Catherine Rénier may head up one of the oldest and most storied Swiss watchmaking houses, but she is no stranger to making quick decisions. Prior to taking up her current role as Jaeger-LeCoultre’s chief executive in 2018, Ms Rénier spent a decade in Asia as Van Cleef & Arpels’ managing director of Hong Kong and Macau and later president of Asia Pacific. She considers her time in the region as a lesson in agility.
“With the number of cities and new projects in China there are a lot of opportunities on a daily basis to consider. Things can change very quickly in terms of balance and priority of investment,” says Ms Rénier, adding that she had to “adjust to a different culture, different evolution and clientele”.
That experience will surely resonate in a post-Covid world. In September, Swiss watch exports were down 12 per cent year on year, continuing a cumulative decline of 28.3 per cent for the past nine months. All markets had negative growth, except China, which grew 78.7 per cent.
Richemont, the parent company of Jaeger-LeCoultre and Van Cleef & Arpels, does not disclose the financial performance of individual brands, but group sales for the quarter to June 30 were down 47 per cent from the year before, despite a 49 per cent increase in China. Richemont cites the widespread temporary closures of stores and distribution centres, a halt on tourism and subdued consumer sentiment as the main reasons behind the drop.
For Ms Rénier, the fallout from the pandemic has only reinforced the “uncertainty of tomorrow” and the need to be prepared. “You always have to have one basic plan, one fallback plan and one alternative at a minimum, in everything that you do,” she says. The speed of change and scale of impact — for example, all stores closing simultaneously across the globe — have only underscored the need for flexibility. In the past six months, having options and “being super agile with a long-term view but making short-term decisions” became very important, she adds.
At Jaeger-LeCoultre, and indeed many watchmakers, that was translated into prioritising digital output. “[Digital] was there, but the acceleration was tremendous,” says Ms Rénier. “Thank God we were ready and had a road map. It became a priority.” The company has since increased its online presence by opening a store on the Tmall Luxury Pavilion, Alibaba’s high-end ecommerce site. It has also produced digital assets such as videos that can be shared across multiple platforms. It strengthened staff training at its call centre — what Ms Rénier calls a “much needed touchpoint”.
Despite increased investment in digital, however, Ms Rénier still believes in the personal touch. Jaeger-LeCoultre exhibited at the recent Watches & Wonders fairs in Shanghai and the Chinese resort city of Sanya. Travel restrictions meant Ms Rénier’s participation was virtual. “Talking to the teams in Shanghai every day during the fair was nice, but you don’t feel that thrill you usually have during these events,” she says. “Fairs are very immersive — there is the sense of diving into watchmaking novelties and storytelling for a few days or a week that Zoom will never replace.”
Nevertheless, she believes the industry must find a way for the virtual and physical to coexist. Citi analyst Thomas Chauvet sees the trend moving towards virtual fairs, especially for new product launches. “It will be time- and cost-effective for both the brands and trade buyers, and more environmentally friendly,” he says. “It will also lead to more flexibility in timing the product launches and to greater integration between online events, ecommerce and social media communication.”
Ms Rénier speaks a lot about community, “of exchanging, discussing and discovering”, and she has been notably committed to making the brand — and the rarefied world of haute horlogerie — more accessible. This year she launched Atelier d’Antoine (named after the maison’s founder Antoine LeCoultre) — a “discovery workshop” at its factory in Switzerland’s Vallée de Joux — where clients can sit down with experts to learn, say, the mechanics behind a watch’s ticking sound, or have a go at perfecting the pitch of a minute repeater, one of watchmaking’s most sophisticated movements.
While it has offered factory tours in the past, Ms Rénier wants the watchmaker to be even “more open and really welcoming more people, to share our knowhow”, she says. “It’s really this idea of sharing and explaining.”
That notion of inclusiveness should no doubt chime with the next generation of millennial watch buyers. For a 187-year-old house, the messaging has not changed much. “When [the younger generation] look at watchmaking, like anyone else they will respect expertise, heritage, technical knowhow and style,” says Ms Rénier, so the emphasis turns to visibility and relevance.
Cue its new Master Ultra Thin Knife watch, linked to the upcoming film The King’s Man, the third instalment in the Kingsman series (for which watchmakers Bremont and Tag Heuer previously had provided models). Director Matthew Vaughn approached Jaeger-LeCoultre, says Ms Rénier, as it was seeking a “timeless” watch brand that could transcend generations and go with the film’s early-20th-century setting. The result was a 40mm pink gold watch (priced at £26,900) that resembled the ultra-thin Couteau pocket watch from 1907. “It was a nice capsule collection with a strong, meaningful storyline,” says Ms Rénier of the collaboration “and another way to show the creativity of the maison”.
More recently, it has created a video social media campaign for its Polaris Mariner Memovox diving watch, featuring the actor Benedict Cumberbatch. The watch stems from the original Memovox Deep Sea, from 1959, the first diving watch with an audible alarm for resurfacing. The latest version combines the same functionality with a modern but elegant sporting look. “When you succeed to merge the two, you’re able to talk to any generation,” says Ms Rénier. “That’s our goal.”
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