28th May 2020

Luxury watchmaking – like most other things – is feeling the lockdown pinch, but only for so long. Here, husband and wife watch journalists Alex Doak and Laura McCreddie-Doak talk to five head honchos about how ROX is weathering the storm and how the watchmakers themselves are adapting to a new world order.

In the midst of a crisis we’re all suffering to polarised extents, the sentiment of that ever-hashtagged ‘first-world problems’ has never resonated more poignantly in so many quarters. But, in spite of COVID-19’s best efforts, life and livelihoods must go on – and yes that still includes the world of highfalutin luxury watchmaking.

Thanks to plenty of people reading this now (even you, perhaps) ROX has continued to trade, despite furloughing the vast majority of its staff. “Our online sales are up by a factor of three or four, in fact,” reveals co-founder Kyron Keogh, “for which we can thank our loyal and local client base!”

But ROX is a business that was built on two particularly prescient pillars: aforementioned e-commerce, yes, but also the ‘experiential’ approach to customer engagement. Parties, in other words. For which, as any ROX devotee knows all too well, Kyron et al. have a notorious knack for throwing.

“Coming out of all this, people will still crave newness and beautiful, lasting things – so I’m positive overall,” he says. “Things will bounce back if customers are feeling confident.

“But I’m also a businessman,” he adds, “so I have to be realistic; how do we engage, if people are still cautious about coming into town, let alone rubbing shoulders, breaking bread and shaking hands? How to keep up the whole ‘ROX’ experience?”

Unlike the more traditional jewellers, now having to think fast about aisle widths and point-of-sale placement, ROX’s decadent ‘lounge’ set-up won’t need much of a rejig. But for anyone who’s already missing their fix of Moët upstairs at the Argyll Arcade, Kyron and Grant are already hatching plans – unsurprisingly capitalising on the new age of Zoom sociability that coronavirus has catalysed.

“I’ve been watching with awe how America’s Haute Living platform has mobilised about 70 luxury-focused webinars online over the past four weeks alone,” says Kyron. “Jean-Claude Biver and Swiss Beatz’ session was a lesson for all of us. As Giles English mentions below, Bremont is already adapting in a similarly successful fashion.”

Speaking of which, how are the watchmakers themselves reacting? Will we continue to see the sort of innovation that Zenith, TAG Heuer and Hublot have been bringing with high-frequency timing, carbon components and materials science? This year’s launches have been in the the pipeline for 2 or 3 years, so we’re still enjoying confident blockbusters like Zenith’s new Chronomaster Revival Shadow, Hublot’s first-ever Big Bang with an integrated bracelet or Bremont’s challenge to go your own way configure an MBII to your personal specs. But will we see a widespread return to simpler three-handed watches, and comfortingly nostalgic vintage reissues, just as we did after the 2008 crash?

To be fair, the cleaner-cut retro vibes are still being felt (no bad thing after all the hyper-horological largesse of the mid-Noughties) but there was a sense, pre-COVID, that Switzerland was finally getting its groove back, into the here, now and beyond. Will the brakes be back on?

Let’s hear from four of the industry’s top dogs on how ROX’s nine shop windows will be stocked over the next couple of years and what you can buy now from the comfort of your living room…

“In a weird way, we’re excited!”

Giles English, co-founder of Bremont

At Bremont, we’ve remained open throughout the lockdown, obviously with the requisite distancing measures and skeleton staff – all down to the fact our military commissions and online sales have continued to thrive. Obviously, decline in the wholesale side of our business has meant we’ve suffered (to the tune of a 70% drop) but online has been very positive.

We’re in a lucky position, as we’re not a big corporate giant like the Omegas and Rolexes of this world, so we can be more efficient in adapting to the ‘new normal’.

As for that new normal? In a weird way, we’re excited! Like so many other businesses and individuals, we’ve had to change our way of thinking and way of working – but in a necessarily positive way, so we’re bound to come out of this stronger. Retailers like ROX and brands like Bremont who are good and inventive will grow. One example is our monthly Bremont Adventurers Club event at the Mayfair boutique. We usually host about 60 guests, but by taking Alex Bescoby’s latest talk online we welcomed 4,500!

The luxury watch market is going to retract for at least 2 years, and if you’re part of a big group with cash, you’ll survive. On the other hand, the struggling brands won’t – coronavirus will sort the wheat from the chaff, to put it bluntly. So, if you’re nimble enough and have good product that stands the test of time, there could be more opportunity than ever.

Inevitably, the product itself will play safer than usual while we ride out the aftermath. At Bremont, certain pieces that have been in the pipeline for years will remain in the pipeline. But you need new launches to fire things up again! And it’s almost as simple as that, from a brand perspective. With the financial crash of 2008, manufacturing continued while the market ground to a halt. This time, both have stopped, which means the market won’t be muddied by the stockpiles and slew of grey market product. We’ll be starting afresh!

