It is hardly the best of times to open a new watch factory in Switzerland. Exports have plunged on the back of economic uncertainty and currency swings. Sales to Hong Kong, the single largest foreign market, fell by more almost 27 percent in the January-to-June period this year, compared to the same time last year. Export revenues worldwide are down 10.6 percent — and no recovery is in sight.
Odd timing, then, for premium Swiss watch brand Carl F. Bucherer to showcase its new production site. But Sascha Moeri, the 43-year-old chief executive officer of the privately held company, believes he can buck the trend. In 2015, watch output rose to almost 25,000 units from just 6,400 in 2009, while revenues have climbed fourfold to more than $100 million in the past decade.
Owned by Jörg G. Bucherer, grandson of the founder, the Bucherer group is unusual in being a prominent watch and jewelry retailer as well as a manufacturer. Its upmarket stores are conspicuous in top locations across Switzerland and neighboring European countries. But while the retail side is familiar, its watches are less so.
“Output could have been even higher, but growth was constrained by insufficient production capacity for certain hot items,” said Moeri, whose career started at nearby Swatch Group and included eight years with Hong Kong’s Chow Tai Fook watch and jewelry company before becoming Carl F. Bucherer’s ceo in 2010.
The slick factory in Lengnau, Switzerland, marks the latest stage in a drive by Jörg Bucherer, now in his 80s, to expand watches. The family business, founded in 1888 in picturesque Lucerne in central Switzerland, diversified into making timepieces after one of founder Carl Friedrich Bucherer’s two sons trained as a watchmaker. The first Bucherer timepiece emerged in 1919. For almost 30 years, production focused on stylish Art Deco women’s watches, before shifting to chunky men’s chronometers. But sales were always restricted to the group’s Swiss stores.
In 2000, Jörg decided to rebuild watchmaking as a second pillar alongside retailing. That required reviving the range — renamed Carl F. Bucherer for his grandfather — and playing on the company’s historical and geographical roots. Today’s watches all have 1888 etched on their faces, while marketing material stresses “Made of Lucerne” in a deliberate grammatical error aimed at spiking attention.
The revival included cleaning up and broadening the range: Chunky men’s timepieces remain, but new collections are more classically styled and include ladies’ and high jewelry pieces. Prices run from a few thousand Swiss francs to 300,000-400,000 Swiss francs, or $306,000-408,000, for high jewelry pieces, with obvious competitors, (depending on the collection,) ranging from IWC and Jaeger LeCoultre to Chopard, Piaget and beyond. Women’s watches, which now account for about 40 percent of sales, could in time reach half, Moeri projected.
Expansion has included the new A2000 movement, which premiered at this year’s Baselworld watch and jewelry show, alongside the established A1000. The newcomer will form the basis for a family of movements over the next 10 to 20 years, said Moeri.
“Bucherer is very reticent as a company. But Carl F. Bucherer as the watch manufacturer must emancipate itself a bit. Now we’re ready, with a new brand look, cleaned-up collection, improved distribution, new movement and a new factory,” he said.
“We can definitely raise production to 30,000 with no problem. The question is, which models: If demand were strongest for models with fewer complications, then we could probably reach even 35,000 pieces — and certainly 31,000 to 32,000.”
Moeri acknowledged the timing is not ideal, with the soaring Swiss franc, Brexit stoking financial market volatility and a range of geopolitical threats damping tourist sales. “Before, there were changes. Now, there are radical changes. But it helps we’re still an upcoming and exclusive brand. Carl F. Bucherer is probably not bought as a first mechanical watch, but a brand for enthusiasts.”
Selling through Bucherer stores provides solid support. “Working with our retail cousins gives [the brand] the advantage of a strong distribution network, especially in Europe.” Preferential treatment by sales staff is strictly verboten, given the retailer’s relationships with virtually every prestige Swiss watch brand. “And with all the progress we’ve made, we are now even more in demand there by watch aficionados,” said Moeri.
Greater prominence could cut both ways. Jörg Bucherer is extremely media-shy, not least because the future of his group is one of the biggest open questions in Swiss luxury retailing, given his lack of heirs. And there’s always the danger that letting Carl F. Bucherer grow too big could antagonize other, better-known brands the group sells.
Then again, established watchmakers can hardly object to the group’s decision to expand its watch brand, considering they themselves are investing so much in their own flagship monobrand retail stores.