Ulysse Nardin Blast watch

PARIS — Plans for physical watch fairs in Switzerland this year may have been sideswiped by the coronavirus crisis, but a group of Swiss labels including Bulgari, Breitling and Kering-owned Ulysse Nardin, have banded together to meet up with the press, clients and retailers in various spots around Geneva.

Dubbed Geneva Days, the event takes place from Aug. 26 to 29, becoming one of the rare physical multibrand watch events of the year, which saw Watches & Wonders move online while Baselworld, initially canceled, wound up pivoting into an altogether different platform when large brands opted to quit the fair entirely. 

“It’s agile, informal — not the biggest watchmaking event in the world, but it’s a different format, an alternative format that’s not meant to replace the big fairs,” said Patrick Pruniaux, chief executive officer of Ulysse Nardin, speaking of the Geneva Days event. The label remains part of the Watches & Wonders Geneva fair, an event dominated by brands belonging to Compagnie Financière Richemont, including Cartier. 

The environment will likely remain uncertain due to the ongoing coronavirus crisis, but this is a good moment for the more spontaneous, simpler format, that reflects a form of solidarity among competing brands that joined up to take part, suggested the executive. 

Some events will be held by various brands together, in the evenings, with small groups, he said, calling the spirit “modern and apolitical.”

The executive will show the label’s new Blast watch, a skeleton model with an automatic tourbillon with distinct lines, in rose gold with a black dial, a blue dial with titanium or, in an extra airy-looking version, a white dial with a titanium and ceramic case and gray rubber strap.

Ulysse Nardin ceo Patrick Pruniaux

Ulysse Nardin ceo Patrick Pruniaux  Johann Sauty/Courtesy

Describing the watch as disruptive and contemporary, Pruniaux noted it carries the soul of the Executive collection with extremely refined finishings. 

“Truly modern watches with a very strong heritage,” he said.

The launch was originally scheduled for this past spring — when the COVID-19 lockdowns swept across the globe — which wasn’t the right time, so the focus shifted to working with retailers and important clients. 

An accelerator of change, the crisis prompted the label to deepen efforts that had already been defined. 

“I think our teams during [the COVID-19 lockdown] and now have been incredibly agile, they’re really very agile, they’ve managed to adapt very well to the new environment,” said Pruniaux.

“We explain our values more — we are less and less in a selling process, and more and more engaged in a process of explaining things, either technical or in terms of value — we share our passion,” he said. 

While it is difficult to have a long-term vision these days, the executive said he is convinced that Swiss watchmaking will maintain its relevance, particularly in the high range — watches in the lower range, under 1,000 euros or even more, are notably suffering from competition from the Apple Watch.

Exports of Swiss watches have declined 32.4 percent between January and July, compared to the same period last year, with steep drops in exports to some of its largest markets, including Hong Kong, the U.S. and Japan, according to statistics from the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry.

Luxury watches have an environmental aspect, given their life span, quality, emotional dimension and values they convey — including craftsmanship, Pruniaux noted. A brand has to have a clear tone and clear values, he continued. At Ulysse Nardin, the focus is on the sea, with sharks serving as brand ambassadors. The label has partnered with Ocearch, a nonprofit geared toward shark conservation, funding research on the creatures. 

This was established before the crisis hit, but reinforces the brand’s message at a time when environmental efforts resonate more strongly with consumers who are looking for deeper meaning behind a purchase.

“You have to find the balance between authenticity and agility,” said Pruniaux. This entails communicating about what you do, he added, not to mention asking a fair price.

At the level of exclusivity of labels like Ulysse Nardin — the Blast watches are priced at $46,000 or $56,000 — consumers choose a brand rather than a product to relay convictions and opinions, he suggested. At the high end, values have to be sharpened, and well-defined, compared with more mass-market labels, he said. 

With only a handful of its own stores — one in Geneva, four in China and one in Moscow and a few run by franchise partners, including in Dubai — Ulysse Nardin has been working closely with multibrand retailers, and projects to open new sales points have remained intact despite the crisis. The label is sold in retailers including Wempe, Watches of Switzerland, Bucherer and Seddiqi, for example.

Ulysse Nardin stores have the GPS coordinates of Le Locle, Switzerland, as a reminder of where the brand comes from, said Pruniaux, noting the label’s roots making marine instruments, to guide seafarers. As for retail, the idea is to convey an experience to consumers, submerging them in a marine environment but also making it easy to touch products without having to pull them out from under a glass. 

While the brand carries a high level of seriousness, the tone is meant to be free and not too formal, noted the athletic executive, who is known to wear trim suits with sneakers. 

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