Style / World of Watches (WOW)

An Exclusive Interview With Matthias Breschan

An interview with Rado CEO Matthias Breschan reveals he is adamant that real innovation and even rarity can be achieved at different levels of watchmaking

Apr 22, 2020 | By Ashok Soman

There are few, if any, watch brands that made their marks via TV advertising but that is exactly what Rado did in the 1980s. To my young eyes, none of it registered except the images of the watches themselves. I had never seen anything like the shimmering black square timepieces; even at that time, the message about ceramics hit home. It is quite possible that the watches met and merged with the iconic imagery from 2001 Space Odyssey, which was also playing on TV at the time. For more on such musings, I invite you to take a look at our cover story this issue, where the star is not the Rado DiaStar but the Rado Captain Cook.

Our subject for the moment is the man in charge of the Swiss watchmaking brand, Matthias Breschan. Breschan has been CEO at Rado for approaching nine years, which is unusual in the watch trade today. The firm, now owned by the Swatch Group, has been in business since 1917 so Breschan is still quite youthful, relatively. It is that youthful zeal that makes him a believer in the power of innovation, and helped him steer the brand true. For example, he understands that Rado’s decision from 1957 to concentrate on the exterior of the watch is something worth advancing in the 21st century. Breschan cites the example of the brand’s design cooperations, especially with designers that are not working with watches. Prominent examples of this right now are watch projects with Konstantin Grcic, Leslie Chan and Jasper Morrison.

Matthias Breschan inaugurating the opening of the Rado boutique at Wisma Atria, Singapore

There are a few important points to consider about innovation at Rado, because it means different things at different levels and to different brands. The Swatch Group itself is well established as a developmental hub where watchmaking meets microengineering. Rado plays its part in the area of materials, and even calls itself the Master of Materials, rather than mechanical movement technology. This was the brand’s claim to fame in the early 1960s when the aforementioned DiaStar model became the world’s first scratchproof watch. It achieved this feat thanks to its experiments with tungsten carbide, and this remains central to what makes Rado tick, which Brechan has discussed in the past, and revisits with us.

WOW Singapore caught up with the Rado CEO when he was in town for the launch of the brand’s store at Wisma Atria (recounted elsewhere this issue).

You’ve been at the helm of Rado since 2011 in a tumultuous time for watch brands worldwide. In an era of quick changes at the top, how do you keep challenging yourself, and turn your experience in the trade into a consistent advantage for Rado?

It’s nine years with Rado (since 2011). Rado had a very strong positioning even when I joined —very different from other watch brands, with the black shiny square watches (that were its mainstay) – so if you go by the (marketing book) a lot of things were done right. The problem —and it is true that the brand had to go through some tough times over the years — was the black shiny watches! They became symbolic of an (aging) audience. These watches appealed to a very loyal customer base who would never buy anything other than Rado; the younger generation might buy from the same brand as their parents but they won’t buy the same watch.

The new Rado HyperChrome with a monobloc plasma high-tech ceramic case

Over the years, we faced the problem of the younger generation not buying into the Rado brand because it was seen as a watch for an older generation. Maybe the only (Rado) watch that didn’t have this problem was the Original, which has sold well for the last 50 years and will probably sell well for the next 50!

So we had to do something new. We developed new technologies — one was the monobloc construction technology that lets us work in any geometry we want in ceramics. We were no longer obliged to follow the square shape — prior to this you had to make the watch square if you worked with ceramic. Now we can do round, and even ultra-thin watches.

Before the days of the black shiny watch, what was Rado known for? How did it become so strongly associated with one sort of look?

All watch brands have a segmentation as follows: sports, classic, and lifestyle. And then there are brands strong in (just) one of those categories. In the 1960s and 1970s, Rado had iconic models in each of the three segments. In ‘sports,’ it was the Captain Cook, in ‘classic,’ it was the Golden Horse, and in ‘lifestyle’ it was the Original.

The landmark DiaStar 1 from 1962

In the 1990s, Rado decided that all watches that it could not produce in ceramic would be phased out — except the Original. So Rado was then left with shiny square watches and the Original. Today, we have found a solution to do other shapes and styles, including bracelets of course, so we will be bringing some models back. It might be a combination of steel and ceramic, like the Captain Cook. This is not only for last year and this year but for the next five to 10 years. So our icons in the mentioned collections will be the same as they were in the 1960s and 1970s.

Turning to the Captain Cook in particular, is this watch an effort to capitalise on the current trend for steel sports watches?

For us, it is simply a question of price points. Basically ceramic is more expensive than steel —every watch that is US$2,000 will be US$2,500 or US$3,000 or so. Steel is more accessible, and it is also definitely a question of taste. But as you can see in the complex construction of the Captain Cook, we work with both steel and ceramic. Likely we will make watches using both materials in order to utilise our specialised expertise in ceramics.

