Interview with Manuel Emch, CEO of the watch manufacturer Jaquet Droz, La Chaux-de-Fonds, canton of Neuchâtel, Switzerland
Conducted during the Basel Watch and Jewellery Show April 2003

By Magnus Bosse

Jaquet Droz? Ever heard of? Just another brand recently acquired by the almighty Swatch Group? You may think like this (and I have to admit that I also did!), but after an intense inspection of the new models at this years’ Basel Watch and Jewellery Show in April I changed my mind: There is something unique, something extraordinary coming from this old and at the same time refreshingly young brand.

The new Jaquet Droz watches exhibit an aura of Ying and Yang combined in one single horological masterpiece: reduced in styling, but rich in technical innovation and splendid in the choice of the selected materials. Exclusively precious materials such as white gold, almost erotically formed and pantomiming the glorious tradition of pocketwatches, they shelter and present high end mechanical movements under exclusive dial materials such as enamel and rare exotic stones.

Each watch is characterised by an unusual dial design, most eye catching is the large excentric seconds hand, reminiscent of the important pocketwatch tradition of Jaquet Droz. But also more complicated offerings always display utmost creativity when it comes to give a certain complication a most interesting look.

This is not a brand meant to pour as much money in Swatch Group’s chest as quickly as possible. This is a brand made to innovate, a brand characterized by a bohemian attitude. An impression that is further substantiated once one met with Mr Manuel Emch, the young CEO of Jaquet Droz. An elegantly dressed man in his early 30s, with an unusual background, he’s for sure not the typical watch company CEO one might meet elsewhere.

When I took the chance to meet and interview Mr Emch, I quickly realized that the above described impressions do not appear from nowhere. I want to invite you to follow my conversation with Manuel Emch. Please note that the interview was originally performed in German and therefore may have a certain German flavour.

The Interview

Magnus Bosse (MB): Mr Emch, you are quite young for a CEO of a watch manufacturer.
Could you shortly outline your professional career?

Manuel Emch (ME): After my A-Levels, I studied design at the Art Center school in La Tour-de-Peilz (in Switzerland), a subsidiary of the Art Center in Pasadena, California. Shortly after, I joined the Swatch design team in Milan (Italy) for an internship and began to design Swatch watches.

During this time, I developed a passion for collector’s pieces, and finally worked for Sotheby’s London in the department ‘Works of Russian Arts and Icons’, where I had the chance to work on masterpieces from Fabergé and I also came in contact with fine antique pocketwatches.

After that, I returned to university and studied economics at the university of Lausanne (Switzerland). Following my exams, I returned to Swatch Group and worked for them in Singapore. Next step was a consulting job in process optimization for a Zurich based engineering company followed by two years at Philip Morris in the marketing department. After 4 years, I wanted to turn back to my passion for watches and coincidently Mr Hayek asked me to return to Swatch Group, and so I started to work for Rado’s marketing department. Very soon Mr Hayek asked me if I would take the challenge to rebuild the recently acquired brand Jaquet Droz. That was in 2001.

MB: Do you have an own collection of watches?

ME: Oh yes. I started with SWATCH. Like many others, and I still have about 180 very special SWATCHES, and I even slept in front of the SWATCH stores to get the most sought after limited editions! Now, I focus on mechanical watches, especially antique pieces. I own about 20.

Pierre Jaquet Droz (1721-1790) was famous in his age for his impressive automatons: Fountains, Singing Birds and musical watches, but also writers and musicians. He was world-wide known for his excellent skills in making such masterpieces and he travelled around the world to present his automatons to the puissant sovereigns. The automaton shown here on the left is a Singing Bird in a box with a built-in clock, made by Jaquet Droz & Leschot, London, between 1775 and 1800. The bird is flapping with his wings and opes his mouth, once operated. The movement of the bird is covered with a brass plate. This Singing Bird is in the possession of the ‘Musée Internationale d’Horlogerie’ (MIH) in La-Chaux-de-Fonds.

On the right a contemporary piece, made still today by Jaquet Droz. Consisting of more than 500 parts, it writes the company logo on a piece of paper, thereby following the pen with his eyes, breathing…

   

MB: Jaquet Droz is a name that has almost vanished from the public perception. What were the reasons for Swatch Group to invest in this company? The search for unencumbered name?

ME: The immense history of Jaquet Droz was for sure the driving force behind the purchase. Jaquet Droz was – beneath Breguet – one of the most important watch makers in the history of Swiss watchmaking art. It is part of the Swiss heritage. Before the take over by Swatch Group, it was not very well known, but it is part of ‚la culture neuchâteloise’, everyone in the canton of Neuchâtel knows Jaquet Droz! Swatch Group specifically wanted to rescue a part of the watchmaking expertise from this region. There are many haute horlogerie brands situated in and around Geneva, but there are only very few left from the glorious tradition of Neuchâtel.

MB: This requires a certain effort in communication. Otherwise you run the risk that the people think: „Oh, great, Swatch bought another name to establish a retort company without own identity!“. By which means do you counter such apprehensions?

