A&E interviews IWC CEO Christoph Grainger-Herr on how the brand is celebrating 150 years and what the future looks like for the Maison.
IWC Schaffhausen is celebrating its 150th anniversary, and while the watchmaker boasts technical expertise in the creation of watches for active professionals such as pilots and drivers, it also prides itself on designing timeless pieces that evoke emotion and memory, and through a uniquely narrative-driven message, is looking to conquer a new market share.
The man poised to take IWC’s ever-increasing relevance to new-heights is the recently appointed and dynamic Christoph Grainger-Herr. He is not one to rest on the laurels of IWC’s past conquests, and instead takes a focused and courageous direction as the brand hits its 150th anniversary. Understanding the importance of both e-commerce and the personal level of storytelling, it is clear that he will be instrumental in shaping IWC’s growing relevance with the current and future generations of watch buyers.
Here, while a new celebratory collection is unveiled at SIHH, we exclusively chat to Grainger-Herr about watches that transcend functionality, the brand’s growth, and the main challenges for haute horlogerie in 2018.
To what extent do you feel story-telling is still relevant in the watchmaking industry?
It comes back to the basic definition of what a luxury product is, and what it stands for. First, it begins with the physicality of the product and creative aspect, as no luxury product in the world is ugly and successful, making a beautiful design essential. Then you have the craftmanship and engineering content which make the product. As a luxury brand we also represent a values system, as a watch is the most personal and powerful product you can wear, especially for men who don’t have jewellery and fashion to express themselves in the same way as women. A watch is so rich in symbolism and allows others to instantly draw a conclusion about who you are and what you are saying about yourself. This powerful message comes from the content in story-telling.
What story is IWC telling this year?
It is the story of our 150th anniversary, and the focus point really is to express that we have a unique and different founding story. Our background is not in an artisan atelier, as instead we had an American engineer and entrepreneur who travelled from Boston to Switzerland to combine American manufacturing technology with Swiss craftmanship to make the best pocket watches money could buy. In his first year of operation at the age of 27, he created a modular system of watch movements and exported 10,000 pieces to the American market. So, what we are trying to express is that we have a story that is based on engineering, combined with the other side of IWC, which is adventure. To celebrate this milestone, we unveiled a special Jubilee collection which comprises a total of 27 limited-edition models from the Portugieser, Portofino, Pilot’s Watch and Da Vinci families, together with the first-ever wristwatches to feature the original digital hours and minute display as it appeared on the Pallweber pocket watches back in 1884. The one aesthetic element all these timepieces share is their imprinted dial in white or blue, an effect that is achieved by a process of applying several layers of lacquer, reminiscent of heritage enamelled finishes.
What are the challenges that you are facing?
The biggest project that we have this year is completing our manufacture centre. Our two main focus points are on the one hand the manufacturing process and on the other is the ongoing e-commerce rollout.
What is your objective for 2018, and your vision for the brand moving forward?
At the moment we are in the middle of building a meaningfully connected distribution channel globally. It is a high quality, high-end brand experience and service, which complements all our physical wholesale and retail distributions with both our own e-commerce and everything we do on Mr Porter and Net-a-Porter, to really make sure that those channels become fully complementary. The idea is to ensure our clients have the opportunity to interact with us wherever, whenever and however they choose, to make sure it is one unified experience.
To what extent do you think the retail experience is still important?
At the end of the day, with the products we sell it is about understanding the contextualisation of that product on your wrist. The relationship with it and human reaction are very important and enrich the product, and it is impossible to relay this without a retail experience. Of course, a proportion of purchases happen online, but in most cases the client will have interacted with product at some point beforehand.
Is it your strategy to sell some products online, and other more exclusive pieces in boutiques?
We are not pursuing any strategy to push a certain channel in a certain direction. You will always have exclusive editions across all channels. Broadly speaking, the shopping behaviour online is completely identical to the shopping behaviour offline.
What are the pre-requisites that IWC set for collaborators?
It has to make sense with our direction of storytelling, and there has to be a match of minds and a match of values in the organisation.
To what extent do you think over-communication negatively impacts desirability?
There is a balance to strike between awareness and the quality of the content. I think we also have to realise that the awareness for mechanical watches in many markets is still very limited, so there is a component of reach that you need to have, simply to spread the word. But managing luxury is always a balancing act between exclusivity, rarefication, desirability, and reaching your potential customers, and in such an aesthetic industry it has a lot to do with feeling what you are doing. We monitor our communications very carefully and respond on a day to day basis.
Where is the woman in IWC?
She is very much part of IWC. We have many launches and offerings, but our idea is to have a fully complementary female offering from classic to sport, which can sit alongside our existing more male focused collection.
Tell us about your thoughts on what other brands are offering at SIHH this year?
I think a lot of the brands have made a step forward this year, becoming more energetic which is so good to see.
How do you choose what watch to wear?
I am very much emotionally driven when it comes to watch selection. I pick the watch I wear each day depending on what I love and what speaks to me.
What brought you to the watch industry?
When I started my University placement year, one of my first projects was to design a gentlemen’s accessory store in Sloane Street in London Longmire Cufflinks. I think that was the moment I became interested in creating shops for luxury goods. Later, I designed a jewellery shop in Rue du Rhône in Geneva, before I started to work as an interior designer in Zurich. Shortly after I was contacted by IWC to create the brand museum in Schaffhausen. It was during this assignment that I got to know IWC and fell in love with the brand.
Tell us about how your personality fits your new position as CEO?
I see myself as a balanced creative person, and the main part of my character will always be the aesthetic drive, which I think luxury brands need. Although I am not just creative, as I have always had a commercial understanding and focus which really helps in my current position.
What do your promise yourself, and IWC for 2018?
Personally, I am not one for New Year resolutions, as I try to work towards everything I want on a daily basis, every day of the year. On a professional level, we really want to make this year truly special, firstly with a big global celebration, and on the other hand we are placing a big emphasis on R&D and manufacturing to really reinforce that engineering spirit again at IWC, adding this to the storytelling communication.
What motto do you live by?
Curiosity is what gives us energy, passion and fresh ideas.
Tell us something that you would still like to achieve at IWC?
We are a brand that truly has the potential to be globally one of the top watch brands and that is the direction that we want to go in, ensuring that we have the best product, with the best service and most appealing story, working on substance and emotion.
What lessons would you like to pass on to your children and your IWC family?
I tell my children to be true to themselves, as you must trust in what you can do, and not try to be something that you are not. The lesson I am sharing with my IWC family this year is that we are working as a true team, we are all here to create the best possible product and experience for our clients and everything has to be aligned to that end.
How would you sum up IWC?
Engineered, pure in design, and full of emotion.