HAUTLENCE: A Chat with CEO Guillaume Tetu
CEO and co-founder of HAUTLENCE, Mr Guillaume Tetu was in town for Khronos-Unique Horlogerie Exhibition at Starhill Kuala Lumpur. Here is our private interview with him.
The world of luxury watches, together with the art of watchmaking make up a world of exquisite wonder that is comparable to the automotive industry.
Not just because of the price tags (my favourite line: “You’re wearing a BMW on your wrist!”) but the craftmanship, the complexity and the precision involved in product engineering, as well as the challenge of establishing of a brand in the industry, are analogous to that of the car-making industry.
In the automotive world, there are always demands for unique and exotic works by the independent car makers (note: Morgan, Wiesmann, Noble). The same type of demands explain the existence and the importance of independent watchmakers in the watch industry.
One of the rising independent watchmakers with strong following is HAUTLENCE.
CEO and co-founder of HAUTLENCE, Mr Guillaume Tetu was in town for Khronos-Unique Horlogerie Exhibition at Starhill, and we’re very fortunate to be invited for a private interview with him.
How Many times have you been to Malaysia?
I come (to Malaysia) 3 times a year, starting 2008. We arrived here 5 years ago, and the first time we opened Kronos. I always enjoy coming here because I can see that the quality of life here is nice, and in terms business perspective, the chrono collectors group is becoming bigger and bigger. Everybody is focusing on Singapore because Singapore is the place for our kind of watches, but Malaysia specifically, is the head of Chrono.
What’s the motivation to start this brand? Was there a story?
We started from a friends’ conversation. Before launching HAUTLENCE with my friends, I started working in the watch-making industry since 1999…
I noticed you worked with Tag Heuer.
… Yes, and before Tag Heuer I was with Rolex. So, working for big brands, I understood that it’s not about “luxury” anymore – it’s about mass market.
Producing a large number of high quality items isn’t the same as my definition of real “luxury”. For me, a real luxury product is a product made with passion, in small quantity, with great creativity and at the same time pushing the limit.
Beginning 2000, there’s only one supplier of movement, ETA, doing the motors for all the brands. If you’re Omega or Tag Heuer, you’ll just announce a campaign or an ambassador. One example is George Clooney, and another one is Lewis Hamilton – the former is more on lifestyle, and the latter is more on sport. It’s all just about marketing, but in terms of products, they are the same.
So as a technical designer, I sat down with my friends, “Come on, we need to reinvent the way to tell the time.” The collectors and the real players want to have something unique. There already are AP (Audemars Piguet), Vacheron Constantin and Patek Phillipe but they are telling the time in the same way (with 2 hands). So we decided to reinvent the way to tell the time, and play with it in the mechanical approach.
It was just a discussion with friends over a good bottle of wine, brainstorming and talking… and then one day, we said, “Ok, we have to go ahead.”
In 2004, we decided to launch a brand. I resigned from Tag Heuer, and my friends from their companies and we created HAUTLENCE. Reinventing the way to tell the time means creating our own movement, our own motor and that is an interesting but a really tough job.
In other words, we’ve fed up working with the big players and we decided to do something exclusive.
As we didn’t have enough ego to put our names in front of the scene, we decided to put an anagram of Neuchatel (rearrange the letters and you’ll get H-A-U-T-L-E-N-C-E). Neuchatel is where the craftsmanship and the workmanship of watchmaking are located.
Why continue to work for a regular company when you can do something with passion with a niche target group to share your passion with?
That’s a challenge that we wanted to do.
I see. Have you always been passionate about watchmaking since you’re a child?
When I was a child… no. This is an interesting story.
I’m more of a product designer than a watch designer.
When was in France (I’m France) and I was 12, there’s a study called Manual Technical. You’d draw something, and then you would cut the wood, assemble them and glue everything (together). And I realised this is what I wanted to do – I want to have my ideas realised in the technical approach, and then make them. So since then I’ve organised my study around this.
My father told me, if you want to become just a designer, you’d do more on the styling and the artistic works, which is quite tough to get a job in the future. He would prefer me to go on the technical side, and finish with the aesthetic approach.
