Style / World of Watches (WOW)

Interview with Christian Lattmann, CEO of Swiss watch brand Jaquet Droz

A specialised brand with limited production numbers must pick its battles wisely, and Christian Lattmann is doing exactly that with laser focus.

Aug 26, 2017 | By Jamie Tan

A veteran of the Swatch Group, Christian Lattmann started out at Longines in 1989 before taking up stints at several other brands, including Omega and Breguet. Prior to his appointment as Jaquet Droz’s CEO in July 2016, he served as Breguet’s head of product management and Jaquet Droz’s executive vice president concurrently – the latter for more than six years, which positions him perfectly to take over from Marc Hayek, the previous CEO (who continues to helm both Breguet and Blancpain). Lattman recognises that Jaquet Droz is a niche brand with limited production numbers, but has high hopes for making it the best in its niche. As he put it, “If we are going to be a fish in a lake and not the sea, then we want to be the biggest fish in the lake.”

What have you been working on since taking over as CEO?

I’ve taken over as CEO for almost a year now, but I have been working since 2009 as the brand’s vice president under Mr [Marc] Hayek. The strategy has not changed. For us, it’s important to have continuity in what we do, because we are at a level of luxury that demands stability in our strategy. In the past few months we have dived deep into product development. Jaquet Droz has a patrimony in automatons, and we have developed this sequentially in the past – first the Bird Repeater, then the Charming Bird, then the Lady 8. This year we presented the Loving Butterfly. We were trying to push the limits for the Loving Butterfly, by using optical illusions to depict and integrate nature into the scene, and making the scene come alive with the moving automatons.

By choosing to use externally sourced movements, we created the opportunity to develop our own atelier d’art – we decided that we would have our own in-house artisans to create our own art.

What potential do you see in the segment of automatons, considering that Jaquet Droz is one of the very few brands that offers such a complication?

It’s huge. If you look back at the 18th century, there were two schools of watchmakers. The first sought precision and technical improvements, and included men like Abraham-Louis Breguet, who invented the tourbillon to improve a watch’s precision. Pierre Jaquet-Droz belonged to the other school, which emphasised expressing beauty and poetry in watches. I think the zeitgeist is changing, and the market is beginning to favour the second school’s approach. You can tell the time with your phone, so the watch has become an emotional object instead. We call what we do the art of astonishment, because astonishment is a pure emotion that a child experiences, free from experience or external influences, and we want to let adults experience it again. Of course, the two are not separate – at Jaquet Droz we still need the technical expertise to create these automatons, yet make them small enough to fit into a wristwatch.

Another reason I see potential in this is because there are limitless ways to produce automatons. You can only make a tourbillon this number of ways, and a manufacture may create three to four variations of tourbillon watches, but they will be more alike than different, unlike our automatons.

Have new materials, or new ways of working with existing materials, helped you in product development?

Yes, for sure. In the Charming Bird, for example, recreating the birdcalls in the past was done using bellows. We developed a new method by using a sapphire crystal tube with a piston inside, which could only be done by manufacturing them to high precision.

Watchmakers often speak of how every minute repeater is different due to the way individual gongs and hammers interact. Likewise, is it difficult to maintain consistency between automatons?

Yes, there is a level of variation here as well. When we conduct sound checks in our atelier for the Charming Bird, for example, there are always differences that we cannot explain and account for. Each watch must fall within a limit to be accepted, of course, but we don’t aim for a certain “standard” because there are just too many variables to control, and there’s a beauty in having a sound that’s unique to each watch.

What’s the development process like, since the automatons’ movements are supplied by Blancpain, but completely unique to Jaquet Droz?

We use a common base movement, calibre 1150, that Blancpain has been steadily improving over the years, with features such as a silicon hairspring. It’s a fantastic movement, and we make it our own by applying different finishing techniques and changing the shapes of some bridges. On this base, we have modules that are exclusive to Jaquet Droz, which Blancpain helps us to develop. It mirrors how watchmakers used to work in the past – collaboratively – and there are no conflicts of interest or market cannibalisation between brands, because everyone has a clearly define segment and strategy. It helped too, that Mr Hayek was managing Breguet, Blancpain, and Jaquet Droz previously.

Was it always a conscious decision to develop metiers in-house, rather than to seek partnerships with external artisans?

By the very fact that we use Blancpain movements, we are not a manufacture. We say that we are ateliers de haute horlogerie because of this. We are a niche brand, and we produce limited numbers, so making our own movements in-house is difficult. However, a brand must still bring something to the table. By choosing to use externally sourced movements, we created the opportunity to develop our own atelier d’art – we decided that we would have our own in-house artisans to create our own art. This explains how we achieved our standards in producing metiers d’art watches. Having said that, I think we still need to remain open to the idea of working with independent artists; if an artisan has a specific know-how that he or she wishes to offer us, I will never say no, because the priority is to bring something unique to our clients, not to keep everything in-house.

And when the artist is not passionate, you will feel the difference in the result. Ultimately, it’s about keeping our artisans with us, they must also feel good working hereand be able to participate in the design and creation of the watches.

Are there specific reasons for how it’s gotten so successful?

Our artisans are happy to work at Jaquet Droz because we work on very limited runs of watches, so that is something that we must maintain. Imagine asking an artisan to produce 100 copies of the same work – it’s boring! And when the artist is not passionate, you will feel the difference in the result. We must also continue to offer unique techniques that set us apart from our competitors, such as eggshell mosaic. Ultimately, it’s about keeping our artisans with us, and their salaries are just part of the equation. They must also feel good working here, and be able to participate in the design and creation of the watches.

Would I be right to say that Jaquet Droz clients are more mature and sophisticated, because it takes a level of understanding to appreciate your watches? How, then, do you develop potential clients?

The reality is that it takes a long time. We must first train our own people to properly explain the intricacies of each technique, such as how each paillonne is applied by hand. There’s also the issue of brand awareness – we have no problems getting people who learn about the brand to fall in love with it, but it also takes time and effort to reach these people.

Having a museum to showcase your rich patrimony may just help…

Yes, you’re right. In fact, we are considering it. Currently, our historical pieces are in several museums around the world including Beijing’s Forbidden City, because the Qianlong Emperor was a collector. My hopes are that we can one day also help in restoring the watches, table clocks, and automata that are housed there. Apart from showcasing our patrimony, the museum will also help to keep the pieces safe – not in terms of security, but in making sure that they are properly taken care of. It isn’t just their monetary value, but also the fact that these are antiques that cannot be replaced should they be damaged.

This article was originally published in WOW.

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