Succession, Nepotism or Just a New Generation in Watches?
In the past few years, the watch world — especially independent, family-owned brands — has seen an influx of young, second-generation makers rising through the ranks and taking on top-level positions. Now, those new leaders are making decisions about products, marketing, digital concepts and relationships that they say will bring new audiences, more online sales and propel the traditional watch industry fully into the 21st century.
“Typically, Swiss brands are slow to adapt to the market, and these next-generation kids might be able to bring faster change to the table,” said William Massena, a former managing director of the online TimeZone horology forum and founder of his own watch brand, Massena LAB. “They can talk to the new generation because they are part of the new generation and they bring a fresh perspective.”
Mr. Massena was quick to note that succession isn’t new in watches. For example, Thierry Stern, president of Patek Philippe, is the fourth-generation leader in the business since the Sterns took over the company in 1932. Chopard has been in second-generation leadership with the siblings Karl-Friedrich and Caroline Scheufele since 2001. And at Parmigiani Fleurier, owned by the Sandoz Family Foundation, the watchmaker Michel Parmigiani’s daughter Anne-Laure Parmigiani has headed product development for two decades, making an impact on the artistic side with her engraving techniques.
But this group — ranging in age from 22 to 35 — are Gen-Z digital natives. They came of age with TikTok, they understand bitcoin and NFTs, they have new and different interests than their parents.
Among them: Benjamin Arabo, 30, chief executive of Jacob & Co and son of the company founder, Jacob Arabo; Frédéric Arnault, 27, chief executive of TAG Heuer and son of Bernard Arnault, chairman of the luxury giant LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton (another son, Jean, also focuses on watches — he is the marketing and development director for Louis Vuitton watches); and Pierre Biver, 22, who just co-founded the new JC Biver brand with his father, the industry legend Jean-Claude Biver. Alexandre Mille, 35, is the commercial director of Richard Mille who works alongside several siblings in the family business; and Audrey Raffy, 29, is the vice president and legal counsel for Bovet 1822 and the eldest daughter of the company’s owner, Pascal Raffy.
“Watch collectors are getting younger by the day, and digital and social media is the way to attract the younger audience,” Ms. Raffy said, “but we have to do a better job of communicating to a wider extent about our artistry, our watchmakers, our limited quantities and the fact that everything is done by hand,. We don’t have to change the product — it doesn’t matter what age you are, something classical is always beautiful. We just have to communicate our strengths to the younger generation.”
Adapting to Change
Technological advances have instilled definite ideas in many young leaders about what their brands can be in a luxury-hyped world.
At TAG Heuer, for example, Frédéric Arnault has focused on product innovation — the Carrera Plasma watch, introduced this past spring, is marketed as the first Swiss wristwatch to use lab-grown diamonds — and elevating the brand’s signature designs: the Monaco and the Carrera. He also has aimed to emphasize the brand’s smartwatch, the Connected, which was introduced in 2015.
“We believe our brand is uniquely positioned for this arena because of our values and prices and we were able to invest in the business and grow it as a core pillar for the brand,” Mr. Arnault said in a video interview, noting that in 2018, TAG Heuer purchased a technical company to create its own apps, particularly for its 2020 Connected Golf Edition.
More recently, the Connected has delved into NFTs. When it came to fans of the digital fad, “we decided to talk to them, to embrace their world and offer them a service that they would like and that would be cool,” Mr. Arnault said. The result: a feature introduced in June that allows owners to display their NFT collections on their Connected Calibre E4 smartwatches.
In the Digiverse
When it comes to luring new audiences, Benjamin Arabo of Jacob & Co said he believes digital marketing is key. He had formed his own digital marketing company in 2014, so when he became chief executive of the family watch and jewelry brand six years later, one of his first moves was to expand the marketing department to better target digital platforms.
“We had a social media marketing plan, but it was not a focus or a revenue driver — it was more on the back burner,” Mr. Arabo said. “They generated business the old way, through brick and mortar, watch fairs and traditional advertising.
“Our products are already visually appealing: We have astronomy, we have tourbillons, we have casinos and pandas and more,” he continued. “We just needed to create content that shows how different and full of energy our watches are.”
Mr. Arabo focused his team on creating craftsmanship content for Instagram and Facebook that met his very specific demands: videos that showcased making the movements and elaborate watches in the Jacob & Co repertoire. In fact, he said, a video of the Casino watch that went up on the two platforms this past summer has racked up four million views. The brand also has been creating “unboxing” videos, where someone takes a watch out of its packaging on camera — a popular video style among young TikTok and YouTube fans.
“If we can grasp their attention now, even if they are not buyers yet, they may want to become buyers one day when they see the content we put up,” Mr. Arabo said, adding that now, approximately 80 percent of the brand’s social media content comprises new videos, compared with single product images that it often posted in the past.
Keeping Up With Growth
While creative products are important, Alexandre Mille said, there is no need to revolutionize anything at Richard Mille — his father already did that by cofounding a brand to realize some wild visions for watches.
“We need to make sure that everything that was applied during the first 20 years will continue into the future and that the main aspect of creation is the key,” Alexandre Mille said in a video interview. “We have to make watches that make our hearts move and our bodies shake. When you are true to yourself and what moves you, sales will follow.
“My dad had a vision, and we want to continue that vision,” he continued. “We may just add some things. His universe was clearly automotive and aeronautic, but the big moves we are making come in the form of art and music.”
Mr. Mille also noted that one of the big challenges facing his generation of leaders is the internal growth their brands have experienced in recent decades. “Businesses and teams were smaller back then. It was easier for employees to have direct access to management,” he said. “My dad is a real people person, and he created a lot of little families all around the world as he built the company, but now it is so much bigger with about 650 people working for the brand globally. So now it is my job to make sure that my dad’s vision goes from the top out to all of those 650 people working for us.”
Initially, Pierre Biver shied away from a career in the watch industry because following his father — who led brands such as Omega, Hublot, TAG Heuer and Blancpain to success and was president of LVMH’s watchmaking division before his retirement in 2018 — would be daunting.
But he has stepped up to help build the very exclusive JC Biver brand (Jean-Claude Biver has alluded to producing only 50 pieces a year, each an average of $350,000, with the first watches expected in spring 2023).
“It’s a real privilege to be able to work for my father. I respect him as a person, a man, a businessman and more, and it is important that he values my insight, my ideas and my work,” Pierre Biver said. “It is really nice to get to meet your father again from a different perspective.”
Mr. Biver said it was up to him to build relationships, as his father did. “It is a huge responsibility when you put your family name on the dial,and that means I need to build bridges with all of the industry people my father knows and with new ones that I get to know,” he said. “I respect my father’s vision for this brand, and he respects the fact that I want to bridge the gap between function and wearable high watchmaking.”
According to Mr. Biver, his generation, his friends, think differently about products and marketing: “We want to grind our own coffee, brew our own coffee. We want user-friendly products that are designed with a purpose and that are functional as well as beautiful,” he said. “And we are touched by marketing in a different way than people in the past.
“We want the product to be the biggest ambassador of all.”