Watchmaking in the 21st century – an exclusive insight from the President of OMEGA S.A.

Born Born in Trinidad to a Scottish father and Portuguese mother, Stephen Urquhart started his career in watchmaking by chance. Before university, a teacher recommended he go to Switzerland for his French. In 1968 he got a job at Omega where he stayed for six years. He then spent the following 25 years at Audemars Piguet.  In 1997, he joined Blancpain and in1999 he was appointed president of OMEGA S.A., the largest luxury watch brand within the Swatch Group. He works closely with Nicholas Hayek, the Chairmain of Swatch Group, a visionary watch maker who is praised for the revival of the Swiss watch industry after the era of the quartz watches in the 1980′s.

As part of our series on watchmaking which benefits from extensive coverage the entire month of January, I sat down with Mr Urquhart for an interview at the headquarters of Omega S.A. in the city of Biel/Bienne, an hour and a half by train from Geneva.

It is also in a rural area that Omega S.A. was founded in 1848, in the region of La Chaux de Fonds, but in 1880, due to an economic crisis (much like nowadays), the owners of Omega S.A. decided to relocated the company to the town of Biel/Bienne, mostly known as a textile manufacturing hub. Biel/Bienne offered companies lower taxes and labor costs, at the time, were lower. Having  previously visited the secluded and rural Vallee de Joux, home to Audemars Piguet, Blancpain and Jaeger LeCoultre, the city of Biel struck me with its industrial vibe.

I believe that this move has had an indefinite influence on the DNA of the brand, which is not only one of the largest luxury watch brands worldwide, with an yearly production of over 100.000 watches, but also among the most dynamic in terms of adapting to the present times. For instance, the founders of the company were among the first watchmakers in the early 1900,  to come up with the idea of creating individual brands for each watch model with the purpose of reaching a wider target audience.

Omega has never pretended to be a niche  ”manufacture” like many of the watch brands which have remained in either Vallee de Joux or La Chaux de Fonds, however, Omega has been gradually moving forward with innovations and product development. For instance, Omega was among the first watch brands to manufacture industrially a chronograph. Precision and the highest quality of manufacturing, documented by an endless sequence of milestones such as: countless prizes in the annual observatory trials;  ”Omega Speedmaster Professional Chronograph” first watch on the Moon; Omega has been the official timekeeper of the Olympics since 1932 (with the exception of just one edition) and the agreement with the IOC has recently been extended until 2020.

I began by asking Mr Urquhart about what motivates consumers to buy luxury watches nowadays. I was also curious to understand Omega’s approach to emerging markets. He responded firmly ”Motivation is mainly emotional and not a need. People need to feel happy and look good. When you buy a car, there is a functional aspect to it and there is criteria such as horsepower and other capabilities”.

Unlike many other luxury brands which focus on creating awareness for the mechanical features of a watch, Omega has a much more pragmatic approach. ”Today, when you buy even a pair of jeans, you buy the brand. This is the same for watches nowadays”  Urquhart tells me, adding: ”Real divers, nowadays, would not buy an Omega Seamaster for their expeditions. People buy the Seamaster driven by its lifestyle component rather than performance”.

He then asks me about the watch he was wearing during our meeting ”Do you think this is suitable for my trip next week to Dallas and Atlanta?…Otherwise, I would not wear it.” His gesture clearly emphasizes the importance of aesthetics and ”looking good” when buying a certain watch.

I went on to ask him about his views on emerging markets such as India, China or Indonesia, where the majority of luxury consumers buy a watch according to how recognizable it is, more for showing of, in a demonstrative way. Urquhart disagrees : ”With people like you (he is referring to CPP-LUXURY.COM), social media and thousands of magazines worldwide dedicated to watches, consumers know what they want. Chinese or Indians know exactly what they want.  Having so much access to information, they compare prices, they look at the features of the watch.”

Omega has been one of the most dynamic luxury watch brands in terms of expanding through mono-brand boutiques and stores around the world, most of which are directly operated by the company and the rest, with local partners. ”Experience is extremely important nowadays! People seek a 360 degree experience and our boutiques provide this unique environment. These days, people do not buy a watch for their anniversary or for their daughter or son on graduation. Many buy a watch for themselves. It is interesting how people buy, in times of crisis, items they need least” 

We went on to speak about ladies watches and the fact that many industry analysts see 2013 as the year of ladies watches. ”Ladies watches have been around for a long time. Many women today continue to buy men’s watches.” I interrupted him asking whether there could be a financial motivation behind this shift towards ladies watches as women might be less demanding than men. ”I totally disagree! We can now go to the museum and pick up 20 models and create men’s watches but for women it is not so easy. It takes so much for a watch to meet the expectations of women”. He continues by comparing men and women: ‘You see, women are smarter, they  make their purchases looking at many aspects including investment and are very careful about price. Men are much more gullable”.

He goes on to explain the importance of creating an identity for the Omega watches from the perspective of ladies consumers. ”Since 2000, we initiated the series of events ‘Time for Women’ all around the world. Powerful, successful women are invited to attend these events based on their accomplishments and leadership. I give a short introductory speed and then all men leave the room…There is an  ’Omega Lady’ which women aspire to.” He then adds: ”Nowadays in most of our boutiques around the world we ask the sales assistant to write a few lines about the lady which purchases an Omega watch. You will be surprised to learn how many of the women answer by saying ‘I want to be an Omega Lady‘.

The CNN Leading Women series which debuted in 2012 has been tremendously successful, showcasing leading women around the world, from all walks of life. This campaign crowns the exceptional performance of the Ladymatic Omega watch, endorsed by Academy  Award Winner Nicole Kidman. In September last year, Omega relaunched the dedicated website for its exclusive events for women, access being reserved to only those with an invitation.

As part of the DNA of the Omega brand, Urquhart explains how important CSR and brand associations are. ”We were so lucky with the James Bond association. Today, with 007 Agent played by Daniel Craig, we support the Flying Eye Hospital of the Orbis foundation. They make miracles! I was recently in Africa and it is amazing what these doctors can do to help the most stricken communities”.

As part of the continuous quest of innovation and Omega’s pioneering spirit, the brand supports the Solar Impuse project. Forty years after first landing on the Moon, OMEGA has taken up another formidable challenge also destined to make history. The company is a Main Partner in the Solar Impulse project, which aims to circle the globe in an airplane powered only by the sun.

To highlight the challenges forced upon the marine ecosystems, Omega has recently sponsored the Planet Ocean movie by and the Foundation GoodPlanet. The movie, which has been released gradually around the world,  presents outstanding aerial and underwater ocean views from across more than 20 countries to illustrate and educate the audience about the beauty covering the surface of the planet.

Going back to business, I asked Stephen Urquhart about the sensitive issue of the ”grey market” in watches. ”The grey market has always been around. It’s not any worse now than in the past. Of course, we carefully monitor all markets, but especially online sales”.

Oliver Petcu in Biel/Bienne, Switzerland