I’ve done my study in Technical Design, finished with Aesthetic Design. So that’s why I can do both – I can invent and do the technical things, and design it to make it beautiful. It’s a good balance.
When I started working, I’ve done tissue, sunglasses… many products in the industry, especially in the automotive, medical and plastics industry. It was very exciting to work. But for me, the watchmaking industry is the best link between technical and aesthetic approach. It’s about precision while at the same time there’s a lot of manual human touch. That’s what’s I like.
You said you’re French.
Yes, I was born in France. I have Swiss citizenship.
So you started the brand in 2004. What’s the challenge as a new brand?
It’s challenging, specifically at this time. When we created HAUTLENCE, I think there were 35 brands born in the same year – 35 newcomers. After 5 years, there were just 2 remaining. It’s really a big challenge to establish a name, the trust and the confidence with the retailers.
From the perspective of horology, the most challenging is to make the product a reality. Having an idea over a bottle of wine is fine, but making it real and working and deliver is a challenge. And, it’s not a brand, yet. It is still just a concept and a product.
To establish a brand, someone in Switzerland told me, “you’ll need 10 years and 10 millions to do a brand”.
And I was laughing, “Hahaha! Come on. We have good ideas, we’re young, we’re clever and we’re smart. We could do something in a shorter time with far less money.”
The thing is, we’re talking about a brand here, not a product in the display window. It’ll take longer than this. The big names like Louis Vuitton, Hermes and Chanel, they are family brand names from generations to generations.
So something was missing in the early years of HAUTLENCE – it was only a “company”, it wasn’t a brand.
The biggest move we’ve seen in the life of HAUTLENCE was when Georges Meylan, the former owner of Audemars Piguet, the CEO of Audemars Piguet took over the company 1 year ago (under MELB Holding). HAUTLENCE is now a family-owned company, with the same value as before, but built for the long-term. It is something really really important for the customers, the collectors as well as for the retailers, the press and all the industries. They now know that we’re in good hands.
You can create the most popular product with the most interesting design, but without long-term establishment, you’re still not a brand. You’re just a commercial shop.
I think it’s about the identity and positioning, right? How is Hautlence being positioned right now?
I want to reinforce the link between Neuchatel and HAUTLENCE, and HAUTLENCE as a high end exquisite watchmaker brand, as well as the idea of Architecture and Design in our brand universe. The philosophy behind HAUTLENCE has always been Architecture and Design.
In our catalog, we’re using a very beautiful building in Neuchatel, which is called Centre Durrenmatt. Durrenmatt was a writer and painter. A little bit crazy, but real active in Design. It was built by Mario Botta, a famous architect in Switzerland. This building has an amazing shape, and it’s a historical house of Mr Durrenmatt and a museum to showcase his gallery.
Another building that I wanted to show is Palafitte Hotel. It’s a beautiful place, and we’re showing pictures of Georges Meylon and I working on the timepieces. This guy is the credibility of the brand now.
We’ve done beautiful photoshoot to represent the watches as pieces of art.
The “Origine” collection has a more minimalistic approach, and so the inspiration was the architectural parts of the building. And for our latest collection “Avant Garde“, we took pictures with the beautiful Mario Botta’s chair (the “Seconda”).
Can you tell us the inspiration behind the “Avant Garde” collection? Why the name “Avant Garde” and not sports or other type of name?
This is a good question. The original pieces of HAUTLENCE were designed with a rough, minimalistic approach. I designed the technical constraints with the movement and display, and after that we put it together. It was the original shape, and we called that “minimalistic”.
In the opposite, “Avant Garde” is more sophisticated in terms of contemporary design. There’s a mix of materials, titanium, steel, treatment and rose gold – to make something more contemporary. The “Origine” is linked to minimalistic modern architecture, while “Avant Garde” is linked to product design. It has a more ergonomic and new design shape. We choose to make it more contemporary.
So this is the balance – Origine will be more classical and cutting edge, and it (the design & technology) will continue to work for a long time, while “Avant Garde” can follow trend…
For a different market?
