia will impact the traditional economic model?
CC: Asia has two different faces for us. First, as a client; Chinese millionaires continue to grow more numerous year after year, that’s a fact – even if the Chinese market is quite hard to enter for a small company like us.
Second; as competitors. Yes, China presented its very first tourbillon recently but, you know, I’m not too worried about it. The tourbillon is currently their most prestigious complication. At Christophe Claret, it’s the basis of all our models….
On top of that, we must not forget that once the US emerges from the crisis, they will be back with their strong appetite for high end luxury goods, fulfilling the potential we all know exists there. And both Christophe Claret SA and the Dual Tow are already there in the market ready for this and we have invested heavily in our equipment to meet this demand.
The company has invested heavily in developing state of the art equipment. © Christope Claret SA
TWL: You seem to be very involved with the production equipment?
CC: Definitely. It is the key to the success of our business. We spent months in the R&D of our own industrial machines, for instance developing the technology to laser cut gold, titanium, etc. It’s a co-development in partnership with companies like BC Technologies or Biwi.
TWL: Are these machines then patented by Christophe Claret?
CC: No, or only in the case of key innovations specifically developed for our own needs. But it’s not in the interest of industry to patent innovation.
TWL: But doesn’t allowing your competitors to buy the machines you’ve spent months developing give them the opportunity to achieve the same level of execution as you?
CC: You know, when competitors buy these machines, it’s good for the company that builds them, and consequently it’s good for the whole market. That’s our philosophy.
Moreover, you know, when they buy the machines we co-developed, it means we already have them in house for months or even years! I know that companies like Rolex, Patek Philippe, and Greubel Forsey have bought some units. Patek bought 3O units of one of them, for instance. Greubel Forsey also bought one but they sold it.
Having a high end machine is one thing, knowing how to use it properly is something else entirely…
TWL: Do you plan to bring the whole process of creating and realizing a watch 100% in house?
CC: No, 80-85% is good. It lets some key suppliers live. It’s important for the market that they remain alive and well, it’s not in our own interest to be fully independent. It’s a question of ethics to provide good, faithful suppliers, with long term orders.
Read Part.2 of this special interview where Mr. Claret talks to us about this week’s Wow Watch – the Dual Tow!