In Watches, Swapping a Motor Sport Focus for the High Seas


Until late June Mr. Pontroué is restricted from talking about plans for Panerai, which was founded in 1860 in Florence and, until 1993, primarily supplied instruments and timepieces for the Italian navy.

But as he takes his technical experience to the new job — both brands have been developing new materials for watches, like carbon fiber — Mr. Pontroué said he thought his management skills would actually prove to be most important for the role. “It’s much more about how I’ve been able, with a small team, to change a brand and grow it to a different scale, at a different speed, and create a different interaction with dealers, customers and so on,” he said.


The Manufacture Roger Dubuis building in Geneva. Credit Clara Tuma for The New York Times

At Dubuis, Mr. Pontroué was behind the effort to shape an unusual focus for the company. “We are switching from operating in the watchmaking business to operating within the world of motor sport,” he said late last year during an interview at the Bulgari Hotel when he came to see Dubuis’s new boutique at Harrods in London. (At the time, he was in discussions about a move to Panerai but it had not been formalized.)

Many watch companies have links to automobile companies and sports, like Parmigiani Fleurier’s recent Bugatti model or Richard Mille’s McLaren style. But at the boutique, there was the Excalibur Spider Pirelli with the yellow Pirelli colors and a rubber strap made from tires on winning Formula One cars as well as timepieces inspired by Lamborghini’s Aventador S. And more variations are to be introduced at the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie in Geneva this week, including a black rubber and pink gold Aventador S and a black and white titanium Excalibur Spider Pirelli.

“When we were thinking about what could open new doors for our brand,” Mr. Pontroué said last fall, “we thought of motor sport with its different network, thinking process and rhythm, but with the same customers, same price level, in a different industry, so we are not competing and can be open-minded.

“I would never launch a car and they would never make a watch,” he added.

Since May 2016, the executive said, he had been spending about a third of his time nurturing such partnerships, including sponsorship of the FFF Racing Team, a GT championship series sponsored by a Chinese tycoon, and developing an eight-piece Excalibur Spider collection with the concept carmakers Italdesign.

The partnerships also have produced some unusual customer experiences, the kind of events that many luxury brands today consider crucial to turning buyers into fans with long-term brand affinity. A case in point: the Lamborghini racetrack events that Dubuis has organized in moneyed hot spots from Palm Springs, Calif., to Beijing. “When you are at the circuit, it’s all about the sport, experience and fun so the customers become your friends and are not in a business relationship,” Mr. Pontroué said.

The strategy seems to work; according to the executive, 80 percent of Dubuis’s new clients last year were drawn by the partnerships: “We are accessing customers who did not think about us before they had the watch on the tray or were buying a complication.”

During Mr. Pontroué’s tenure he also formalized the brand’s made-to-order collection, Rarities, as a dedicated business unit and developed the Velvet line for women.


The Excalibur Aventador S watch in orange comes in a limited edition of eight. Credit Clara Tuma for The New York Times

The brand’s founder, Roger Dubuis, who died in October, had a significant impact on Mr. Pontroué’s approach to watchmaking. “Of course you need to create spectacular platforms, spectacular products, limited editions, crazy materials but what makes you different is the human touch and that’s what I learned from Roger big time,” he said. “It’s something you can’t buy today when you go to a store.”

And, Mr. Pontroué said, working with creative people like John Galliano and Alexander McQueen at Givenchy, where he was sales manager in the late 1990s, also taught him how to translate intense creativity into business operations, as “you can’t drive these people.”

“They didn’t work with the same rhythm as the sales or business side, same as Roger,” he said. “This is something that brands in the luxury world are forgetting — the capacity of an organization to integrate creativity, giving it the same rhythm as other departments.”

Mr. Pontroué then joined Richemont, spending 11 years on product management at Montblanc, narrowing his focus to watches at Roger Dubuis. (He still wears the Roger Dubuis Skeleton double tourbillon watch he received the day he joined the company “so I can explain the concept easily to clients,” he said).

With the watch market slowly recovering from the downturn of the last few years (figures from November, the most recent available, show that Swiss watch exports increased 6.3 percent year over year, according to the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry), Mr. Pontroué said last fall that he was optimistic about the industry’s future. There is, he said, growing global affluence, with more tourists making multiple purchases during their trips.

And, he said, the Chinese are buying again, as their purchasing habits have adjusted to Beijing’s anti-corruption campaign. (The federation’s November statistics said exports to mainland China were up 39.8 percent year over year, the category’s strongest growth in 30 months.)

Little wonder, then, that China has been a priority at Roger Dubuis. “We are at the beginning of our development,” Mr. Pontroué said last fall, “and there is a growing share of young entrepreneurs who have made serious money from high tech and finance to food in the last five to 10 years, and they spend millions.”

Iran also was on his list; “80 million people live there, it is a fast-growing country and there’s an appetite for luxury,” he said. “We also find Iranian customers in Paris, Los Angeles and New York, who are not ready yet for big purchases — but will be.”

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