Longines And The Shadow Of Its 'Billionaire's Club'Written by Alvin Wong
At BaselWorld 2012, the affable and imposing Walter von Kanel declared that Longines had joined Rolex, Cartier and Omega in an exclusive club of top-selling watch brands. “We are the Swiss watch industry’s billionaires,” he declared in a number of interviews, as sales of Longines watches surged past the one billion Swiss franc mark that year. The announcement quickly sprouted legs and made its rounds in magazines, websites and blogs – and hasn’t stopped running since. Three years on, we ask von Kanel if staying in the club was as easy as getting there.
He whips out graph and points to line on the chart that keeps edging northwards. “I made the statement in 2012. This chart shows that we have been increasing our turnover since. Our performance is far above that of the average Swiss watch brand,” says von Kanel. “It’s not easy, but we know what needs to be done to stay in this club.”
By virtue of its heritage and pedigree, Longines could have turned out a very different brand with different results in the hands of another marketer. The brand was founded in 1832. Its famous factory emblem, a winged hourglass logo, registered in 1889 with the World Intellectual Property Organisation, is the world’s oldest trademark, and a clear symbol of its undiminished heritage. While illustrative of Longines’ longevity, however, the logo is merely indicative of its place in Swiss horology.
The company is also a forerunner of today’s ‘manufacture’ business model, whereby watch brands seek to total control over costs and creativity by verticalising production and producing their timepieces in-house. Back in 1867, Longines had already set up its own factory and in the same year, produced its first in-house movement, the 20A pictured below, which won an award at the Universal Exhibition in Paris.
In vintage watch collecting circles, Longines watches are recognised and sought-after. A gold Longines once owned by Albert Einstein fetched US$295,000 at an auction in 2008, the highest ever for the brand’s timepiece. And while its partnership with the Olympic Games has since ceased (it provided timers for the first modern Olympics in 1896), Longines is today one of the biggest proponents of watch marketing in the sports arena, with partnerships and presence in competitions spanning equestrian sports to tennis to Formula One.
Longines’ indelible pedigree and presence could have easily been milked for what they are worth, with increasingly expensive creations that can easily allude to its legacy. Yet, the brand resolutely stays mid-level luxury, with no desire to climb higher up the ladder with bigger price tags.
“The instruction given to me by my boss (late Swatch Group chairman Nick Hayek) was clear: ‘You don’t eat where Omega eats, and you don’t eat where Breguet eats,” says von Kanel, his finger jabbing imaginary spots on the table.
“You stay here. This is Longines’ table,” he continues, his finger now tracing a big circle. “We are in a price segment that accounts for over 70 per cent of Swiss watch exports. It is a pretty lucrative spot to be in, if you asked me.”
Hitting The Spot
With a “solid formula” behind the brand, von Kanel says that while growth for Longines will not be as spectacular as before, steady, sustainable increase in sales is entirely achievable and has to be expected. “We just need to stay focused and produce the kind of watches that we are good at,” he says.
That, for Longines, means timepieces with failsafe mass appeal and competitive price tags that calls out to both head and heart. This year, the brand has women watch lovers in its sights, offering two new quartz-driven collections, the Symphonette and the Equestrian. Like many of Longines’ women’s watches, both collections exemplify the brand’s ‘Elegance Is An Attitude’ motto. In this instance, the said attitude stems from a bygone era where coyness and subtlety are not attributes to be scoffed when expressed as feminine virtues.
The Symphonette range, which starts from S$1,500, features a dainty oval case, in stainless steel or rose gold, sometimes set with diamonds. They harken back to a time when women’s watches are sleek and refined, well-suited to slender wrists that do not need to succumb to the trend of wearing plus-sized men’s watches to appear contemporary.
Likewise, the Equestrian collection, which comes in two case designs – shaped with arches that evoke racetracks, or like stirrups – is attractively priced with starting price of S$1,700, and easy on the eye with a refined and sophisticated aesthetic. It is the kind of watch that ladies of leisure would consider for their outfits for a day out at the Royal Ascot.
As for the men’s selections, the focus this year stays on vintage-y throwback designs borrowed from watches from the 1920s to the 1960s. The direction is pretty much on-trend, and although some watch snobs might criticise Longines for pandering to the market, von Kanel is unabashed about his brand’s motives “We are in a volume reliant business, of course we have to create watches with wide appeal that people would actually like to buy,” he says.
Well, actually there is such an option this year for such collectors – the Equestrian Pocket Watch Horse Trio 1911, a gorgeous ticker in rose gold case, engraved with a trio of horses on the cover. Inspired by a vintage metal pocket watch, created in 1911 and currently on display at the Longines Museum, the hand-wound collectible is limited to 20 pieces and priced at S$49,290.
But the Pocket Watch Horse Trio 1911 is an exception, something watch industry folks would term a “talking piece”, a spectacular novelty designed to garner connoisseurs’ interests and column inches. For maximum commercial returns, it is bread-and-butter “volume” offerings, such as the Heritage Pulsometer and Heritage Diver that Longines is banking on.
In both watches, Longines effectively covers both ends of the retro watch spectrum; classic for the Heritage Pulsometer and sporty for the Heritage Diver, both inspired by old models from the 1920s and 1960s, respectively.
The Heritage Pulsometer is a monopusher chronograph steeped in off-duty Indiana Jones-style chic, powered by a ETA-based movement with column wheel mechanism, a feature that distinguishes top-of-the-line chronographs. And it’s a steal too, with its S$6,630 price tag.
Elsewhere, the new Heritage Diver offers the athletic equivalent, a slightly modified variant of an existing range larger case – 42mm now compared to 40mm before. At S$4,770, the watch, like its brethren, stays firmly planted in the mid-luxury price segment – a position that will ensure Longines’ membership in the billionaire’s club for years to come.
Alvin promises not to be a douche when talking about watches. He may have scoured the Basel and Geneva watch fairs for the past 15 years, and played an instrumental role to the growth of Singapore's pioneering horological and men's lifestyle publications, but the intrepid scribe seeks to learn something new with each story he writes.