ME: We tried to isolate the ‚brand DNA’ that Jaquet Droz was known for in the 18th century and to transform it to meet the requirements of today’s watch connaisseurs. Jaquet Droz always focused on emotions and aesthetics. Pierre Jaquet Droz was the first who invented the concept of a jewellery watch, he was the first to ornament his watches with pearls, enamel and so on.

He also was famous for his animated birds, his fountains and musical watches and mostly for his automatons. He was the first who not only concentrated in achieving better and better accuracy, but furthermore he made real works of art out of his watches.

These are the principles we try to base our company on. We are not going to make me-too products, instead we will focus on these strong heritage.

The speciality of ancient Jaquet Droz was what we nowadays would call ‘jewellery watches’: The combination of highest mechanical quality with beautiful and aesthetic ornamentation, for example enamel covers, stone setting or unusual design solutions. No wonder Jaquet Droz had a huge success in the asian market! Depicted here are two vintage pocketwatches, also exhibited at the MIH.

 
   

Jaquet Droz’ unique design with the decentralised enlarged seconds hand has historic roots: The vintage Jaquet Droz pocketwatches featured this design icon for the first time: Depicted here is a vintage Jaquet Droz pocketwatch in comparison to the modern Grande Seconde Grand Feu Email : Note the alternately used roman and arabic numerals!

MB: What is a Jaquet Droz watch for you personally?

ME: For me a Jaquet Droz represents emotion and aesthetics, based on very high end and exquisitely finished mechanics, which are a matter of course for us. We go one step ahead and ornate our watches with an unmistakable style and attention to the detail that is lost at most other watch houses.

MB: Jaquet Droz’ annual production volume is quite low, especially compared to all other companies in Swatch Group’s portfolio. How does that work out and what is Swatch Group’s interest in such low numbers?

ME: Jaquet Droz is especially interesting since it offers the chance to manufacture a niche product. Breguet is maybe the brand with the greatest watchmaking potential; we have Glashütte Original, a company known for their very ‘german way’ and technically inspired fashion of manufacturing high grade movements; and we have Blancpain with its simply elegant designs and highest pretension on finishing. With Jaquet Droz things can be done that are unthinkable for the other brands.

MB: Could you draw a sketch about your customer? Who is interested in Jaquet Droz watches?

ME: Well, that’s a question I like! As I already pointed out, Jaquet Droz’ potencies are emotion and aesthetics. Therefore, I can think of our customer as a person who is receptive for such values, like an architect, an artist or a designer, and who is on the hunt for a product that reflects his principles. We quickly learnt that our customer group is not that consistent: beneath pure aesthetes we also have collectors and connoisseur’s attracted by our history as well as women looking for the uncommon.

MB: What are your core markets?

ME: Today we are present in 40 countries, and we have about 65 points-of-sale. Our main markets are Japan and Singapore. I think one reason is the dial layout that reminds on an 8, a symbol of luck in Asia. Also our limited editions are always restricted to 88 pieces. I consider so called ‚limited editions’ with more than 100 pieces not as restricted production.

Furthermore the Middle East and Russia, but also Switzerland, France and England and Italy are doing very well. We will start in Germany and the USA soon.

MB: Could you take a Jaquet Droz watch and explain all its specialities?

ME (takes a Grande Seconde): Of course: This is the Grande Seconde watch (Ref. J003034201), which represents the basis of our collection. It is inspired from a pocketwatch made in Pierre Jaquet Droz’ ateliers in the 18th century: This aesthetic principle represents a contemporary interpretation of Jaquet Droz’ ideas. The special feature is the large seconds hand, which shall remind us on the elapse of the seconds. Seconds are getting more and more important in today’s business life. Important decisions are meanwhile a question of seconds, not minutes or hours.

The case is made of white gold and rejuvenates to the back like the case of a vintage Jaquet Droz pocketwatch. Despite having a substantial diameter of 43mm, the watch never gives an impression of oversize. Also the lugs are very special: They are not straight but cabled. And the crown is designed like its counterpart of a pocketwatch. The sapphire crystal presides over the case and it is additionally domed, which makes it very difficult to manufacture with the required diameter.

The dial is made of ‘Grand Feu’ enamel, a very traditional technique, and the hands are made of steel, blued by hand.

The movement is based on an ebauche from Frédéric Piguet, a double barrel movement with an added small complication for the large second hand. The movement is – according to my opinion – the best tested haute horlogerie automatic movement. We chose it to ensure our customers the optimal performance in a high grade movement. The rotor is made of 18kt true white gold, but we will switch to 22kt rotors.

MB: Do you really think the owner of a luxury wants to be reminded of the elapsing of time, especially of the seconds?

ME: Well, its a playful effect! One could also say:’I take the time!’!

   

 

From left to right: the Jaquet Droz Collections:

(i) top bar:

- The collection ‘Hommage Genève 1784’: Grande Seconde Cerclée black

(ii) middle bar

- The collection ‘Hommage La-Chaux-de-Fonds 1738’: Equation du Temps, Douzes Villes and Les Lunes (proto-type, meanwhile dial changed to a dial similar to the Douzes Villes)

- The collection ‘Hommage Londres 1774’: Chronographe GMT

(iii) lower bar:

- The collection ‘Hommage Londres 1774’: Tonneau GMT XL and Ladies’ Tonneau

MB: Are all of your watches based on a Frédéric Piguet movement?

