Journal
UNAPOLOGETIC TO THE CORE: Edouard Meylan
Text by Kee | Photos courtesy of H. Moser & Cie
30.12.2020
H. Moser & Cie's CEO Edouard Meylan
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It’s hard to believe that all it took for watchmaking to get interesting again was for Edouard Meylan to arrive. The charismatic CEO of H. Moser & Cie, who took up the top job in 2013, is making mechanical wristwatches that people actually want to wear as well as saying all the things  higher-ups don’t want to hear – and there you thought the algorithm was a complex one.

Judging by the frequency in which Edouard Meylan has been trolling the often-conservative and always-snobbish Swiss watch industry – think of it as an annual occurrence – one might speculate that the CEO of H. Moser & Cie is now short on allies. On the contrary, he has won over a new group of admirers who applaud his ballsy approach and acknowledge that he is simply echoing the feelings of an industry that at times is guilty of being stuck in the past. He knows that the powers that be know. But let’s put it this way, Meylan can’t save the entire industry on his own even if he holds a firm grip on the blueprint and looks like the perfect poster model for change. The only way others will listen? When he stops playing the nice guy. And so he did. In 2017, the Swiss government ruled that all timepieces carrying the Swiss Made label must have at least 60 per cent of its manufacturing costs and processes carried out within the country. With H. Moser & Cie capable of making 95 per cent of a wristwatch in its own backyard, Meylan felt that such sub-standard ruling has made a mockery of the label once thought to be a quality seal. What he did next, however, was as good as taking a dump on the government’s doorsteps. His team designed and manufactured a unique wristwatch with a case made out of real Swiss cheese, along with a red fumé dial and a white cross design faintly mimicking the Swiss flag, and topped off with a Swiss cowhide strap. He claimed that the watch is 100 per cent Swiss Made and even named the working parody Swiss Mad (it was auctioned for just over US$100,000). As a coup de grâce, H. Moser & Cie wristwatches also no longer carry the Swiss Made label. Meylan isn’t afraid to fire the first shot either. When smartwatches such as the Apple Watch started becoming a possible threat to the existence of mechanical watches, H. Moser & Cie boldly launched a like-for-like two-handed mechanical version of the Apple Watch in white gold (it was even sized the same) which was named Swiss Alp Zzzz and proceeded to sell out its limited production at almost US$27,000 a pop. Then in 2019, it unveiled the Swiss Alp Watch Minute Repeater Concept Black that hit a viral peak. Based on the same Apple Watch-like case with a glossy black dial, it features no visible hands. The only way to tell time is to activate its minute repeater function and listen to the chiming which is as pure of a version of horology as it gets. But don’t think Meylan is picking sides in his constant battle for market share. His most notorious move was in 2018 when H. Moser & Cie courted controversy (and possibly plenty of lawyer phone calls) for its Swiss Icons Watch, which is still being discussed today as one of the cheekiest guerrilla-style marketing moves a watch brand has ever pulled (yes, even crazier than that Japanese Bento Watch). The wristwatch in question looked like a horological version of a greatest hits album. A crazy mash-up of familiar watch parts taken from more than 12 iconic wristwatch models, Swiss Icons Watch was H. Moser & Cie’s satirical commentary that even storied labels have been believing in their own hype for way too long and not contributing enough to better Swiss watchmaking by creating newness. In less than a day, Meylan was forced to retract the campaigning of the wristwatch even though its other objective was to auction it off for a good cause. That said, H. Moser & Cie isn’t in the business to provide marketing lessons to the masses; there’s still a business to run and that entails expanding its reach and selling some of the finest wristwatches today. It produces a modest 1,500 wristwatches a year, which by indie fine watchmaking standards is already more than a decent figure. For a brand steeped in history – it bears the name of Swiss watchmaker Heinrich Moser who formed the biz in St. Petersburg in 1828 – it looks nothing close to the earlier days though what remains today is a determination and attitude that mirror the founder’s. Meylan must be applauded for being able to capture the attention of the next generation even if H. Moser & Cie arguably doesn’t have a sexy sounding name like some of its peers. But sex appeal is what its wares aren’t lacking. It has been credited for popularising fumè dials, a gradient of colour transitioning from dark to a lighter shade akin to hand-painted patina on a Berluti dress shoe. Nowadays, you’d be hard pressed to find a wristwatch company that hasn’t tried this formula like they cracked the code in the first place. Its latest piece in 2020 also figured out how to make a new design of a stainless steel sports watch cool without looking like it is ripping off every other popular predecessor. Enter the Streamliner series that took years to figure out the golden ratio. The gorgeous cushion-shaped case and smooth steel bracelet are no less contemporary as it is nostalgic, a best of both worlds if you will, topped with contours that look as baby bottom-smooth as 007’s Aston Martin V8 ride. The last we heard, H. Moser & Cie has little issues in finding new owners for its handmade wares. Meylan has used his previous watch-related experiences in Asia to crack some of its biggest mature markets that are already saturated with indie labels hoping to flip a quick buck. Rest assured, Meylan is in this for the very long haul as his family’s holding company (MELB Holding Group) owns the biz which is a sure sign that consistency is something you can expect. And who knows, he might just find the time and interest to help save the entire Swiss watch industry.


