Interview: Manuel Emch, CEO of RJ-Romain JeromeWritten by Melissa Kong
“You have to try and fail before you can start seeing the light out of the tunnel.”
If there was a watchmaker who truly epitomised reaching for the stars, RJ-Romain Jerome would be it. After all, there aren’t many who can attest to using moon dust and materials from the Apollo 11 space shuttle in their timepieces. But it doesn’t stop there. They’ve also incorporated lava from the Eyjafjallajökull volcano and steel from the Titanic in their showstopping watches.
The man behind this revolutionary manufacturer is CEO Manuel Emch. Hailing from a family of watchmakers in his hometown of Grenchen, Emch has lived and breathed watches all his life. In 2001, he joined Jaquet Droz and was credited with turning the brand around. He’s also an award-winning watch designer and, during his time at Jaquet Droz, designed the iconic “Grande Seconde” watch.
Under Emch’s watch (excuse the pun), RJ-Romain Jerome continues to innovate with the launch of the new Skylab 48 Skull collection with a 48mm case, skeleton dial, horizontal and vertical bridges and skull applique in anodised aluminium. Available in 12 colours with nine pieces each, this collection is quite a sight to behold.
In a remake of its popular Moon Orbiter range, RJ-Romain Jerome’s new Moon Orbiter GMT sees an additional complication at 12 o’clock—a fully-integrated jumping hour retrograde GMT developed exclusively for this model.
And in the case of Batman v Superman, the Dark Knight clearly wins here with this collectible Batman-DNA Gotham City piece. A 3D effect appears to make Gotham City come out of the dial and when night falls, blue Superluminova lights up the Batman applique. Here, he shares his thoughts on creativity and what the watch industry needs to change.
What does creativity mean to you?
It will probably surprise you, but creativity does not mean anything to me. Creation, on the other hand, is vital. Creation is not a mere possibility, it is the realisation of a deep calling; the very personal and therefore unique expression of one’s mind, one’s heart, one’s soul.
This is why I love RJ. The brand gives me the freedom to express my passion. I can experiment with new ideas, new materials, new ways of thinking, new associations. Such an environment brings the best out of people as it gives them the opportunity to create, to drive and thrive.
When you look at a brand new RJ watch, what do you see?
RJ is based on story telling. The concept of the brand does not evolve around a person but around a story, a universe of emotions that echoes a person’s very personal path and specific memories. This is especially true for our collaborations: They go from historical icons to artistic icons to horological icons. We hope for them to be aspirational. When you wear an RJ watch, you wear a piece of history on your wrist!
What are the best and worst things about being an entrepreneur?
As the CEO of an independent brand, I have the creative freedom and autonomy to design objects of art that combine contemporary concepts, state of the art technology and innovative materials. My greatest motivation is therefore my autonomy, which allows me to have a limitless creative scope. This gives me the possibility to create bold and emotional timepieces that communicate RJ-Romain Jerome’s vision.
On the downside, you sometimes feel alone because you would like for everyone around you to believe in it and be invested as much you are. Being an entrepreneur is not a hierarchical position; it is a state of mind.
You mentioned at the recent press lunch in Singapore that you have always worked with small players. Is that a blessing in disguise?
Is that the impression I gave? (laughs) Not at all! I love smaller-scale companies because they represent a larger-scale challenge. Everything must be built. You have to try and fail before you can start seeing the light out of the tunnel. It requires you to be very thick-skinned and resilient, because at times, it seems you are only faced with obstacles. However, it brings a unique excitement and the opportunity to constantly navigate between the macro and micro aspects of business.
What is the most precious lesson you have learnt from being in this business?
Without a doubt: “Believing is achieving”. And this is not a matter of industry. For any business to survive or to become successful, this is a golden rule. I remember when we launched our first Games-DNA collection, Space Invaders, in 2012, no one believed in it. We were mocked and discouraged. We did not listen and went for it anyway. Today, not only does it remain our bestseller, but we are approached by video games companies seeking a collaboration. So, it pays to take risks.
If you could change one thing about the watch industry, what would it be?
The watch industry thrives in a world of innovation and creation. It allows many to dream and find pleasure in handcrafted timepieces that exhibit unique value. However the watch industry has difficulty adjusting to change and refuses sometimes to challenge itself. It can only make headway by being more self-critical and less “comfortable”. In my opinion, today’s industry needs a larger “multi-field” vision and more creation to respond to an ever-changing world.
Like most people these days, Melissa tells the time with her phone. She considers serious timepieces works of art and thinks the perpetual calendar is the handiest complication to date (pun not intended). She's also a Grammar Nazi but promises not to judge if you can't tell the difference between "guilloche" and "guillotine".