We always did have steel watches, but it was a very small segment for us; you know, you go to Basel (or any of the watch fairs) and you see lots of watches priced at US$10,000 and above. Maybe these eclipse the plenty more watches that are at the US$1,000 level. For 99% of people, US$1,000 is a lot of money for a watch. We need to be really careful here to keep something state-of-theart at lower price points for these customers. This is what we are trying to do to attract the younger generation.

Speaking of generation gaps, do you agree that young people are not as interested in watches?

Nobody buys a watch to know the time. Nobody. People think it is a cool accessory, and it must be an accessory that allows them to express their affinitie, their lifestyle and their values. For example, take the (Rado True Thinline) Corbusier collection. If you have an important meeting with your boss, you might consider carefully what clothes you will wear, what style of hair, what style of make-up, and what watch you will wear. If it is a first date on the other hand, you will also have to consider carefully, and likely you won’t choose the same watch.

Rado True Thinline Les Couleurs Le Corbusier

The same is true for men of course – and can be even worse because you might work in insurance or in a bank. There will be a very strict dress code. There is not much chance to express your personality, except in your watch. So, if you wear a dive watch it doesn’t mean that you will be going scuba diving in the afternoon, or if you wear a pilot’s watch that you will be taking your helicopter up for a spin later. It is about affinities and values. Here (paradoxically) is where the watches need credibility, and this is very important to me. The younger generation, they don’t buy objects because of a cool story if that story is made-up — if there is no substance behind the story, they don’t buy the product. There is no authenticity, and no credibility.

Does this refer to customers who want to buy the values of brands that match their own? How can brands do a better job of communicating their values?

You will remember this because you go to BaselWorld often. Some years ago, many brands raised their prices and tried to be luxury (brands). It was terrible, but not because they wanted to target (people interested in luxury timepieces). No, it was that they did not change the substance. You can reposition a brand, but you must remember to change the substance. If you only change the price, that is cheating the consumer. The consumer must be convinced that in your price segment, you are really doing the best (as far as it is possible) to be state-of-the-art. When you look at our Corbusier project, it is really credible.

Rado is obviously more than sports watches, with major breakthroughs in new materials and forward-thinking design. Tell us more the current state of both.

As you know, moving beyond black and white in ceramics is tough, and we went beyond with blue, brown, and green. We asked ourselves what is actually the top of the top level in colours. When we looked at the possibilities, it was really Le Corbusier’s Colour Theory that was the most relevant. This is what we found when we were looking into colour possibilities (in our watches). This theory is quite old, but is still relevant and taught today in architecture schools. So, from the 63 colours that Corbusier gathered into nine groups, we tried to develop one colour for each of these nine groups.

The Colour Theory Credits: Les Couleurs

This was very complicated because to do it we have to add pigments to the ceramic mix. When we add pigments, we change the matrix of the structure. It might be the case that the pigments will burn during the sintering process, so we cannot use organic pigments. In other cases, you might get a toxic result, or something that is structurally fragile. So, our (strategy) was to master the selection of pigments, and then the process of making the ceramic material; we also had to ensure that we could get consistent colours (for every kind of colour attempted).

This is very challenging, and is probably why we are the only ones with such a range. This is especially true with the bracelet, because of the links. Maybe if you only do the case in ceramics then you can get away with some variation but if there are differences between the links of the bracelet, it is obvious. It is this combination of an emotional story, like that of the Colour Theory, with our technical competency that really makes the difference (I believe) to the consumer. With the True Thinline, it is not only about how beautiful the watches are but also that we have applied state-of- the-art know-how to make it happen.

On the point about bringing Rado’s own classics back into the current assortment, what is your perspective?

The newly released Rado Captain Cook Automatic 300m

It is important to us to keep our heritage, but we always bring our state-of-the-art techniques to the watches. So, for the Captain Cook (above) and the Golden Horse, we will be coming out with full ceramic options here too. It is once again a question of price points, and credibility. It is totally (fair to say) that we need to keep certain things unique (or rare) and true to the brand. For example, you cannot be at (the lower price points) and offer only limited editions.

At the same time, you can get great customization opportunities at any price point. For Rado, we have a project this year that will offer customers an opportunity to own something unique, but in a way that is realistic for us. (As an example of how this works), right now, with our True Star Sign collection, you can wear your star sign on your wrist. This is even more rare than most limited editions out there (each star sign, corresponding to the Western zodiac, is limited to 999 pieces). This is something that is very difficult to find in the market. I think this is something that each brand has to do — finding something rare and even unique, depending on the position the brand occupies.

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