Streamliner Flyback Chronograph Automatic

MANIFESTO: What H. Moser & Cie has done in the last few years has been extraordinary. Since 2013, the ascent has been quick. Has the entire story unfolded in the manner in which you envisioned it to be?

EDOUARD MEYLAN: Well, from a business standpoint you always dream for it to go faster and that it would be easier than it actually is. From a brand standpoint – what it would be and stand for – I had no idea as to the emotions that it would convey. We are behind from what I had in mind, but from an image standpoint, it has been beyond my dreams. We have managed to be cool but still staying faithful to traditional watchmaking.

M: When MELB Holding Group acquired the brand in 2012, there were some scepticism as to how things would go. After all, the old products needed more than just good marketing to work in today’s saturated market.

EM: I think a lot of people were sceptical too. We always wanted to bring on a younger, cooler factor. I was in my mid-30s when I took over H. Moser. My team was very young – and many people are very old in this industry – so this was an amazing opportunity. I tried to leverage the cool factor and we were more attuned to technology which now that we are much older we have to be more careful and perhaps hire even younger people. (Laughs) There are new social media apps now and even my kids are like “You are not on TikTok?” We have to be careful or we would be the old guys very soon.

M: Guerrilla marketing is something that quickly helped the brand catch up to speed with the rest of the pack. Was it something intended from the on-set and are such marketing tactics inherently part of your DNA to try and disrupt the market?

EM: We are a fully independent company and others are perhaps scared about what their shareholders might think. Is it in our nature? I think it became part of our nature. I was just discussing with my brother yesterday (Bertrand Meylan is the CEO of Hautlence) about 2015 when I wrote an open letter to the president of the Swiss National Bank. (Note: The Swiss bank removed a currency cap pegging the Swiss franc to the euro which meant that as the franc appreciated, its watches became even pricier worldwide. In the open letter, he threatened to move his company two kilometres into Germany so as to bend the rules.) We were super shy to do it in the first place, we just wanted to express our feelings even if no one cared. But suddenly it went viral and we realised that people actually listen. So, every time we felt like we have a statement to make or disagreed with something we will find a way to express it. We do it with humour and even self-deprecation. I think the people in the watch community and the media want to see more than just another product; we have time for that.


Venturer Vantablack

M: Do you feel it’s a heavy burden in being an independent brand? Do you think it has helped or hindered the brand?

EM: I think in many aspects it has helped, especially in difficult times. In April, I sat my team down and told my team that we have to be careful and there’s a crisis happening. We tried to turn it in our favour. I think being independent has helped to stimulate creativity as we have to work around a tight budget but that also means we are often limited to the things we can do. But today, I’m excited to be independent.

M: H. Moser & Cie and MB&F are two of the brands that are carrying the torch for the independent watchmakers. Success trickles down as well and others have you guys to thank in the long run.

EM: Max (Büsser of MB&F) was one of the first independents and so was Richard Mille. He gave us a lot of hope that we could make it and that there is a lot of potential to establish the brand and be creators. A lot of people would see us as artists as production numbers are small and marketing is crazy. There are a lot of inspirations everywhere you look – even in the bigger brands – but we are all competing even amongst the independents. But there are also many ways we can collaborate too, like what we have done with MB&F. Independent is a label but it is also a family. Are we role models for the other brands? With what we have done with MB&F this year, I think we are because we show collaborations can work. I recommend that other brands find ways to collaborate because they will learn so much. It is also interesting for the watch community to see things differently.

M: There’s a saying that you don’t make money or much of from collaborations. But you and MB&F are hopefully crushing that stigma.

