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.”