A DYNAMIC DECADE
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.
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.”