Cen­turies of his­tory play a huge part in the mys­tique and cache of many watch brands, but Ro­main Jerome shrugs off this em­pha­sis on long-held tra­di­tions and in­cor­po­rates his­tory with a twist.

Plaza Watch International - - Interview - WORDS JOSH SIMS

Ten years may not be much of an an­niver­sary in an in­dus­try that prides it­self on com­pa­nies claim­ing cen­turies of watch­mak­ing her­itage, but it has been 10 years of imag­i­na­tion run wild. “We al­ways wanted to get away from that over-em­pha­sis on his­tory, or at least to re­late to his­tory in a dif­fer­ent way, through events of real his­tor­i­cal strength,” says Manuel Emch, the CEO of Ro­main Jerome. “Of course, there’s some cred­i­bil­ity in be­ing able to claim the kind of long his­tory we don’t have, but we’ve aimed at in­te­grat­ing his­tory into the phys­i­cal­ity of the watch. That gives us huge cre­ative free­dom too.”

Cer­tainly, Ro­main Jerome’s first decade has been a far-reach­ing one, from the ocean’s depths to the sil­very moon, re­sult­ing in some of the most “crazy” ideas ever put into a time­piece. Hav­ing de­buted in 2004 with a de­cid­edly down-to-earth yet still in­no­va­tive golf watch – which launched in the golf-mad Mid­dle East and over­sold its pro­duc­tion run four times – the company soon thought much big­ger.

Among it great­est ‘DNA’ hits – a line launched in 2007 – have been its Ti­tanic se­ries, each watch with a case in­cor­po­rat­ing metal from the hull of the fa­mously doomed ocean liner, es­pe­cially fused with ship­mak­ing-grade steel by Har­land & Wolff, the company that built the ship, and the dial us­ing coal taken from the wreck.

Then there were the watches that in­cor­po­rate steel from the Apollo XI rocket (the NASA voy­age that put the first men on the moon) with the lu­nar dial, com­plete with craters, lay­ered with a min­eral de­posit that in­cludes moon dust. The lat­est, the 1969 col­lec­tion, main­tains the uni­ver­sally-ap­peal­ing space theme by us­ing chon­drites for its dial – a ma­te­rial taken from me­te­orites. Ro­main Jerome has launched its first skele­ton watch, called the Skylab it is in­spired by the space sta­tion.

“The mar­ket is sat­u­rated for clas­sic, tra­di­tional watches and I think col­lec­tors are now look­ing for pieces that are more provoca­tive, more dis­tinc­tive,” says Emch, a one-time FMCG con­sul­tant who joined Ro­main Jerome from the watch brand Jacot, which he co-founded. “And what we make are gen­uine limited edi­tions rather than ar­ti­fi­cial ones, which I think peo­ple are get­ting tired of now. If you have limited cop­per from the Statue of Lib­erty, then there is a limit to the num­ber of watches you can make. That can be frus­trat­ing when you know you can sell more, but also a chal­lenge – you have to be imag­i­na­tive to de­velop the next watch.”

Some­times that can lead down un­ex­pected roads: in­cor­po­rat­ing bits of the DeLorean car from the movie Back To The Fu­ture, or a watch based on Pac­Man. The de­sign team had, for ex­am­ple, no in­ten­tion to make a watch us­ing vol­canic lava from Ey­jaf­jal­la­jokull, the Ice­landic be­he­moth, un­til it went off dra­mat­i­cally in 2010 and shut down the skies for weeks, but it went on to sell CHF5 mil­lion worth of the one that re­sulted. “We de­signed the watch over the week­end of the ex­plo­sion, to re­lease more as a pub­lic­ity stunt,” ad­mits Emch. “But the idea just took off way beyond what we had ex­pected. And so then we had to get the ma­te­ri­als and make it...”

That is of­ten a com­plex process – some­times ma­te­ri­als can be bought at auc­tion ($700,000 was spend on that bit of moon rocket) but oth­ers, ac­quired through less main­stream chan­nels, then have to be cer­ti­fied. “Some ideas we’ve been keen on for three or four years and still can’t con­vince peo­ple to pro­vide the ma­te­ri­als,” says Emch. “Or we can get them but not the cer­ti­fi­ca­tion. Ev­ery watch has its own story. Some ideas now come through fans of the brand con­tact­ing us with ac­cess to ma­te­ri­als. And some ideas we just have to aban­don.”

The prod­ucts of this bou­tique company are typ­i­cally pre-sold, never see­ing the shop floor. But do they achieve merely at gim­mickry, or at art? Cer­tainly some pieces achieve the lat­ter as­pi­ra­tion – its one-off T-Oxy Con­cept, for ex­am­ple, was a watch made of non-sta­bi­lized rusted parts, which will even­tu­ally fall apart, but is ar­guably as pure an ex­pres­sion of pass­ing time as might be found in any gallery. Its Day & Night watch runs two tour­bil­lons se­quen­tially but does not tell the time at all – it’s a nod per­haps to the mantra that, in the dig­i­tal age, no­body re­ally needs a watch to tell the time any­more.

“Our watches are not just about me­chan­i­cal know-how – I think they do have a cer­tain artis­tic cred­i­bil­ity,” Emch ar­gues. “Watches have evolved from time­pieces into sta­tus sym­bols, but I can see watches mov­ing on from there to be­come more pieces of art, and not just craft, that hap­pen to give the time. That’s go­ing to get more im­por­tant as more tech­nol­ogy comes to the wrist. That’s go­ing to change the per­cep­tion of watches. Peo­ple will have watches that work as de­vices for them and those that are emo­tional for them.

“I re­ally think that an emo­tional con­nec­tion is what watch buy­ers want now,” Emch adds. “Just ten years for an in­de­pen­dent company is still quite an achieve­ment in the watch business, es­pe­cially since we’re still very niche and we’re com­pet­ing with the big lux­ury goods groups. Not ev­ery­one might like it, but what we do is a strong con­cept. It’s off the beaten track, sure. But that’s what makes it unique.”

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