Interview: A Conversation On Provocation And Design Polarization With Roger Dubuis CEO Jean-Marc Pontroue

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There are two main similarities between a Lamborghini Veneno Roadster and the watches of Roger Dubuis. Both take an extreme approach to design relative to their respective industries. And inside of both are skillfully crafted engines, the former automotive and the latter horological. This is not so much of a paradox for the Veneno, but more so for modern Roger Dubuis watches because (to wristwatch purists) they flout most of the classical design concepts generally associated with beautifully-made in-house movements. In a conversation with Roger Dubuis CEO Jean-Marc Pontroue, he explained how the perceived incongruence between polarizing designs and technical merit can actually work in a company’s favor.

HODINKEE: Why does Roger Dubuis place such a great emphasis on producing in-house movements when the designs are so extravagant? There are a number of brands that get away with focusing almost solely on external aesthetics, without paying very much attention to the movement.

Jean-Marc Pontroue: Roger Dubuis has been – from the very beginning – a brand that has not specifically focused on one aspect of watchmaking over another. Some other brands, as you mentioned, take design as the prime story, and thus focus little on the movement.

Others consider the movement design as the prime issue, whereas the case and dial design are relatively consensuel, or amenable – conservative and crowd-pleasing.

Roger Dubuis, from the beginning, has taken the position that being very strong in terms of mechanical content does not mean that the overall design of the watch has to be traditional or conservative.

So, the beauty of our brand is that we have the ability to keep technical content on one side and design extravagance on the other, at equally high levels.

The Skeleton, for example, is a good example of something which was treated rather conservatively up until recently. Roger Dubuis treated it in a contemporary, artistic way – to design the skeleton based on the shape of a star.

So, to answer your question: our brand doesn’t choose either of the two criteria (movement quality and aesthetic design) over the other as a favorite.

And there are consequences – in terms of organization. If you make it a statement – a brand position – that you have to treat, at similar importance, aesthetic design and mechanical content. The resources you give to research and development in terms of movement development and the resources you give to aesthetic creativity have consequences for the brand overall.

For example, Gregory Bruttin [Watchmaking and R&D Director] has an alter ego in the form of Alvaro Maggini (Creative Director). Gregory is the technical creative director, so-to-say, and Alvaro is the brand creative director. For a brand like us, which is so technical, the beauty of our organization is that Gregory, on one side, matches Alvaro, on the other side, in terms of responsibility for their respective areas. They have complicity.

That is the beauty of why the architecture of our organization works so well – the fact that these two guys are valued equally within the company.

H: You can tell when some brands rely solely on aesthetics at high price points. They use an ebauche movement – ETA, Soprod – and slap it in. You can tell how their resources are allocated within the company.

Do you feel that for many people there is a notion that a watch with an excellent movement must look a certain way? That it must look traditional and have conservative aesthetics?

JMP: Well, historically, the more you were creative aesthetically, the more your movement was supposed to be neutral, unremarkable. And the more you were creative in terms of the movement design, the more you had to be very neutral in terms of aesthetic concept.

It translated into a pyramid of price: low creativity in terms of aesthetics and high technical content was situated at the top of the price range. On the opposite side, you had all the creative fashion brands – to them, creativity was very important but the technical aspect [of movement design] was not.

Roger Dubuis takes the pyramid and turns it upside down. We say that we treat the same aspects at a high level. Aesthetics, which is strong, which is a statement – either you like it or you don’t – is associated with a strong mechanical movement.

H: Is it an asset that the designs are so polarizing?

JMP: You know, I very often take the example of Ferrari or Lamborghini in response to this concept. If you don’t like noisy cars, you don’t buy a Ferrari, if you don’t like 2-seaters, you don’t buy a Ferrari.

Yes, it’s polarizing.

But that’s the beauty of our brand. If you want to exist, among the hundreds of watch brands, you can do what many others are doing, but that won’t garner any attention and is not very special.

When Roger Dubuis first started to think about the brand, his original idea was that if we want to have a chance, not only to exist, but to become one of the important brands in the haute horlogerie segment – one of the brands that count, but doesn’t have 300 years of history – if you want to achieve something, you don’t wait for three generations to make it happen.

You have to forge a path that the other brands haven’t forged.

I believe today that the perceived image that people have of Roger Dubuis, is the image that the polarizing part of the brand is part of its value. Part of it is provocation.

H: Provocation is a strong word.

JMP: It’s eye-catching. When you want to exist in Geneva – with the highest concentration of watch retailers in the world – if you don’t want to be one more brand, you have to be eye-catching.

H: You have to do something different.

JMP: Our retail concept – either you like it, or you don’t like it. But it doesn’t look like others. We don’t have a lot of voice compared to other brands with higher advertising budgets, market presence, history – we don’t have that.

So if you want to exist, you have to exist with provocation.

H: Do you feel that there are enough people, specifically in the United States, who will respond positively to that provocation?

JMP: The U.S. market remains today, despite all the evolution in the rest of the world, the number one market for luxury products. You should never forget that.

Each time I come back to the U.S., I am reminded of the number of people who dare to buy bold cars at astronomical prices, who dare to buy high-end homes because they love them, who dare to buy private jets because it makes their lives easier.

In the U.S., you don’t have, relative to other countries in the world, a distance to will to spend. In many countries in the world, people are afraid to show that they are rich for many reasons – for security, for government issues, for culture.

In the U.S., there is a feeling of being very free to express who you are. It’s a sign of success to show a nice watch, a nice car, a nice plane, contemporary art – these are signs that you have been successful professionally, socially.

The U.S. is a market with major potential for Roger Dubuis. And we have seen it. It’s a country wherein we have the highest transactions around the world. We are selling many of our highest priced offerings – the Tourbillon, Quatour, Minute Repeater [with double micro-rotor] – these are the products which remain the best sellers in the United States.

The number one consideration is what is your product bringing differently compared with everything else on the market.

It can’t be argued that Roger Dubuis is taking a fairly unique path compared to other large (and small) manufactures. The brand’s identity is big, bold, over the top – but with a unique penchant for building artful movements that, unbranded, wouldn’t be out of place among the serene and severe images in Guido Mocafico’s photography book, Movement. While external aesthetics may not be right for purists, and even moderate purists (like myself), there is something to be said for a brand that chooses not to cut corners, when they so easily can.

For more information, visit Roger Dubuis online.