I’ve reported many times about the innovation at the heart of the watch industry, yet beyond new materials and miniaturisation, more complex and precise mechanical movements, is it innovative enough to remain relevant in a rapidly changing global market? In an exclusive interview, Pierre Guerrier, co-founder and CEO of new “watch brand” Riskers, shares his insights on the “revolution” in the industry.
Designs are becoming predictable pastiche, often just as self-referential as fashion. Audemars Piguet’s (AP’s) new Code 11.59, launched at Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie Genève, the annual watch trade fair, earlier this month, is impressive and ticks all the right boxes for exquisite build quality and machinery but most would agree it’s no future icon. It’s another round watch and, although quite gorgeous and expensive, beyond pure looks and so-called brand DNA threads, I find little emotional connection to the collection.
Emotional connection and a unique story, with true gravitas, is important to millennial consumers seeking a point of difference, but among likeminded communities with shared values and views. Retail has had to evolve quickly, along with these connections and conversations online, with many casualties along the way. Apart from the more recent growth of established luxury watch sales online, it is the newcomers who appear to be the real innovators in responding to the new consumer desires.
One only has to Google search the numerous microbrands launched successfully through Kickstarter over the past five years to get an idea of the huge interest in watches but also the demand for unusual, limited and, importantly, more affordable “luxury” pieces which offer the customer immersion in a unique brand community and experience of the creation process. Of course, not all watches are created equal on Kickstarter and everyone is warned to do their homework.
US smartwatch brand Pebble “kick-started” it in 2013 when it became the first crowdfunded watch on the platform, raising over $10-million to get its first watch to market. LIV is a direct-to-consumer, microbrand crafting high-quality, accessibly-priced Swiss-made, limited edition watches “capable of keeping up with an adventurous, bold lifestyle”, according to the company’s website.
After two decades in the watch industry, its founders realised most enthusiasts were excluded by retail prices “bloated with mid-channel markups and celebrity endorsements”. Their first crowdfunding campaign, launched at the end of 2014, was fully funded within 11 hours and holds the distinction of being the highest-funded Swiss-made watch to date, with their third campaign raising more than $1.7-million in fan support. Their latest LIV GX1 Cool Gray chronograph Limited Edition (of 500) is available online at $490.
Also check out Belgian brand Méraud and their vintage-inspired Bonaire diver’s watch, powered by a modified Caliber STP1-11 Swiss automatic movement (€655), and the “reborn” Czech brand Chronotechna with its “blackest watch ever made” using Aerospace Super Black Coating, powered by a Swiss Sellita SW 200-1 self-winding movement. If you pledged €399 euro when they launched you’d be receiving your watch in March - but now it’s worth three times that.
Looking to join their ranks soon is Guerrier and the Riskers team with their, as-yet-watchless “watch brand with a difference”, conceived only nine months ago.
“A good friend was looking for a watch for about €800 (R12,500), which for him was a lot of money. He’s not a watch geek and not able to spend more. I accompanied him a store to look in this price category and he was so disappointed because he was presented with hundreds of watches everywhere, giving the impression they are nothing special. It was not a great experience. Like a supermarket. This is why Kickstarter and new creations are booming because for €800 to 1,000 you can buy a positive story, something emotional,” Guerrier says.
“You don’t buy a watch because you need it, you buy it for something else, an emotion, a story … today people are more informed and more demanding and they don’t want a story created in PowerPoint, they want something true.
“AP [Audemars Piguet] lost the opportunity with just another watch - nothing striking or exceptional. Its finishes are beautiful but it’s not revolutionary,” says the millennial and serial entrepreneur, who along with his nine co-founders – all former Richemont executives – bring over a decade each of industry experience to Riskers but also fresh ideas on how things need to be done.
Guerrier believes big brands have lost their way. “They have become very cautious due to the economy, particularly in China. They also have to appease financial analysts and, because of this, also fall into the trap of putting a lot of energy into short-term vision that fits short-term trends. They are also copying each other and the client does not want this anymore.”
He says most brand are not moving in the same direction as their clients. “When you are buying a watch, you have an expectation that it’s the beginning of something special but, for the brand, it’s the end of the relationship. You receive info on how to take care of your watch and communication about new product. It’s totally emotionless. They need to stop speaking of ‘client’ or ‘after-sales service’ and talk about ‘people’. The watch industry has difficulty creating communities but ‘people’ have been speaking about their passion for watches on other community platforms besides the brand platforms.
“Today people expect more audacity and authenticity and established brands have difficulty being daring. Small players, by their nature, are obliged to be daring as they emerge. The creation of new brands has become a trend also because the client is looking for true emotion, true meaning and don’t want all the stereotypes.
“The Chinese were very driven by statutory watch brands and now, like other people, are getting more educated and will seek more and more new brands. Once you have the key status brands in your collection and see them on the wrists of all your friends, you don’t feel unique. So, people want to have something different and new brands, from that perspective, are very interesting for them. The challenge is to keep that novelty and uniqueness.”
What makes the revolutionary Riskers idea so different? Well, it’s all about-face and their current PR message is suitably confusing - but was intriguing enough to attract my attention and get me to reach out to Guerrier. To create with total freedom, the team is self-funding for now and determined to establish a brand “that tells a true story first” and leverage an engaged community unified by shared values. Only then will product follow that is intrinsically connected to the story “packed with emotion on your wrist”.
All Guerrier is revealing for now is that Riskers is inspired by the story of “ordinary men, not celebrities, from the past who had to face something together, transforming themselves to fight a situation under challenging circumstances”. That, and the important lead that all of these men “had watches, which they also transformed and adapted” for this mysterious event. Guerrier’s job is to transport this story, purpose and values from this real community in the past to form a new community today. “And then together we will assist with the birth of the brand. But the community will always be larger than the brand.”
The artistic direction is entrusted to Malo le Bot, formally with Vacheron Constantin and Baume & Mercier. The mission of the designer will be to make pieces with a luxury code that are “casual chic and timeless”, recognising the spirit of the original watches. There will be both quartz and automatic models featuring movements from Richemont, through a range of prices in limited editions.
A former Piaget marketing executive who was intimately involved in the launch and storytelling of their elegant Altiplano collection, Guerrier owns a 38mm Piaget Altiplano ultraslim mechanical timepiece, which will remain his favorite “until the Riskers collection is revealed later this year”.
Although Pebble raised $20.3-million from backers for its second generation smartwatch, breaking all Kickstarter records, the brand no longer exists. I personally don’t like smartwatches but this does raise the questions about the sustainability of microbrands, who are expected to be consistently different and audacious to stand out and remain relevant.
Established brands of old built loyal followings – communities – through their original customers who shared their values, commitment to quality and the adventurous lifestyle experiences they represented. If they have lost their way in recent years, they would do well to keep an eye on the Riskers.
You’ll find @riskers_watches on Instagram and online when they launch their community at the end of next month.