We sat down with the CEO of Hamilton watches, Mr. Sylvain Dolla and we had the most interesting discussion about watches, Hamilton history & strategy and modern technology and life.
Lifetime: What can you tell us about the Ventura?
Sylvain Dolla: The Ventura, you know, is an iconic piece of Hamilton. It was the biggest evolution in the last 500 years. It was the first electric watch. So it was really a big revolution 60 years ago, and this year is the anniversary. The Ventura turns 60. And the Ventura is also a particular watch, because it was very modern when it was created and it’s still modern. So, it’s really a design that has not aged. And this year, for the anniversary, we worked in three different directions, the first one being to reinterpret the original one, which was in a 14k gold case, with a textured strap, like that. And for the anniversary we worked it, staying true to the design.
Then, the second direction we took was to work on elements that Elvis was wearing. So Elvis is known for rock and roll, for jeans, for leather jackets, so we worked on the jeans version and the interesting thing on this watch is not so much the strap – because it’s not so difficult to do a strap in jeans – but the dial. The dial is actually not in jeans, if you take a look you will think it’s jeans, but we used brass, and then we used the latest technology in 3D printing, because we acquired state-of-the-art technology in 3D printing and with that we could do this jeans rendering on the dial.
And then, last but not least, when you think Elvis, you think music and when we thought about music, we thought about the 1960s microphone. And we worked with a skeleton movement to do a special Ventura, which has a dial cut like the microphones from the ’60s.
Lifetime: We’ve been around the fair and it’s obvious that everyone in the upper segment, where the expensive watches are, is doing less, focusing on what is emblematic for the brand… What would be the strategy here?
SD: The simple strategy is that for the past 10 years we have been sticking to our strategy and we are not a brand that acts on a year to year basis. We have to have a clear direction, we have to know where we want to go, and when you know where you are going you don’t change because there is some crisis there, or because there is something great there, or there is an opportunity… Three years ago, people were asking me: “Why don’t you do smart watches?” No. We are an automatic brand, 80% of our sales is automatic watches. When everybody got excited about consumer electronics on the wrist, we said no. At the time, some brands were investing in consumer electronics approach, but we were investing in movements, doing our special caliber at ETA. And this strategy has been the same for the last ten years and it has helped us to grow, so we’re not going to change now. And last year we had a good year. And I think that brands that stay true to their DNA, who don’t forget their history, don’t forget where they come from, and stay with a clear strategy, at the end it pays back. We shouldn’t… When we develop a strategy, we see the results three years later. So, why would we change, why should we say: “Now we do quartz. Because the market is going down in price, we stop and we do quartz, we don’t do chronograph anymore and instead we do…” No. We stay where we are, leader in mechanical watches between €500 and €1,500, that’s where we are very good at, with automatic watches, no compromise on finishing, using applied indexes, using polished and brushed cases, that has helped us to grow like crazy. I think there is still huge opportunity in the next ten years, if we stick to this strategy. So, of course it doesn’t mean we don’t evolve, we evolve, we have brought 3D printing dials. A year ago, I said you won’t see a Hamilton watch with a 3D printing dial, because the quality was not good. But when we saw that finally we acquired the latest technology and we were reaching the level we wanted, for sure we will do it, for sure we will evolve, but the main strategy doesn’t change. We stay on the same motorway and I don’t know any brands that can compete with us in terms of value proposition – this level of finishing quality at that price.
Lifetime: You said there was still a huge potential. You mean targeting watch enthusiasts or are you thinking about people who are new to this area?
SD: Today, when people ask me what are the target groups, I’m embarrassed. Five years ago, ten years ago, it was easy to answer. Now, it has changed. I see people from 20 years old who have the same taste as people of 60. It’s not a question of age group anymore, it’s a question about lifestyle, about style. In Japan, for example, the younger audience, when they get to graduation, when they get engaged, people who get married, all these people buy another Hamilton for a special emotional moment. Their first mechanical watch because they get the job after university, or for their engagement… During the engagement period in May we sell a lot for engagements. So, yes, they are new people, coming to the traditional Swiss-made watches, but they want something a bit daring, something a bit with character and for sure we are not neglecting our younger audience and that’s why we were one of the first brands to also work and recruit experts in digital marketing.
Lifetime: And right now, what’s your biggest market? The States?
SD: No, Japan. Japan, Italy, the States. These three markets are really close to each other in terms of turnover, then Korea, China… These are our main markets.
Lifetime: Japan is a tough market, generally.
SD: But for us is excellent. It’s really huge for Hamilton. We are the number one imported brand in mid-range. And it’s probably the most demanding market, because they are very picky on the details and on the story. They push us, they really push us.
Lifetime: How much do you think innovation is part of your job as a CEO?
SD: I’m particularly interested in whatever comes in the innovation of new movements, of… It’s a bit my hobby. I’m coming from the consumer electronics before watches, 13 years ago. And I can see that this is a problem of the industry that lies here in technology innovation: that it changes and you cannot have a long-time strategy. In the watch industry, you have the chance to have an emotional product, which is not a commodity that you change every year and you can see and look at it for a longer time. And, of course, innovation is important. In the group we have the means and support when it comes to innovation, and we are not stopped if we have an idea to bring something. This year we launch a new power reserve, new movements, 80-hour, we don’t have brakes when it comes to investing into innovation and technology. That, as long as technology is used to do a traditional watch. If technology is used to make a smart watch, consumer electronics – no way, that’s not what we want to do.
Lifetime: We were talking today about a very interesting thing in terms of mind-set of the new customers. Because the new generation, the millennials: especially in the west, they are not so interested in an object, in watches, in driving a car, in owning a house, they just want experiences. And how do you plan to reach this upcoming generation?
SD: I think when you buy a watch it is an experience. When you buy a smart watch, yes, for sure, it is an object and you will throw it away, you have no emotion, but I’m 100% convinced that the so-called millennials do have an interest in watches. I look around. My son is a millennial, he’s 18, and his friends – not only his Swiss friends – when they turn 18, they don’t want only a treat to Ibiza to a party in a club, they also want something that lasts, they understand the value of things, they are just more demanding, they are just more conscious about the value of things and they don’t want to be deceived by brands. But I think that the difference is that we – my generation – we were maybe more brand conscious. They are brand conscious – very much so – but they want value, they want something that is not deceiving, and if you are deceiving them, they destroy you on social networks. I don’t think there is no future for physical objects with the millennials.
Lifetime: I think it’s like with print magazines… Everybody was saying, you know, “Ah, the Internet, the online, it will destroy print. But good print stays and it will stay.
SD: Yes, good content stays.