ME: We altogether have three collections:

– The collection ‘Hommage Genève 1784’ where theGrande Seconde belongs to,

– The collection ‘Hommage La-Chaux-de-Fonds 1738’, which consists of the more complicated models like the Les Lunes and the Equation du Temps

– The collection ‘Hommage Londres 1774’, these are the sportier models with tonnneau-shaped case or with chronograph, and/or GMT function

These collections are named after the three ateliers that Pierre Jaquet Droz founded. The Genève and the La-Chaux-de-Fonds collections are based on Piguet ebauche, whereby for the Douze Villes we completely re-designed the movement. We have 2 patents for this. The Chronographe GMT from the Londres collection is fitted with a Lemania chronograph movement, modified with a GMT function. The other watches of this collection have a Jaquet-Baume or an ETA movement.

MB: Do you plan to further develop the Piguet base movements, for example with addition of a free-sprung balance, or do you even think about the construction of an own movement (which is very costly compared the developing costs for, say, a car)?

ME: This is not a financial discussion! It is more a strategical or marketing decision. If we confer our ideas and principles that are found in our case and dial work to the development of a movement, I’m pretty sure that we can create something really extraordinary. For example, the rotor hides very much of the movement. But what if one places it between two movement plates? But to tell you the truth, we are working on such an exceptional in-house movement…

From left to the right:

- movement of the Grande Seconde watches

- movement of the Chronographe GMT watches

- movement of the tonneau-shaped GMT watches

- movement of the Ladies’ tonneau-shaped watches

MB: What is your vision for Jaquet Droz? Is Jaquet Droz going to offer all complications?

ME: No, although we have a Chronograph in the developing stage. I do not see a Perpetual Calendar in our range, we are more playful. A Tourbillon would fit perfectly, but IF we will construct a Tourbillon you can be sure that this will be an unique Tourbillon which is different to all the existing ones. One that is really exceptional! One that implies quality, technique and aesthetics and the certain bit of ‘uniqueness’.

MB: Can you explain the structure of Jaquet Droz as a company? How many employees do you have, and how many of them are watchmakers?

ME: We are 20 people, amongst them are 10 watchmakers (2 have just began to work with us). 2 people are solely responsible for quality control, which is very important to me.

MB: Considering the small company and the low production numbers: Is it possible to confront your manufacture with a wish for a custom-made ‘piece unique’?

ME: Oh, yes, we are open to such requests. For example, take our Douze Villes watch: It displays 12 time zones represented by 12 towns which can be switched simply by operating the pusher at 2 o’clock. I don’t think that 24 interesting time zones exist. Therefore we chose to display only 12, with a larger and better visible window, but still functional. Of course, for a customer who works in New York, lives in Beverly Hills, deals with partners in Sydney, has a house in St-Tropez and perhaps a lover in Hong Kong, we would be happy to make him a one-of-a-kind Douze Villes that fits his needs!

With our special edition Grande Seconde Cerclée Minérale we offer customized watches. Our customer can choose his dial out of different precious and semi-precious stones. Also very unique is the Grande Seconde Deux Emaux, which consists of a dial with 2 layers of ‘Grand Feu’ enamel, burned one after the other. A technique that requires utmost dedication to perfection and extremely skilled and sophisticated hands. The rejects are enormous, since the severe temperature changes during the enamel process easily break the enamel surface! Each piece is a real and unique piece of art.

From left to the right: Grande Seconde limited editions (‘numerus clausus’):

(i) top bar:

- Grande Seconde Decentrée (88 pieces)

- Grande Seconde Deux Emaux (88 pieces), detail pic

- Grande Seconde Cerclée ‘Paillonée’ (8 pieces)

(ii) bottom bar:

- Grande Seconde Cerclée ‘Quartz Rutile’ (8 pieces)

- Grande Seconde Cerclée ‘Obsidian’

   
MB: For a personal note: What are your passions?

ME: I have two passions: Watches and art, contemporary art. For example the modern photography of the ‘Düsseldorfer Schule’. This is very much based on my early educational background (Art Center). I take a lot of time to visit galleries and museums because it helps me to switch off and get new ideas. It’s my source of inspiration.

MB: Do you visit the internet watch discussions site?

ME: Yes, I often visit them and I’m always surprised about the discussions held there. This is one point I really love about the watch business: it often invites you to emotional conversations!

The Internet is an amazing vehicle to support our brand. There are many highly competent collectors all around the world, which can be brought together by using the internet. Sure, wrong facts, rumors and ideas can spread around, but we have the chance to communicate the pure reality. It also helps us to detect mistakes and to get new ideas.

MB: Thank you very much for this interview!

ME: Thank you!

Credits: Special thanks to Manuel Emch for his time and to Nathalie Kotelat and Ilse Maassen for supplying image and information material.

Magnus Bosse © October 2003

Last update November 30th, 2003

 
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