Romain Gauthier man and brand, produces some of the most detailed and original time pieces to be made by any independent company in Switzerland today.
1. Describe briefly your childhood?
From a young age, I was into technical and mechanical things, but despite both my parents working in the watch industry, I wasn’t really interested in watches or watchmaking. My father worked for Lemania, Audemars Piguet and Dubois Dépraz as a precision mechanic, while my mother worked for Lemania and Audemars Piguet as a secretary.
Growing up in the Vallée de Joux, life was one of simple pleasures. The people are humble, they don’t show off, you don’t get stuck in traffic jams and the air is clean. The region’s nature obviously plays a huge role and as children we spent a lot of time outside doing sport – cycling, running and skiing.
I was really into music, especially music equipment, and I remember the excitement of saving up for and then buying my very first personal stereo, a proper Sony Walkman. At a young age, I already appreciated good design and build quality!
2. As a child did you have any driving ambition? What did you want to be?
Believe it or not, when I was small I had notions about becoming the manager of a hotel. I don’t quite know why this job held a certain fascination for me but its appeal didn’t carry over into my teens!
As a teenager, I started getting into art and design and had hopes of studying at the Art Center College of Design on the shores of Lake Geneva. However, that proved to be prohibitively expensive for me and my family and, reluctantly, I had to let go of that idea. Also in my adolescence, I became interested in cars and at one point thought that a job preparing race car engines might be the profession for me.
But it was my love for music and music equipment that shaped my decision to enrol at the Vallée de Joux technical college when I was 15. A career making amplifiers and loud speakers appealed to me so I was really looking forward to the electronic engineering part of the college course.
However, I soon found electronics too abstract for my liking and I realised that I got more pleasure at college from using my hands, working on a lathe, machining pieces like axes and arbours for machines. I really enjoyed it and started getting prizes for my work. I surprised myself: I had not expected precision mechanics would become my passion, despite the fact that my father was a precision mechanic
3. What is your first significant memory as a child?
I tend not to reflect too much on the past, and as such my childhood memories are all a bit of a blur. One thing I remember though, when I was small I spoke with a stutter, which didn’t exactly make life easy for me. However, maybe if I had grown up in a place less forgiving than the Vallée de Joux, then it could have been worse. However, I remember being conscious of my stutter and set out on my own to correct it. Without seeing a specialist, I began developing techniques, focusing on my breathing, to turn my speech around and, after a while, it worked: I managed to lose the stutter.
4. Have you ever had another profession? What did you do?
After six years at technical college and a year of military service, my first proper job was in Le Brassus as an automatic lathe technician at François Golay, a big supplier of components to the watch industry. There I applied the knowledge I had gained to making parts for watches. I remained in this job, steadily progressing and helping to develop the production floor, for the best part of seven years, until I set up my own watch brand in 2005.
Way before that, when I was a student, I worked on Wednesday afternoons and during the summer holidays at AP Technologies, an offshoot of Audemars Piguet. On Wednesdays, I was machining parts, but during the summer holidays I was cleaning the windows, floors and toilets of the building!
5. Who have you worked for in the past? What made you decide to go in the direction you are currently in?
While working as an automatic lathe technician at François Golay in my first job, I had an epiphany and my life goals started to become clearer. I began to reflect, saying to myself:
1) “Romain, you were born in the Vallée de Joux, the cradle of fine Swiss watchmaking.”
2) “Romain, you have done studies in mechanics, mechanical design and machine construction.”
3) “Romain, you know how to make watch components.”
So I couldn’t help but ask myself: “Romain, why not try to make your own watch?”
A watch is, after all, a small machine. And so I started to tinker with ideas and began creating some watch designs in my free time in early 1999. By the end of the year, my designs were becoming more and more serious.
6. What’s the worst job you’ve had to do?
I guess you could say my summer job cleaning the toilets at AP Technologies was my ‘worst’ job but, to be fair, I really had no problem doing it. It helped instil some discipline and perseverance in me, which would help me later in life.
