With the Apple Watch on everyone’s lips, it’s worth remembering that it has taken the Silicon Valley giant forty years to launch its first watch. Longines, headquartered in the sleepy valley town of St. Imier, has been producing timepieces since 1867. And while Apple may currently lay claim to one of the most valuable brands in the world, Longines has the oldest: its winged logo is the oldest valid trademark in the WIPO’s International Registry.
"The essential objective of a watch is no longer to tell the time but to serve as a status symbol."
The current CEO of Longines, Walter von Känel, joined the company in 1969 and is still there 46 years later. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that he is dismissive of the Apple Watch and smart watches in general. “In my 46 years at Longines I have experimented with digital,” he says. “LCD was a Swiss patent, after all. Afterwards we did some LED watches and you can find them in the museum. Later ETA came with its digital/analogue movements and we launched the Speed5.
“I think the watches from Apple, Samsung and the like are complementary to what we do. I firmly believe that the essential objective of a watch is no longer just to tell the time but also to serve as a status symbol. Why do you buy a Patek Philippe rather than a Swatch? Because you want to show it off.”
But the gulf between a Swatch and a Patek Philippe in terms of price and prestige is enormous. It took the world’s biggest private collection of Swatches (5,800 in total) to make just a quarter of the proceeds of the record-breaking Patek Philippe Graves Supercomplication at auction. So where does Longines fit in to this equation?
“The watch is an emotional branded consumer good,” explains von Känel, “which is why we invest millions in sponsorship, ambassadors and such.” Indeed, Longines ensures a steady flow of news from its partnerships in the equestrian world, as well as in tennis and skiing. Nevertheless, since Mr von Känel comes from a background in sales, the bottom line is always the top consideration. At his meetings in Basel you will always find him with his four essential items: a heap of plastic-protected sheets of sales figures, best-sellers, breakdowns by country and product category and the like, a pencil, a pencil-sharpener and – somewhat unusually – a set of precision calipers dating back to 1969. Old school. Much to the chagrin of WorldTempus, he admits “I have no computer, my telephone is this old thing [he shows us an ageing pre-smartphone device] and I don’t even reply to SMS messages.”
His relentless focus on sales shows in his photographic recall of key statistics: 1.4 million Dolce Vita models sold, the exact split of two-tone models by sales when I question a potential change in strategy. And it is this focus that has led to the creation of a “fifth pillar” at the brand with a new collection dedicated solely to the brand’s equestrian associations. “If we are going to invest millions in this area and be present at equestrian events almost every weekend, then we needed something more than the chronograph,” he explains. “We needed a new collection, especially for women. But we are also working on a watch designed especially for show jumping.”
Even a personal question on his favourite model in the collection comes back to sales. “We are investing heavily in promoting the Conquest Classic this year, which represents 7% of our sales, and we decided that the star model should be the two-tone steel and gold model with the moon phase. And since I have to be consistent I have to lead by example.” There is no need to guess, therefore, which watch the Longines CEO has on his wrist.
"10% growth last year in Hong Kong"
Even given Walter von Känel’s strong sales background, it comes as somewhat a surprise when he claims that last year set a new sales record for Longines. Even in the troubled market of Hong Kong, which tourists from mainland China are now avoiding in favour of Korea and Thailand, the brand recorded 10% growth last year. Could it continue this year, despite the uncertain economic climate? “It looks that way,” the boss confidently predicted on the opening day of Baselworld.