Bremont MBII Barrels

Bremont MBII Configurator
RRP: From £4,100

1,000 possibilities, one personalised watch. To celebrate the update of the MBII – a watch created specifically to withstand the pressures of being ejected from a military aircraft – Bremont has launched its online “configurator”. The refined model has bolder hands, a new caseback featuring a bronze coloured “military challenge coin” historically used to represent membership of a unit on a specific tour of duty, a more shock-resistant movement and new rubber and leather straps. However, the fun part is that you can now spec it up yourself. Change the dial colour to blue, pick a barrel in contrasting orange, or maybe purple is more your thing. Leather or bracelet strap? Open or closed caseback? The choice is yours. The only colour out of bounds is red. Unless you’ve ejected, that is.

Bremont Project Possible

Project Possible
RRP: £4,995 on vintage khaki strap or £5,395 on a bracelet

Bremont’s criteria for its ambassadors seems to be “if you can do something that tests human endurance, we’ll strap a watch on you”. Nirmal “Nims” Purja is no exception. Last year, he summited Earth’s 14 tallest mountains in just six months and six days; an incredible seven years faster than the previous record. At one point in his challenge, Nims summited Everest, Lhoste and Makalu (a combined metreage of 25,849) in just 48 hours. And throughout it all he had a trusty Bremont on his wrist. To celebrate this achievement, Bremont created the Project Possible – a dashing, blue-dialed GMTbased on its existing Supermarine S500. It has Bremont’s first-ever bronze uni-directional rotating bezel and through the back you can see the rotor on which are inscribed the heights of each mountain and the order in which Nims summited them. So you can feel really inadequate next time you’re out of breath after climbing the stairs.

“I feel like we’ve got closer to our clients”

Julien Tornare, CEO of Zenith

China has started to come back – we sold a tourbillon last weekend for example – which shows that the market is slowly recovering, and this is why we’ve made the decision to reopen the factory on May 4. In the administration it’s only six to eight people working one day a week kitted out in gloves, masks, the whole thing, but really these are baby steps, because the whole watch business has basically been put on hold.

We’re taking this time to ask ourselves how will our clients buy watches in the short term. Will they need more time to start buying luxury goods again? What are their priorities right now?

I think we have to legitimise technologies as much as we can – doing Instagram Lives for example. We have started a Zenith “On Air” initiative where we keep in touch with friends of the brand, retailers and media on a regular basis. I’ve had to accelerate Zenith’s digitalisation and my own too. My kids make fun of my tech skills, but I’ve upped my social media presence and because of that I’ve been in touch with people in ways I never have before.

We’ve now set up a virtual concierge service to provide a centralised point of contact during the entire buying process from payment to exportation documents and sped up development of our e-commerce platform.

I now see these ways of reaching our customers as an obligation. I feel like we’ve got closer to our clients and they’ve been a source of inspiration for us too.

Zenith Chronomaster Revival Shadow

Chronomaster “Revival” Shadow
RRP: £6,900

Zenith’s seemingly inexhaustible supply of attic finds unearths another treasure this year in the form of this dark and moody model. According to collectors, there was a Zenith made, in 1970, that had a manual-wind chronograph housed in an unusual blackened steel case. However, only a few were made, it wasn’t commercialised and only a few seasoned watchmakers at the Manufacture had ever seen one. Fast forward to 2019, when preparations were underway for the El Primero’s 50th birthday and, while rummaging through plans and papers in Charles Vermot’s secret walled-off attic, a box was found containing the original prototype.

Never one to look a gift prototype in the pinion, Zenith has created the Shadow. Blackened steel seemed a bit too retro but to get the look Zenith opted for microblasted titanium and the manual wind has been replaced with an El Primero, but it’s all packaged a vintage-sized 37mm A384 case. Makes you wonder what other delights Zenith has in its attic.

Zenith Defy 21 Carl Cox

Defy 21 Carl Cox Edition
RRP: £16,000

Zenith’s mean machine – the Defy 21 with its 1/100th of a second-precise movement and two escapements – has been given a superstar DJ makeover in this collaboration with the British house and techo legend Carl Cox. And it’s a whole lot of fun. The running-seconds sub-dial at nine o’clock has been turned into a vinyl record, complete with Cox’s logo, the strap is racy red, but the real head-turner is the carbon-fibre bezel, which has been filled with SuperLuminova so it glows in the dark; creating a lurid, camo look. The strap stitching glows too. Wear this out and make everyone waving glow sticks look positively amateur.

“We’re defined by innovation, and that won’t change”

Omar Choudhary, UK & Ireland brand director of Hublot

For a start, may I just extend my sincere condolences to anyone who’s been touched by the spread of coronavirus. It’s been a huge challenge to so many, chiefly on that personal level, so recognising their sacrifice and suffering is the priority now.