It’s different target group, for sure. Origine is for collectors and Avant Garde – you can wear it everyday.
The first Avant Garde we launched was HLRS collection and it has a square shape (Origine is in round shape). It’s something different from the first (Origine) which is like a … building.
This is the time to show you the Avant Garde HLRQ. (Taking out the prototypes)
We decided to reinterpret the first HLQ.
The Origine HLQ has a very cute design, with traditional way to make a dial and case. In Avant Garde spirit, this is different. We’ve rebuilt the look and the case to make it stronger and more sporty, and designed a full transparent dial with sapphire dial. A more contemporary design that you can see what’s going on inside, while still keeping the interesting finishing of the watchmaking.
With Hautlence watches, it’s easy to change straps. When you have this kind of product, it’s quite an expensive product so you want to have the choices. We have a strap box. We deliver it to the retailers, so you have plenty of choices. Like in Fashion, your watch can adapt to your taste.
There are 3 version of HLRQ, right?
Yes. These watches you see here are prototypes. The final watches are on the pictures. We’ve changed a few details, for example, improved the visibility. They will be launched this year.
HLRQ is non-limited edition and more affordable (all Origine are limited-edition). Avant Garde collection is half the price of the Origine collection. We’re finishing on the production right now, and we’re going to deliver the first one this month, and also to Taiwan, Hong Kong and Japan. It’ll arrive here (Malaysia) in July or August. We’re finishing it in the workshop right now…
The workshop is in?
La Chaux-de-Fonds, close to Neuchatel. This is the place where everyone – Tag Heuer, Louis Vuitton, Patek, Rolex, Breitling, Ulysse Nardin, Cartier – all the big players producing their movements. It is the centre of watchmaking.
I’m curious about the logo.
I have to show you. This is the first time we met and I’m going to demonstrate to you. (Cutting out a small strap of paper)
This is Möbius band. Mobius is a mathematician and he invented the fractual law that there is one unique shape with only one surface. If you look at this shape, you’ll never find the ending. This is the perfect mathematical symbol to symbolise infinity.
I wanted to style this shape to make it move – to have the modern design of infinity.
It also looks like an eight (8), and 8 is the lucky number for Chinese culture. At the beginning, we always design referring to 8 with 88 pieces of watches to limit and control the production.
This shape is very difficult to be made into 3D with software and we have to do it in a specific way.
Speaking of 3D construction, we always do 3D construction for our watches. My in-house engineer always do everything in 3D construction.
Most independent watchmakers don’t do that in-house, except the master watchmaker like Peter Speake-Marin and a few of them. That is because most of the time, it’s simpler to just go to the big players like Renaud & Papi and Christophe Claret to do a drawing and say “I’d like this”, and few years later they’ll give you the product.
If we do creation, we have to do it in-house.
From the very details…
Exactly. And also to control your supply chain. To make a watch like this, you have 552 components. We have many many suppliers to make every single part and it can take a very long time. It’s better to control your technical side because when you have the control on the technical, you can control everything.
Everything is built in-house?
Not the building of the bridge, the plates and the decoration, but everything is designed, invented, controlled and assembled in-house. Many brands claim that (full in-house built), but it’s not true.
I have my own watchmaker, my designer, engineers, but we don’t do things like the CNC machines. We have plenty of small workshops around us in Neuchatel. Everywhere in Neuchatel, you have talented people with craftsmanship to do the finishing and precision. We don’t need to invest in plenty of machines for 250 watches a year. It makes no sense and it’s better to have the best workshop around us working for us, with our own knowledge and drawing.
Is there any personality or character that you think is representing Hautlence?
Right now, our customers are our ambassadors. I’ll tell you a funny story.
2 months ago, Mr Tommy Hilfiger was asked about his last great gift in an interview. In the interview, he said it was a HAUTLENCE watch from his wife for his birthday. So Mr Tommy Hilfiger, for example, is a HAUTLENCE owner. We didn’t ask him to do this, we didn’t pay him, but he’s enjoying being a HAUTLENCE owner because he likes it.
