“I feel like I’ve been doing a 10-year apprenticeship and now I’m ready to move to the next level” explains Peter Speake-Marin, looking at me earnestly.
We’ve just finished going through his new collection at Baselworld 2014 and I have to say I am impressed. Not only with the watches themselves but also with the maturity and the clarity of the vision of the man sitting across from me.
By way of background I have known English-born independent watchmaker Peter Speake-Marin for a good five years now. He was one of the first independent watchmakers I ever met and I have always been struck by his humble and generous nature. Search all over Switzerland – his adopted homeland – and you’ll be hard-pressed to find anyone who will say a bad word about him.
In fact it’s quite the opposite. People are quick to sing the praises of a man who is so clearly gifted and who is more than willing to help others out whenever he can. I have heard many stories over the years of how Peter has helped fellow independent watchmakers survive in what can only be described as a highly competitive, cut-throat industry.
The problem however, at least based on my own observations and interactions, both with Peter Speake-Marin himself and others in the industry, was that up until a few years ago the man – and by extension his eponymous brand – were struggling to establish a clear identity for themselves.
Being An “Independent Watchmaker”
Much of this I think has to do with the stigma attached to the title “independent watchmaker”. For most this conjures up the image of one man, working either alone or perhaps with the aid of a trusted assistant, in the loft of a restored farmhouse somewhere in the Swiss countryside. All connection with the outside world is shunned as he spends hours bent over his workbench, his steady hands carefully handling tiny components that can only be viewed through a loupe.
It’s a romantic picture right? The only problem is, in this day in age, in this industry it’s no longer really realistic. There are exceptions of course, such as master independent watchmakers like Philippe Dufour and Kari Voutilainen (although I’m not sure if either of them live in farmhouses?) The fact remains though that these types of operations are not really scalable.
Now to be fair, in many cases this suits the individuals concerned just fine. However I still believe a conscious choice needs to be made, as there is nothing worse than being stuck halfway between one approach or the other (i.e. being completely independent vs. building a stand-alone brand).
Unfortunately this is where I believe Peter Speake-Marin found himself, clearly talented and capable but ham-strung by the inability to transition from one to the other.
From Man To Brand
I couldn’t tell you exactly why this was the case but if I had to speculate I would say that financing played a reasonably significant role (watchmaking, especially at this level, is a hugely cash-intensive business due to the high research and development costs and long lead times on production) and probably to a lesser extent general uncertainty about which path to follow.
I’m sure there were a myriad of other variables and distractions along the way but the overall challenge remained the same; how do you go from being a man, to becoming a brand? To his credit Peter Speake-Marin has done a remarkably good job of answering this question in a relatively short period of time.
In just two years he has taken on outside investors, completely overhauled and simplified his collections, unveiled a brand new website and set out a clear pathway for the future of his growing brand.
It all sounds so simple but I am sure it was anything but. The simple act of breaking out of the stereotype he had found himself unwittingly pigeon-holed into alone must have taken incredible courage and fortitude. Not to mention the fact that he was accepting outside help and therefore to some degree relinquishing control over a company he alone had built from scratch a decade earlier.
In truth though he was simply becoming a businessman. It sounds like a dirty word in this context but it’s really not. There is no doubt Peter Speake-Marin will always be an artist first and foremost, just talk to him for five minutes and you’ll be convinced of that. Now though there is a more measured approach to every decision, a sound reasoning for each step, which gives you confidence that not only is it well thought out, it’s also more likely to be successful.
Peter Speake-Marin may not be a household name yet in the Swiss watch industry but don’t be surprised if in a few years you start hearing it a lot more. After all, in the words of the great man himself:
“We’ve been learning to crawl, and now we’re ready to walk.”
You all know what comes next after that.
To see more from Peter Speake-Marin check out the gorgeous new website.
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