But in a broader sense, we’ve all had a lot of learnings and adjustments, taking each day as it comes. On one hand, the lockdown has been a great opportunity to spend time with my young family and on the other hand, ensuring the wellbeing of Hublot’s retail partners and our own team has become paramount as we adapt to these unprecedented times. Looking to the future, it’s hard to be sure of anything yet, but we remain optimistic.

Like everyone else, we’re relying on tech more than ever, with the usual face-to-faces replaced by Zoom and Teams web meetings. I am pleased we can still have this level of interaction through technology as its great to see people. Our market strategy has always been a key component over the years, so the biggest change has been the postponement or cancellation of several events planned for the rest of the year across the globe. After all, our first priority is to avoid putting people at risk.

Getting back to grand events with the superstars of sport and the arts may be some time away, but as for the watches themselves, Hublot won’t be changing. While buying habits shift more web-wards than ever, what’s being bought will be as innovative as ever. That’s in our DNA, that’s what defines us: new materials, new shapes, mechanical engineering, the combination of precious metal and rubber that coined our ‘art of fusion’ concept will continue to be at the forefront of our strategy.

The retail landscape is always changing – now more than ever – but clients will always invest in brands with a story and a quality that transcends it all. We hope to evolve and adapt to our clients needs and stay true to our brand values.

Big Bang Integral
RRP: £19,100

To celebrate its 15th birthday, the Big Bang has decided to experiment with a different kind of fusion. For the first time ever, it now comes on a bracelet, which is also intergrated into the case. The trademark rubber is gone and in its place is a bracelet inspired by the interplay of angles and chamfers that defined the pushers from the original 2005. It’s at once different and at the same time reassuring familiar. You’ll wonder why it didn’t exist before.

Big Bang Sang Bleu II Limited Edition

Big Bang Sang Bleu II Limited Edition
RRP: £20,800 (in titanium)

You may not be able, or brave enough, to get inked by legendary tattooist Maxime Plescia-Büchi but thanks to Hublot you can own a little bit of his artistry in the form of the mesmeric Sang Bleu II. It’s identical to the II that came out in 2019, with added chronograph and even more complex three-dimensional dial design, but this time it has been reimagined in matte blue – the preferred shade of Büchi’s inkings. It is available in Hublot’s proprietary King Gold, but the comparative restraint of the titanium allows to geometric mastery of the dial to take centre stage.

“We won’t be able to rely on coachloads of tourists”

Daniel Compton, UK general manager of Audemars Piguet

We’ve been using this time to maintain contact with our customers in the right way. I’m lucky because I know many of them personally, so I or one of the team have been staying in touch asking about family, remembering birthdays, sometimes talking about watches if they want to escape but it’s certainly not about “behind the counter” selling conversations.

I think that some good will come out of this especially in terms of the way brands communicate with people and that includes within the industry as well. Retailwise, local clientele is going to be more important because, with people not wanting to travel, you won’t be able to rely on a coachload of customers from another country to give you your best day ever. We’re lucky because we’ve been working towards looking after our local customers for a while; it complements our “one watch at a time” approach.

We’re independent so we can be nimble at times like this. Our focus on limited, finely made watches means that we’ve always been focused on nurturing connections, which I think is going to be important as we come out of this crisis.

There may be some pent-up demand for luxury watches and we’re still going forward with some big launches at the back end of the year as well as opening the refurbished museum in June, but for us it’s going to be about maintaining personal relationships.

Royal Oak Selfwinding 41mm silver-toned

Royal Oak Selfwinding 41mm silver-toned
RRP: £19,900 (in titanium)

Almost half a century on from Gérald Genta’s overnight stroke of genius (coining the very notion of the ‘steel luxury sports watch’ on behalf of AP in immortal octagonal form) here we are with the latest tweak to the core Royal Oak model: a newly refined calibre, cleaned-up dial and fulsome case profile, plus a silver sheen to the ‘tapisserie’ textured dial. It’s all evolution though – you’re ultimately investing in the same revolution of 1972, only better. A Porsche 911 for the wrist, in other words.

Royal Oak 34mm Automatic
RRP: From £17,800 for the steel

Without much fanfare, Audemars Piguet just snuck this little beauty out in April. Previously the only Royal Oak for those with smaller wrists, was the 33mm quartz option. People have stopped being snobby about quartz, but with Audemars Piguet being so good at making standout automatics, it seemed unfair that wrist dimensions were causing some to miss out. We all know that women wear the 37mm but for some that’s just too much, especially if you opt for a precious metal version. The new 34mm automatic comes in four options: steel or two-tone pink gold and steel with a silver dial and steel or pink gold with a diamond-set bezel with a blue or silver dial respectively. All of them powered by the AP calibre 5800. Dainty has never looked so delicious.


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