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PARIS — Severin Wunderman, a well-respected figure in the Swiss watch industry and the owner of the Corum brand, died Monday after a stroke. He was 69.
A spokeswoman for Corum said Wunderman died in his house in the South of France, where he lived most of the year. A memorial service is being planned in Los Angeles next Wednesday. Details were not immediately available, although Wunderman’s remains will stay in Europe, which was his wish, the spokeswoman said.
One of the most colorful and affable figures in the watch world, Wunderman will be remembered for turning two brands into major players. He built Gucci’s watch business in the Eighties into a successful venture and followed up by engineering the turnaround at Corum.
Wunderman’s life could be the subject of a movie. As a child he survived the Holocaust hidden in a home for blind children in Brussels. He emigrated to America at 16 and was educated on the hard-knocks streets of New York. He entered the watch business as a salesman and, by 1968, propelled by sheer chutzpah, had convinced Aldo Gucci to award him the Gucci watch license, which would eventually make him a multimillionaire.
But his success lately was tempered by serious health problems. In the Nineties, Wunderman was diagnosed with incurable lung cancer. Ever the fighter, he vowed to beat the disease. He lobbied one of the world’s most prominent specialists for treatment. The doctor refused at first due to the severity of his illness. Wunderman pledged $5 million in research funding a year for every year he continued to live. The doctor accepted and Wunderman continued to live.
“I don’t believe in giving up, I only see opportunities,” Wunderman told WWD in 2002.
Wunderman, an aesthete with a love for collecting (he amassed what may be the world’s most important collections of Jean Cocteau paintings), recognized the importance of bringing the excitement of fashion to watches.
While his venture with Gucci was based on the idea of lending the mystique of luxury to a midrange watch, he also recognized the importance of tight control of distribution to preserve the brand image. In 1998, the last year Gucci watches operated under Wunderman, sales of the brand’s watches topped $550 million.
Severin Montres, the company that held the Gucci license, was bought back by Gucci for $150 million as part of Domenico De Sole and Tom Ford’s decision to wield more direct control over the brand’s various products.
The deal stipulated a two-year non-compete clause for Wunderman.
But he couldn’t stay away from his passion. As soon as the non-compete clause expired in January 2000, Wunderman bought the majority of Corum. He moved the brand into more accessible price ranges but also reinforced the high end with pieces like the Golden Bridge. When he bought Corum sales were only $30 million. Sales last year were close to $200 million.
A visit to the yearly watch fair in Basel, Switzerland, was incomplete without a visit to Wunderman. His passion for the industry never diminished. A seasoned raconteur, he was one of the few independent voices in an industry increasingly dominated by large luxury players, a position he loved.
Just last month Wunderman was thinking about the future, saying he had no interest in selling his brand.
“Only if I got a crazy offer,” he said in an e-mail exchange. “Everything has a price. But under normal circumstances, no. It’s three years too early for us to sell. I would be leaving big money on the table.”
Michael Wunderman, 33, Severin Wunderman’s son who is Corum’s president, has taken on a more important role at the brand in recent years. After seven years in Europe, Michael moved back to California to manage the brand there and be closer to his family.
Watches were hardly the only component to Wunderman’s life. He was on the board of Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation and France awarded Wunderman the Legion of Honor two years ago for his extensive charity work.
Wunderman was an avid collector of art, with a particular passion for Cocteau, the French artist, writer and filmmaker. Wunderman recently donated hundreds of pieces by Cocteau to a museum that is slated to open in the French Riviera town of Menton in 2009.
Wunderman is survived by another son, Nathan, as well as daughters Raphael and Deborah.