7. What’s been the hardest moment in your life so far, and how did you overcome it?
The first few years of owning and running my own company were tougher than they needed to be. I had successfully created my first timepiece Prestige HM, it was well received, orders were coming in nicely and things were seemingly going well. The thing is, I had underpriced this timepiece and we weren’t nearly as profitable as we should have been. That is tricky when you are trying to build up a team and invest in tools and machinery. I have always been very reasonable when it comes to price margins, but back then I probably lacked the experience and the confidence to price my first watch correctly. It took me a while to understand the situation and I eventually managed to correct it. Today, I am still very rational and respectful as regards margins, but at least I am no longer delivering timepieces at a loss!
8. Who has had the strongest influence on you? What are your greatest inspirations?
Without a shadow of a doubt, Philippe Dufour. Back when I started to work on my own watch designs in my free time, I also began to study for an MBA, again in my free time. It was around that period that I started to visit Philippe to ask him questions. In the Vallée de Joux, all you really saw were just the big brands, the big suppliers, each one employing lots of people. My biggest question to Philippe was: Can one person design, build and market their own watch with its own identity in their own workshop? Through talking to Philippe, I learnt that you could. He opened my eyes. I was inspired. That was when I really started to think about not just building my own watch, but also my own company.
Later, when the development of my first watch Prestige HM was moving along nicely, Philippe pushed me to go as far as I possibly could with it. He encouraged me to go beyond ‘very good’ or ‘excellent’. Why have hand-polished flat bevels, for example, when you can have hand-polished rounded bevels? They’re more demanding to create, but the rewards – with light reflecting off of them whichever angle you look at them – are worth the effort. Philippe’s influence on me was a really big part of my development.
9. What are you most proud of?
One of the things I am very proud of is building a team of talented and motivated craftsmen who enjoy coming into work. That is not a given in an industry which can be tough and demanding. I had imagined forming such a team when I was studying for my MBA of which the final thesis was the business plan for my company. But writing it down on paper is one thing, actually setting out to achieve it in the real world is another.
Another thing that fills me with pride is our collectors, more specifically the profile of our collectors. When I planned to start a company that creates high-end watches, I envisaged that those timepieces would attract collectors of a certain age, from certain countries and from certain backgrounds. But what I didn’t bank on so much were how values would also come into play. I think the values of our brand mirror our collectors’ values. It is always a gift for me to eventually meet our collectors in person. It never fails to impress me what great people they are: considerate, humble, kind, curious and thoughtful. So it gives me a warm feeling to know that our values strike a chord with our collectors, just as much as our timepieces do.
10. What advice would you give to a 20 something someone thinking of taking a similar path as you?
If they’re thinking of starting their own watch company, my advice would be: Do things professionally and do things properly, in a structured way, to create a brand and timepieces that will last. By doing that, you will be taken seriously. Big brands can draw on their history and reputation; independent brands start with nothing and have to work hard to gain credibility and earn the trust of retailers and collectors. Whatever aspect it might be – precision, quality, finishing, customer service – “almost” isn’t good enough.
11. Name three things on your bucket list.
If there were one place on earth where I would consider living other than the Vallée de Joux, it would be Los Angeles. I love how this city just lets you be who you want to be. I feel really at home there. And so, if the opportunity ever arose where I could work a few months of the year from the City of Angels, I would take it up. Who knows, maybe my watch and movement designs would turn out differently if I was immersed in that environment?! For now, though, I have too much to do at our manufacture in the Vallée de Joux!
I am still a keen fan of music and music equipment, so learning to play the electric guitar would also be on my list. Let’s see if that ever happens.
And I have never completely let go of my art and design aspirations, so painting – creating a series of painted artworks – would be one of my goals.
12. Where do you think the industry is going to be in 10 years’ time?
In terms of watches, I fear that “Swiss Made” will lose its meaning. In years gone by, it meant well-crafted, high-quality creations, but now the pressure to decrease prices and increase quantities is so intense, it will lead to the industrialisation of “Swiss made” and that will have repercussions on the level of quality. However, I feel that situation can present an opportunity to niche brands like ours who still strive to uphold the original meaning of “Swiss made”, by focusing on creativity, small quantities and high quality.
To learn more about Roman Gauthier