Louis Vuitton has come a long way in the six years since Hamdi Chatti took over the luggage brand’s watch and jewellery division. Just how far was made clear in Geneva recently as Louis Vuitton flew in some top clients to inspect its new Seal of Geneva watch.
The Seal of Geneva is a rigorous set of quality and aesthetic standards that dates from 1886, when Geneva’s reputation as a watchmaking centre was under threat from fakers. The canton of Geneva set up a system of optional inspection for watches made within its borders and, if standards were met, they would be engraved with the arms of the city of Geneva. Over the years the Seal of Geneva criteria have been updated, most recently in 2012.
The company previously only assembled and carried out quality control on its watches in a facility in La Chaux-de-Fonds in Switzerland. Two years ago it built a factory on the outskirts of Geneva, making Louis Vuitton geographically eligible for the Seal of Geneva. The brand also acquired a specialist movement design and manufacturing business — La Fabrique du Temps — allowing it to make watches of a suitable quality and ingenuity.
At this factory Louis Vuitton has assembled the know-how to master all aspects of watchmaking. It still uses components from Swiss sub-suppliers for some of its watches, but for the high watchmaking pieces, such as the tourbillon, all the design, the components for prototypes and the first series are made in house. “If we need a bridge we can make it in a couple of days, if we need a dial we can make it in a week rather than waiting two months for it from an external supplier,” says Mr Chatti.
A watch bearing the Seal of Geneva, is proof of this in-house craftsmanship. “It makes tangible something that we have done over the last 24 months during which we’ve centralised all the various trades that we have mastered over the last 12 years, from dial making to case making . . . to movement manufacture,” says Michael Burke, president and chief executive of Louis Vuitton.
“If you are in Geneva you see it when you visit our site, but it needs to be rendered tangible worldwide through a product. At the end of the day that’s what it’s about.”
The result is a watch that looks like nothing Louis Vuitton has done before, “We decided on this very light, transparent design, with a new case and new movement. The watch is fully transparent. It’s a see-through watch,” says Mr Chatti.
The brand’s two master watchmakers, Enrico Barbazini and Michel Navas, have been crucial. “Together they have something like 70 years of experience, many spent preparing movements for the seal. Until you go into it, it is impossible to understand the detail, even the smallest screws have to be finished and polished in a particular way.
“It is a bit disruptive,” he adds. “Nobody expects that kind of thing from Vuitton.”
This policy of disruption is continuing in Louis Vuitton’s decision to pull out of the Baselworld fair in March.
As a brand with no wholesale business selling only through its stores “It’s always been a little bit of a stretch,” says Mr Burke. When it comes to presenting new products Mr Burke believes there may be other avenues better suited to the brand’s business model which also correspond more closely to the products’ availability.
“It’s a problem that all marketplaces have today because the digital world has shrunk the notion of time,” he says.
In fashion week collections are shown six months in advance, he adds, but consumers can immediately view the new collection digitally. “You then tell your client, ‘But you have to wait six months’. That’s OK when you’re placing something bespoke. But when you’re selling ready-to-wear, there’s nothing ready about it.”
Mr Burke hopes that in horlogerie the brand can be innovative, and “the first to do something slightly different”.
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