Watches still make Gedalio “Gerry” Grinberg tick, even at age 77.
The native of Cuba who was instrumental in turning mainstream Americans on to luxury timepieces, will step down on Jan. 31 as chairman of Movado Group. His son, Efraim, will take on the role of chairman while continuing as president and chief executive officer.
Grinberg, who fled to Miami from Cuba under Fidel Castro’s regime in the Sixties, got into the business by selling alarm clocks in his home country and, when he moved to the U.S., began dealing in more serious timepieces by the likes of Omega, Corum and Piaget. In 1965, he founded the North American Watch Corp., eventually adding Concord and Movado to the firm’s roster. The company, now known as Movado Group, has annual sales of $560 million.
According to Grinberg, the watch industry may take a hit in the current economic malaise, but great design and novel ideas will surely come out of this period as brands seek to differentiate themselves further.
“Watches measure time and I have always been fascinated by what a person does with their time,” said Grinberg, of what first struck him about timepieces.
When Grinberg came to the U.S., many Americans — including presidents and business executives — wore simple, unadorned utilitarian watches. But in Grinberg’s native Cuba, watches were a status symbol and he saw potential that Americans would gravitate toward such a luxury item.
“Although Cuba was a smaller country than the United States, in some ways it was more sophisticated than the U.S. market,” Grinberg said. “Watches were less about being a practical means to tell time and more about being a fashionable item that made a statement about the wearer. In the upper classes, people dressed very fashionably using sophisticated French or British materials. Clearly, that was a very small segment of the watch market, but it did exist.”
Grinberg did market research and was moved most by Vance Packard’s “The Hidden Persuaders,” a book on how people’s thoughts and feelings are manipulated by business, media and politicians.
“[Packard] used the model of Cadillac because Mercedes and today’s other luxury brands had limited availability,” said Grinberg. “He said we were developing a higher-income market and the people in this market needed products to show their new status in life. A Cadillac in the driveway was a symbol of their new status.”
Grinberg related Packard’s teachings to the watch market and he began to advertise and grow Piaget from $175,000 in sales to more than $30 million in sales in luxury watches in the Eighties.
Grinberg also knew he had a winner when he saw Nathan George Horwitt’s Bauhaus-inspired Museum Watch design for Movado in 1960. The dial was without markings except for a dot at the 12-hour mark. It was a revolutionary design at the time.
“I wanted this watch in my collection very badly,” Grinberg mused. “I was obsessed like a little child. However, it belonged to Movado….It took me almost 20 years to get the company.”
Grinberg finally acquired Movado in 1983 and his relationship with Horwitt was a juxtaposition of mercurial and convivial. Horwitt sued Grinberg over a Piaget watch design in which the dials were made of lapis lazuli, jade or tiger-eye and were without markers, claiming they infringed on his famous design. Horwitt lost the suit, but ended up suing other watch firms that did infringe on his patent.
Movado has long been known as a patron of the arts and Andy Warhol can in part be credited for that. In the Seventies, Warhol approached Grinberg to trade a Corum watch for a print. The two became friends and Grinberg became a regular on the art scene. Warhol designed a watch for the firm, as eventually did James Rosenquist, Arman, Max Bill and Yaacov Agam. Movado is working on a new Artist’s Series today.
As for the future of the industry, Grinberg sees the tides changing.
“I’ve never seen times like these,” he said. “We are currently in turmoil, and it is my experience from past events that in this type of climate changes occur and new things develop. However, at this time I do not see any clear direction where the watch business is headed nor which segments will be most successful in the future.”
Movado has recently revamped two brands in its roster, Ebel and Concord. Both are going more upscale and exclusive. Concord has gone to doing only mechanical movements with prices as high as $320,000, and Ebel also has some proprietary movements that are in demand by collectors.
“Every crisis brings new creativity and we will see this happen, as in the past,” Grinberg said. “In recent years, highly complicated mechanical watches have become very important and successful in the watch industry. We have a company that covers many segments of the market and have brands that we develop in the field. This business is important worldwide because in many markets people buy extremely expensive products as a hedge against inflation, and so far, we are doing well in this market.”
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