Right now, for the top collection and the price range we have, it makes no sense to have George Clooney or Brad Pitt as an ambassador. It makes no sense to find a boxer, a cyclist, F1 pilot. My target is to do partnership with people like famous architects and designers. If we can find an ambassador matching with what we’re doing, he could be next.
Having Mr Tommy Hilfiger as an owner is definitely an honour for me.
So you have a very specific criteria when it comes to ambassadorship because you want to differentiate (HAUTLENCE) from the mass and from the other brands where they can just have superstars but sometimes they don’t seem to have any relation with the product…
Exactly. It’s just like a contract. I pay you, you wear this watch, I take 2 pictures a year, and that’s it. This is for the mass market. We’re more about the passion.
Of course, we need to have visibility, but we need to find the right angle. I don’t have to do the opportunistic way.
Any project under the pipeline?
We’ll continue to work on Origine and Avant Garde as our 2 main bases to explain the DNA of HAUTLENCE in different style.
We’ll have a 10-year anniversary next year, and we’ll launch the new collection of Origine, on automatic movement with new way to tell the time. The first collection was almost sold out. We had 88 watches and I still have 21 to deliver and that’s it. In 2014, we’ll have a new design to relaunch the Origine.
We’ll also launch a non in-house movement of Avant Garde collection, as well as a chronograph soon. We’ll make it more sporty and easy to wear. That goes back to the ambassador question we discussed previously. When we have regular movement (a.k.a. purchased movement, not designed in-house) in the collection with a lower price tag, we can start to think about it and the mass market.
After 10 years, we could say that we’ll become a great brand, but right now, we’re building the foundation. It takes long time.
It’s not that easy to build a brand…
No, of course. But you have some crazy success stories like Christian Louboutin. It became a brand in 3 to 5 years. What he did is crazy in terms of shoes. Everybody likes it. It became like a must-have.
It’s nice to see that kind of success story, but to establish this for a long time, you need to work a lot to reinvent yourself and continue to develop interesting things.
You’re the CEO right now. Do you still design and go to the team in work?
Yes, of course. And I keep my team small. We have 10 people now. The engineer, the master watchmaker, supply chain manager, 2 watchmakers to assemble the parts…
When I have some ideas, I sketch, my engineer & team will work on the idea to make it into a concept, and then it’ll be made into 3D. I have the chance to work and to be involved in the product development.
My job is to go to the market everywhere in the world, but I try to be in the office 2 to 3 weeks a month. So 1 week I travel, 2 to 3 weeks a month I stay in the office. Most of the time, I’d watch the product development 2 days in a week. I have to take care of the financial or the marketing and also a company to lead, but I’ll still spend 2 days a week on the product. This is in my DNA.
Any advice for someone who’s starting a luxury brand? Or something that you wish you knew 8 years ago?
Everything my old folks told me was true. You can be as enthusiastic as you want and be very passionate, but you need to work very hard.
You will make mistake – you need to make mistake to invent your own way. The only thing that I can tell you is that it will take times. There’s no shortcut in this industry. To make something serious, you need time. A lot of time.
And, be prepared to spend more time than you imagined.
Many newcomers (watchmakers) came to me and asked for my advice. I have friends of mine who wanted to design watch in transparency. They are two designers, and they wanted to develop the movement in 2 years. So 4 years later, they have a quite working prototype, and they have spent quite a lot of money. And when the prototype finally starting to work, they came to see me.
They asked, “Do you have any advice for distribution?”
Come on, you’ve done all those jobs to make it works, and you have no plan or experience in the distribution? Good luck.
This is the reality. Many people come with passion, but in the end of the day, there’s no place for a lot of people. Too many brands are coming and proposing interesting things. The consumers and the retailers will only invest in something they trust. And to gain that trust, it’s going to take long time.
My advice is to be patient and be professional.
As mentioned previously, only 2 out of 35 brands remain after 5 years. Can you imagine the number of companies went bankrupt and the unsold stocks?