EM: We are. Keep in mind that we did 75 watches selling for US$80,000 each. The visibility we also got from that helped us sell our other products too. So definitely this move wasn’t at cost.


H. Moser x MB&F

M: How has the entire pandemic affected the company? And what has changed in your strategy?

EM: There were a few things we changed. We introduce e-commerce which we didn’t have before, so that’s been 20 per cent of our business since March. What we did next was to reduce the launches this year, so we concentrated on our higher-end lines which means we sell less but gain more. We prepare our launches and shipped these products much earlier to key markets like Hong Kong, New York, Dubai. That means the media is able to see it earlier in person and be able to transmit the information. We launched the Streamliner Chronograph earlier this year, which sold out quickly. The Vantablack too is selling well along with other recurring projects. The biggest launch was the MB&F collaboration. We decided to launch it a little bit later so the watches are in the stores. Our gamble was that it was a difficult time but people wanted to talk about something and there weren’t any new launches at the moment either. We want to have more positive news than just the number of Covid-19 cases around the world. It worked and people were super excited about the launch. Our message was about to emphasise collaboration which was also the right message in this period of time. Again, we got quite lucky and it amplified the message. We have had our best year this year since I took over the brand.

M: The products are young and cool and speak to a new generation of watch enthusiasts. But are they really the age group that are buying the watches at those price points?

EM: I think when we were doing the guerrilla marketing, we were probably targeting a younger crowd. They were younger than people who could afford our watches. You have to remember that the previous buyers of H. Moser were pretty old. The good thing is that those young people then are getting older, and they are beginning to have some money. I like to say that H. Moser was a teenager then and we were trying to express our identity. Now that we are young adults, we can really go at it. A lot of people know H. Moser now and that’s the most important thing for me even if they don’t remember how they knew us in the first place. Even if it was a negative comment they heard about the brand before, they know us. 


Swiss Mad Watch

M: The online forum is a very harsh place. Do you read the comments?

EM: Yeah. But it’s all part of the game and you learn to live with it. You realise that there are harsh comments, but there are also fans fighting for you. I get people criticising whatever we do. Even when we launched the Streamliner, there are people commenting it is a Frankenstein watch. It looks like this brand or that brand. There are discussions and arguments. You need people to love and hate the product and that’s the best way to improve. That means as an independent brand you stand out. If you’re a people-pleaser, you have a common product. We are not Rolex or Patek and people don’t buy us because we are H. Moser. They buy us because it makes them feel something.

M: What was a great aesthetical move was the complete removal of the brand name on most of your watches. It spelt out the confidence you have about the design and how recognisable it is to those in the know. What was your thought process at that time in taking such bold measures?

EM: Everyone in the team was opposed to the idea. We launched it around January 2015 and to be honest, no retailer ordered it. This became a completely consumer-driven reaction. People said it is cool and it is a piece of art. Nobody was expecting it. People say you can’t sell a watch because there’s no logo. I said people also don’t buy an H. Moser because of the logo. We need to show that our watches are a piece of art and not a commodity. A few opinion leaders understood it and thereafter so did everyone. I even had a thought of removing it on all our watches but maybe in the future as we are still establishing the brand. Like when others see our fumé dials, they know it is ours.

M: It is amazing that a dial colouring technique has become a visual cue for your brand like a red sole on a Louboutin shoe.

EM: The difference is that Louboutin can protect his idea but we can’t. We just have to continue coming out with cool colours like the Matrix green.


Streamliner Centre Seconds in Matrix green

M: We know you’ve expressed not being into brand ambassadors. But are there famous names out there wearing an H. Moser today?

EM: I know Giorgio Armani has our watches. We have famous people from Facebook and Microsoft wearing it too. We like people to buy our brand because they love it and not because someone else is buying it.

M: What do you think some of the independent watchmakers should be doing today to be as successful as you guys?

EM: I think some independent watchmakers are a bit scared to really stand out. I think some of them look too familiar and you can put some of them next to each other and they look really similar. I think there are a few H. Moser wannabes and that’s going to be tough for them as we are a few years ahead. And they can’t compete with volume and price too. If you’re three times more expensive than us even with a more complicated movement, it’s still tough. They need to find their own identity and not try to just put on a fume dial because it sells well at H. Moser. We did it well because we were the first. They have to be vocal and engaging, create a team around you that is an extension of the family. All of it takes time. The role of being an independent is to challenge others and there are a lot of changes right now as even big brands are suffering. I’m just wondering who will at the top in the next 10 years.

www.h-moser.com

 

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