Plaza Watch International - - Cuervo - WORDS JOSH SIMS

Marzio Villa finds that all is not well in Cuba, de­spite the re­cent thaw­ing of re­la­tions with the US. “I go out there maybe four times a year, but I re­ally don’t see much chang­ing,” he says. “What you hear about in the news­pa­pers isn’t hap­pen­ing on the ground, with the peo­ple. They’re open­ing mar­kets for the kinds of prod­ucts, like cars, that the peo­ple can’t buy.”

In­deed, Cuba is not the place that Villa val­orises. “Most peo­ple don’t know how it was there his­tor­i­cally,” he says. “You might not see it in Cuba now, but it used to rep­re­sent a real place for the beau­ti­ful peo­ple – ac­tors, ad­ven­tur­ers, high rollers who loved beau­ti­ful things. It’s the kind of liv­ing you don’t see now on Rodeo Drive, or in Portofino and Monte Carlo. It’s all show there, no cul­ture.”

It is a lost cul­ture that Villa is aim­ing to em­body in a se­ries of watches. Cer­tainly, the watch in­dus­try of­ten cites A. Lange & Söhne as the great ex­am­ple of an his­toric watch com­pany over­taken by cir­cum­stances, but then, in more re­cent years, un­der­go­ing im­pres­sive re­vival – in Lange’s case, the East Ger­man com­pany found it­self on the wrong side of the Ber­lin Wall. But there is an­other, equally im­pres­sive ex­am­ple – that of Cuervo Y So­bri­nos, which found it­self on the wrong side of a rev­o­lu­tion.

Founded by Ar­mando Rio Y Cuervo in 1882 in Ha­vana with its watch­mak­ing op­er­a­tions in Switzer­land – by the 1930s the com­pany counted Ernest Hem­ing­way, Win­ston Churchill and Clark Gable among its cus­tomers. Then came Fidel Castro in 1958. And the com­pany was all but wiped out – un­like other Cuban big busi­ness names, Bac­ardi, Mon­te­cristo and Romeo Y Juli­eta among them, who man­aged to es­cape and set up again else­where. The Cuervo fam­ily ar­rived at their premises one day, lit­er­ally packed all they could into suit­cases, and left the is­land. The com­pany folded a month later.

“But when I learnt about it was, as they say, an effect of the heart” says Marzio Villa, the re­born com­pany’s pres­i­dent, a Span­ish watch dis­trib­u­tor who bought and re-launched the Cuervo name and who last year launched it in China – al­ready Cuervo Y So­brino's se­cond big­gest mar­ket af­ter Ja­pan, and above Spain and the Mid­dle East. It has just launched in Mex­ico and is find­ing a foothold in the US. Re­mark­ably, it has taken a ma­jor push to in­form US con­sumers that the com­pany wasn’t feed­ing Castro’s pocket for the brand to take hold again there.

“The am­bi­ence around Cuervo Y So­bri­nos felt right,” Villa adds. “Too much of the watch in­dus­try fo­cuses on tech­ni­cal per­for­mance, not enough on life and plea­sure – which I think is what re­ally goes to the heart of what lux­ury is, or should be. I col­lect clas­sic cars and you see the re­ac­tion peo­ple have to them – yes, you can see a new Fer­rari and think it’s fan­tas­tic, but there’s a dif­fer­ent ap­peal in old cars – it’s not about power and speed but beauty and style. They can start you dream­ing – and I think Cuervo Y So­bri­nos has the same ap­peal. The watches rep­re­sent a cer­tain phi­los­o­phy of look­ing at the world. And a fan­tas­tic story.”

Cer­tainly CuerVo y so­brino's re­dis­cov­ery is just that. A lit­tle over 15 years ago Villa vis­ited the aban­doned Cuervo shop in Ha­vana – a new flag-

ship store and mu­seum in the cap­i­tal has now re­opened – and, like the Marie Ce­leste, found it un­touched, the safe full of 25 vin­tage watch move­ments and sketches of all of Ar­mando Cuervo’s pre-Castro de­signs. The story has proven ben­e­fi­cial for a com­pany without the mar­ket­ing bud­get of its giant Swiss ri­vals, es­pe­cially given that the brand is ef­fec­tively a new one to all but watch con­nois­seurs. And those de­signs, repli­cated on Cuervo Y So­brino's re-launch, have proven the ideal ba­sis for what Villa calls the re­born “vin­tage feel, not bold nor dis­tinc­tively mod­ern” in a typ­i­cally rec­tan­gu­lar case and in creamy, to­bacco colour­ways, but us­ing today’s watch­mak­ing.

