He transformed Jaquet Droz from a two-person outfit to a £23m company, has created watches from curios such as the Statue of Liberty and LAVA, and now has his sights set on the UK market. Daniel Malins meets Romain Jerome chief executive Manuel Emch to find out more about this extraordinary man.
Manuel Emch is, by all objective yardsticks and measurements, a fascinating character in the world of watches.
Having almost single-handedly overseen turnover at Jaquet Droz increase by roughly 15,000% during his tenure there, Emch decided two years ago that his next move would be to take the helm at Romain Jerome, a niche watch company famous for making watches from old relics.
During our time together, Emch talks about everything from BaselWorld to cracking the Asian market, and even designing and producing his own car, but the burning question is simply this: is Manuel Emch a genius, or stark raving mad?
Early on during our conversation, it is clear that he’s certainly not the latter. Although often contradictory in both his statements and his own mind (he has a love/hate relationship with BaselWorld, other watch brands and the whole watch industry in general), he oozes confidence and ambition but shades this with an outer veil of calmness and composure.
He begins our interview by looking back on his time at Jaquet Droz and explaining why he left the brand when he did. “I built Jaquet Droz for 10 years and we moved from two people when I began to 90 people when I left,” he says. “In the first year we did €200,000 [£157,000] turnover, and when I left we were close to around €30 million [£23.6m] turnover.”
Emch was obviously excelling at Jaquet Droz so why on earth did he make the change? “I felt I needed something a bit different. Something that was refreshing, that was not too traditional. I thought there’s a huge potential in Romain Jerome that we can really build in a different way to Jaquet Droz.”
It is certainly hard to argue against the fact that Romain Jerome presents an almost unique challenge. The brand is best known for incorporating famous objects, or “legends” as Emch calls them, into its watches. Before he joined the company in 2010, it had already released its Moon DNA and Titanic DNA watches, which included pieces from Apollo 11 and the Titanic respectively.
It is fair to say that the brand didn’t rest on its laurels after Emch took the reins. There followed the release of the Eyjafjallajökull DNA watch (“the unpronounceable one” as Emch himself puts it), which contains lava and ash from an Icelandic volcano, and most recently the Liberty DNA watch to commemorate the 125th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty.
Given how much these watches polarise opinion – Emch admits “we have some people who hang up on us when we say our brand name on the phone” – and given the limited commercial opportunities that the brand presents, it interested me to know what it is that gets Emch out of bed in the morning and keeps him motivated. It is at this point that a recurring phrase, “contemporary art”, enters the conversation for the first, and certainly not the last, time.
Manuel Emch’s love of contemporary art knows no bounds, and is utterly infectious. The enthusiasm with which he waxes lyrical about the potential overlap and collaborations between the contemporary art world and the watch industry is utterly sincere and genuine. Indeed, this turns out to be the focal point of almost the whole interview, such is his zest for the subject. It is what really ignites the flame in his eyes and sees him at his most effervescent.
Emch’s grand vision for himself and Romain Jerome is to fuse contemporary art and watchmaking into one happy and organic process. The starting point for this will involve Romain Jerome moving away from physical legends, the watches with actual pieces of relics in them, onto more “homage” legends, watches that simply make reference to, and are inspired by, a piece of art or an artistic movement.
Emch states: “Something that I have in the pipeline that I’m very proud of, and that is the ultimate watch I want to do, is a watch in connection to contemporary art. I am passionate about contemporary art.”
It doesn’t matter how many times Emch reiterates this last sentence, it only gets said with greater conviction every time. He is a man with a vision, and Romain Jerome provides him with the perfect platform from which to fulfil his goals. He makes it clear, however, that he wants to achieve his aims without compromising on artistic integrity. He wants to distinguish Romain Jerome from other high-end watch brands, who he largely perceives to be lazy, inward-looking and uninspired.
“It’s an industry that rotates a lot around itself,” observes Emch. “People are pairing with others, looking at others, and the industry is too closed. I would simply say it helps me at least to have an open mind.”
Indeed, so open is his mind that he doesn’t see the watch industry as the limit. On Emch’s quest for personal and professional gratification, he sees himself as venturing into other industries or domains, not for any commercial gain but purely for the artistic legacy and accomplishment that go with it.
“I think to an extent having an open mind and trying to create bridges in other domains is very interesting and very stimulating,” he continues. “We do have that diversification already in pens and cufflinks but I would love to do a bike or even a car.”
I put it to him that all these aspirations of contemporary art partnerships and ventures into whole different industries perhaps means that he has fallen out of love with watches, but it is clear from his reaction that this is simply not the case. His is quick to declare his fondness for an industry that he was born into – his mother is Arlette-Elsa Emch who has retired from Swatch Group this year after 20 years with group culminating in her taking on the president role at brands Swatch and CK – and that has made him what he is today. “It’s a beautiful industry,” he insists. “It’s an industry you can really get passionate about.”
Swiss born, Emch was young when the watchmaking crisis hit Switzerland in the late 1970s fuelled by the Japanese quartz movement that threatened to overrun the established Swiss industry. “When I went to school, most of my friends’ parents lost their jobs,” reflects Emch. “My mother and my grandfather had always been in the watch industry, but I was very reluctant because I had this very negative experience of watches.”
It was only when Swatch started collaborating with contemporary artists that Emch became interested. “Suddenly I had something I was passionate about,” he recalls. “So I started to buy Swatch watches from artists – I started to collect them.” And from that point onwards, Emch was hooked on watches. “Suddenly you start to be passionate about what you do and you start to see that this business, with all the craftsmanship and all the history, all the artisanship, all the emotion – it is a very emotional industry.”
This evident affection for his own trade is also reflected in his insistence on only using materials from his country of birth, Switzerland. “Since we’re a polarising brand, a brand that is slightly off the beaten track, we need to be infallible.” In other words, only Swiss Made will cut the muster when the stakes, and the price tags, are so high.
So what next for the man who has such conflicting emotions towards the watch industry? Well, on a practical level, he plans to increase Romain Jerome’s presence in the UK. “I think we can do one more store in London,” declares Emch, adding that Romain Jerome is currently only stocked in Kronometry 1999 on New Bond Street, although he says that the brand is in talks with two other major forces in the UK watch retail industry.
“Maybe the City is an option or Westfield maybe because that’s an interesting destination. And maybe then look into Manchester and one or two other cities. What we would like in 24 months is to have a retail network of eight to 10 stores to cover the essence of the UK.”
On a more emotional level, Emch’s future seems to be irresistibly drawn to the lure of contemporary art, under the umbrella of Romain Jerome. He closes our interview by articulating what “success” would mean for him in the long term. “I think what is important for me is to have something that will sustain and secure the brand over time,” explains Emch. “I want to keep the momentum of this iconoclastic approach but to ensure that it’s a company that can give jobs to people.”
So Emch’s ultimate dream, despite his obvious desire to produce artistic masterpieces in his own lifetime, is actually centred on the state and health of Romain Jerome long after he’s gone. “I think it’s the satisfaction of establishing something that is sustainable, that has a real identity, that has a unique position, that makes people look, that creates jobs and that people look at as making sense.”
There’s an old adage that says shoot for the moon, even if you miss you will land among the stars. Never has one man encapsulated such a philosophy better than Manuel Emch. After spending 90 minutes with the man, it is not altogether clear whether he sees himself as a watchmaker, an artist, a pioneer, a philanthropist, or all of the above. What is blindingly clear, though, is that whatever his final destination may be, he certainly will not pick the easiest or quickest route to get there.
This article was taken from the September 2012 issue of WatchPro magazine, out now. To view a digital version of the magazine click here.