A Chat With The World’s Oldest Swiss Watchmaker: Vacheron Constantin

At the helm of a heritage brand
Juan-Carlos Torres is a case in point of discreet luxury. During our encounter, he is clad in an impeccably tailored, albeit understated, suit. I manage to catch a quick glimpse of a Vacheron Constantin Overseas model, peeking out bashfully from under his cuff. For luxury needs to be felt and experienced, rather than being overtly shown off to the world, and who better to endorse this ideal than the swashbuckling CEO of Swiss watchmaker Vacheron Constantin.

It is not everyday that one gets to chat with the global head of a legacy Swiss watchmaker so I seize this opportunity to discuss luxury and haute horology with Jean-Carlos Torres, who, this year, completes 35 years at Vacheron Constantin.
Over morning espressos and within the plush confines of his suite at The St. Regis Mumbai, the Spaniard tells me that he is in India not only for the big launch event of Vacheron’s much-talked-about Overseas collection but also to do a market recce of sorts. “I’m here to support my team in India, to introduce the new Overseas range to the Indian market and to reinforce the close ties between my house and India.”

A Spaniard by birth, Torres settled in Geneva in 1960 when he joined Camy Watch, before finally joining Vacheron Constantin in 1981. In the year 2005, he was elevated to the position of head of the house, which happens to be the world’s oldest watch manufacturer, boasting uninterrupted activity for over 260 years. How has the luxury watchmaking climate changed since 1981? “Things have changed a lot, except one thing, the spirit of the watchmakers. When I started, we were only 55 employees in the company – 45 were watchmakers and 10 were in marketing. We had only one boutique in Geneva. Now we are 1,200 people worldwide with 50 boutiques. The spirit and legacy, however, remain unchanged.” No surprise, then, that for his commitment to the field of luxury and haute horology, Juan-Carlos Torres was presented with the Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters) by the French Minister of Culture and Communication.

Indian Perspectives
Another point on Mr. Torres’ agenda is to reach out to existing and potential customers in India, a booming and highly promising market for luxury horology. “Our brand is not yet known well enough in India and I would like to address that. A lot of people in India do not know what Vacheron Constantin is. Perhaps they know of the brand name but they are not aware of the heritage and the values it represents. I have to say that the Indian luxury consumer is discerning enough for high-end watches. They know the value of handcrafted products because India has such a longstanding heritage with craftsmanship.”

My next question to Torres is about a very evident chink in the brand’s marketing armour — the absence of a brick-and-mortar boutique in India. “It is indeed a pity that we do not have a boutique where we can showcase our full range of products. After all, Vacheron Constantin is not limited to the Overseas collection, there is so much more on offer, from classic and understated to sporty and crazy. The absence of a boutique is definitely a challenge but such is the economic climate. And we are not alone. Things are changing rapidly in India on the economic front and we are ready to be a big partner in the watch market in India. Launching boutiques is is part of our future plans. When we started marketing in China, 20 years ago, it was the same situation, now we have 30 boutiques in China. The fact remains that in India, there are watch collectors who understand this level of price and are willing to accept this price point.”
Global watch experts might point out that the overall aesthetic of the new Overseas collection has a sporty and more youthful feel, perhaps appealing to a younger luxury consumer, an idea that Torres is not completely in agreement with, “I fight everyday with my team when they use the term, ‘younger customer’. For me, they are just customers, age doesn’t matter. If the product suits somebody, and they can afford it, they’re a customer. In 2005, we sold a watch for 2 million euros to a 14-year-old.”

Watchmaking and Sustainability
Being a watchmaking house with 260 years of history behind it comes with its share of artistic and cultural responsibility, an ideal that it has stuck to with conviction. Vacheron Constantin has always taken it upon itself to keep alive certain art forms, les métiers d’art, which characterise the watches — guilloché work, enamelling and diamond setting among other forms. Another element of the brand’s DNA is the spirt of apprenticeship. During Torres’ tenure, he has seen the number of apprentices in the house go from 2 to 25. “On 17th September 1755, Jean-Marc Vacheron hired an apprentice and that created the brand,” says Torres, “Ever since, we have kept alive this idea of passing down savoir-faire over generations. We are not merely passing down watches over the years, but more importantly, the savoir-faire to create these watches. Today, to maintain our craftsmanship is our responsibility. Dying art forms like guilloché, where there are perhaps only three people in the world to do this, or enamelling or engraving work, where there are no more than 4 and 10 people to do this respectively.” Today, Vacheron’s atelier’s largely follow the one master-one apprentice format, with about five masters in total, each representing a different métier d’art. An apprentice evolves to become a master over the years and a master can even change his role, like the 55-year-old diamond setter, a specialist in baguette-cuts, who has now started enamelling.

The Best of the Best
The current Overseas collection notwithstanding, I ask Torres about the most prestigious of all of Vacheron Constantin’s offerings — the Atelier Cabinotiers Special Order department, which he started in 2006. The Atelier Cabinotiers is a highly exclusive service of producing an entirely bespoke, unique timepiece, created on an individual commission basis. In fact, on 17th September 2015, the Atelier revealed its greatest technical achievement – the most complicated watch ever made. “The Atelier Cabinotiers Special Order service is very close to my heart and I see it as a perfect fit for Indian customers. Big collectors ask us to make entirely unique pieces for them and it is a challenge for us. We keep these products and projects totally secret and discreet. Since the customers are largely high-profile individuals, nobody knows the name of the customer and nobody knows the products they buy. You can customise the case, change the dial and engraving among many other customisation options.”

Understanding The Luxury Consumer
Understanding the mindset of the luxury consumer is part and parcel of his job. He offers an interesting perspective, “Imagine a new luxury consumer entering a watch boutique in Geneva, he says ‘here’s a million dollars, what can I buy with this?’. For his next purchase, he pulls out a credit card. And for the subsequent purchase, he goes up to the counter and says ‘I’d like to buy a minute-repeater tourbillon’. This largely represents a luxury consumer’s evolution. It is so interesting. As they evolve, they become better informed. They read magazines, browse the Net or even follow watch blogs to increase their knowledge. That said, I have to give it to the Indian watch consumer, who is very well-informed and discerning.”

Going Forward
“I’d like to make India the next China for Vacheron Constantin. Sure, the market is difficult but the difference between India and China is that you have never been under a communist government. There has never been a dictatorship. In China, the professors and politicians and farmers were all at the same level. So when the country’s luxury revolution started, it was easy to target everyone. In India, people were never equal, there are so many socio-economic pyramids, making it so much more difficult to promote luxury watches in India.”

The Overseas Collection
One of Vacheron Constantin’s most iconic collections, the Overseas, has seen a spectacular reinterpretation this year in the form of five exceptional models, each stamped with the prestigious Hallmark of Geneva Certification. The watches are characterised by a simple, casual elegance. Another interesting element in this collection is the presence of interchangeable straps, allowing the watch to be translated into different contexts. The Overseas collection is inherently linked with the philosophy of travel, as its name suggests. “Our founder was a traveller. Over the centuries, our historic watches have travelled across the globe and even to India, as early as the 19th century. It’s the quintessential travel watch,” says Torres.

As seen in the Hindu Business Line


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