This has al­lowed it to start at the top of the mar­ket, in terms of its tech­ni­cal out­put. It has, for ex­am­ple, pro­duced com­pli­ca­tions the likes of last year’s Pi­rata Tour­bil­lon – with a case aim­ing an mim­ick­ing a 17th cen­tury can­non, a dou­ble­bar­rel tour­bil­lon move­ment, 120-hour power re­serve, blue sil­i­con hands, and a main­spring dec­o­rated with an im­age of the orig­i­nal Ha­vana store; or the His­to­ri­ador Flameante Reserva de Mar­cha, a new ul­tra-thin ver­sion of a watch the com­pany first pro­posed in the 1950s, with power re­serve – in­di­cated, un­usu­ally, with a ro­tat­ing disc – and ‘guil­loche flambe’ dial dec­o­ra­tion. Like other Swiss watch­mak­ers, and echo­ing the his­tory of the orig­i­nal Cuervo Y So­bri­nos op­er­a­tion, which had ac­ces­sories and jew­ellery made in France and Italy, the com­pany has also made the move into dis­tinc­tive pens: the His­to­ri­ador Caramello limited edi­tion comes in a rare caramel-coloured mother of pearl.

“It’s a ben­e­fit of not mak­ing many watches that we can fo­cus on do­ing the few watches we do do, very well,” ar­gues Villa, who over­sees the pro­duc­tion of some 3000 pieces a year. “We re­ally want each watch to feel spe­cial, to be slightly dif­fer­ent – ev­ery tour­bil­lon we’ve made, for ex­am­ple, we’ve altered just a lit­tle bit. That seems in keep­ing with that old style Ha­vanan (sic) glam­our.”

The com­pany has , in re­cent years, also de­vel­oped what it calls a ‘new his­tor­i­cal’ case, milled from a sin­gle block of metal as Cuervo Y So­bri­nos did over a cen­tury ago, to­gether with a day-date-cal­en­dar week move­ment based on one patented by the com­pany in pre-Castro times. For those who want a truly his­tor­i­cal watch, it has also of­fered a limited edi­tion gold chrono­graph with a Venus move­ment dat­ing to the 1940s. Cuervo Y So­bri­nos has a fur­ther edge for col­lec­tors too in be­ing the only Swiss-made lux­ury watch brand with a Latin her­itage.

“The style is not for ev­ery­body,” Villa ad­mits. “And not ev­ery­one will be drawn to the her­itage, while the watches are made very much for now, for the fu­ture – you might put up with a clas­sic car be­ing very com­pli­cated to drive, but most won’t ac­cept a watch like that. In fact, we’ve had to play down as­pects of that: we don’t have ‘Ha­vana’ big on the dial, and have per­haps made ‘Made in Switzer­land’ clearer than usual. We don’t want peo­ple as­sum­ing the watches are made in Cuba. Even the orig­i­nal Cuervo Y So­bri­nos com­pany had its watches made in La Chaux des Fonds. But we have been care­ful to make our watches now near Lugano – the Ital­ian Switzer­land for watch­mak­ing. It’s the most Latin part of Switzer­land, so to speak, for a brand with a very Latin point of view.”

And one that works in the style that it aims to em­body too: Cuervo Y So­brino's watch­mak­ing ate­lier is Cap­o­lago House, an 1889 villa on the lake­side, com­plete with pe­riod fur­ni­ture and dec­o­ra­tion, and in­vari­ably with a 50s Amer­i­can car parked out­side. “We want the fac­tory to be as ro­man­tic as the brand it­self,” Villa notes. That word, ‘ro­man­tic’, rings true too. The con­nec­tion with Cuba is, Villa con­cedes, based around a ro­man­tic vi­sion of the coun­try that has now dis­ap­peared – a time when Ha­vana was, as one wag put it, “Las Ve­gas with an ocean”. But he is un­re­pen­tant about this ap­proach: “We are los­ing the sense of the ro­man­tic in the mod­ern world, in part thanks to dig­i­tal tech­nol­ogy,” he says. “So we see Cuervo Y So­bri­nos em­body­ing less a kind of watch as a phi­los­o­phy of liv­ing.” One, in­deed, that the wealthy – the brand’s watches are priced any­thing up to six fig­ures in Swiss Francs – are keen to buy into.

“It’s a ben­e­fit of not mak­ing many watches that we can fo­cus on do­ing the few watches we do do, very well”

Cuervo Y So­bri­noS may also ben­e­fit from a re­ac­tion among watch con­sumers against the re­cent trend for out­sized, overtly ma­cho and mod­ern styles in favour of a more sim­ple clas­si­cism that is at once less vul­gar in re­ces­sion­ary times but also more about au­then­tic­ity and stealth wealth than fash­ion and flash. Al­ready es­tab­lished are two sig­na­ture styles, each pre­sented – of course – in a ci­gar box-style case: the Es­plen­dido, with its ret­ro­grade date dis­play, day-of-the-week sub-dial and 42-hour power re­serve dis­play; and the Art Deco-style Promi­nente, with its curved, ob­long case and car­bon fi­bre de­tail­ing.

“It’s true that a cus­tomer has to love a watch to buy it, but I think there is some­thing deeper go­ing on here,” says Villa. “There is so much choice for the lux­ury con­sumer now, they need a way to dif­fer­en­ti­ate one prod­uct from an­other – and a real story be­hind a prod­uct is a ma­jor part of that.”

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