There’s one time I was in US to present my product to a retailer. The retailer said “I really like your product, and you’ll become one interesting brand in a few years. But right now isn’t a good timing because my window display is full!” He asked me to have a look at the back to check out the stock awaiting clearance. It’s full of stock with minimum 70% clearance. They were all the brands created the same years as us.
Those brands came, occupied the market, put on advertising and made investment in product design and production, and eventually went bankrupt after 3 to 5 years. And now these retailers owning the stock don’t know how to make cash with them because the brands no longer exist. There’ll be no after-sale service and you will not have anything. It’s a big trouble and I understand that.
It is a team of 4: we need to have the confidence of press talking about us; the confidence of the retailers; the confidence of you as a brand, and finally the end consumers. You’ll have no chance if anyone of these is missing.
And now is the right timing for HAUTLENCE. We now have a real product portfolio with history and a man behind.
Is there a difference between the Western market and the Asian market?
We have some differences in terms of the products. My historical collectors database is more on Hong Kong and Singapore, and they are more on the classical products. Classical products means classical materials and finishing.
In Latin America, they are more into something new, flashy and for showing. Russian consumers are quite conservative. They like traditional finishing in a creative way; 40% of my collectors are Russians. They are the biggest market for me. And now we’re quite successful with the Avant Garde collection in the USA.
There’s a good amount of enthusiasts in Asia. We now need a bigger distribution in Asia, so I’m looking to meet new partners in Singapore.
What’s the next milestone for HAUTLENCE? What are you planning to achieve in the next 5 or maybe 10 years?
As I said on my personal background, I’m not just a watch designer, I’m a global designer. My goal is to establish Hautlence as a brand of beautiful designs, not just watches. I already have some ideas. It could be a nice challenge for me in the next 5 years to introduce high-end products like writing instruments, cufflinks, belts, wine glasses… All the things that you can make with a new design approach.
I’m looking at a global vision of what we want to do in the long term.
Is there any brand that you think is doing very well in this?
One of the brands which I think is doing well is Bang and Olufsen. The design is always nice and the customer experience is always nice. They may not have the best technology but the consumer experience is the best. This is one brand that inspires me in terms of a big brand.
In terms of a smaller sized brand, it is Buben & Zorweg. They custom-made furniture like safe, cigar box, clock winder and it’s a really interesting brand. They are doing everything by hand with the spirit of craftsmanship.
When you’re designing watches, how do you get inspiration? What’s your creative process?
It’s always from the Architecture and mechanical. If you look at the movement and the things connected in the movement, you’ll can see that it’s inspired by the train. The locomotion. The vapour trains.
You know, in this world, except the Information Technology and Biotechnology, we’re not inventing anything. We use everything that was invented 200 years ago. There were the genius inventors created the mechanical we’re using now. We can improve because of new materials and new ways of calculating but the theory is always the same.
We try to display the timeless beauty of the mechanical parts through modern design. What we want to do is to get inspired by the old technology that we use to make a real beautiful mechanism, and reinterpret it with contemporary architecture and design. This is always my goal.
HAUTLENCE is now in Malaysia, Singapore, Japan, Indonesia, Thailand, Taiwan and Hong Kong. Where’s the next stop?
We’re prospecting South Korea and Vietnam. Right now, we have 35 point of sales in the world, my target is to reach 50 worldwide. That’s it. If each of them sell 20 watches a year, we’ll produce 1000 watches (per year), which is perfect. This is one of goals I want to achieve in the next 5 years.
It’s a great experience talking to Mr Tetu and to learn so much more about HAUTLENCE and how things work in the horology world. Extending the analog between watches and cars, here’s something interesting some guys told me:
- Vacheron Constantin = Rolls Royce
- Patek Philippe = Ferrari
- A. Lange & Sohne = Bentley
- Rolex = BMW
- Omega = Audi
- Seiko = Honda
Some of the models currently available in Malaysia:
Drop by Khronos Unique Horlogerie @ Starhill to have a look at these truly luxurious machines for yourself. Without the excessive onion layers of branding, you’re looking at the true value of luxury.
Hope you enjoy this post.