Vacheron Constantin might be the oldest watch manufacture in continual production, but it is by no means living in the past – spend any time with the brand’s dynamic chief marketing officer and you will see this ethos incarnate.
Laurent Perves joined from Audemars Piguet in 2016 after a decade of honing his craft in the fast-moving world of fashion and beauty. He’s witnessed first hand the rapidly evolving trends of the luxury industry along with the burgeoning influence of technology, digital and social media. His role now isn’t an easy one: preserve more than 250 years worth of history, while urging Vacheron Constantin forward to keep up with the modern age.
The brand’s latest move on this path is the introduction of blockchain technology to the watch brand’s authentication process – a first in the world of horology, but unlikely to be the last we see its application in this sector.
For Perves, Vacheron’s rich heritage isn’t “just about being the oldest, it’s what comes with that”. It means he isn’t concerned with fickle trends, but is focused on listening to what the consumer wants.
In his words, “Change is a natural process… the old inspires the new, and the new slowly becomes the old.”
We sit down with one of the sharpest minds in the watch world to find out more:
There's no getting away from the vintage trend at the moment…
If you think about it, the production of new watches is permanent every year. It's only very recently that people have started to sell back their watches and sort of lifecycling their collection. Suddenly, we have a huge second-hand market exploding on products that are, in theory, eternal – in comparison to cars or wine, for example. Some people talk about the market being worth €10bn, some talk about €50bn, so of course there's a lot of attention in the sector.
Fortunately, very early on we were one of the first brands – and still one of the only ones – to market our own vintage watches, which we restore entirely and re-certify, authentic and guarantee for two years with the Les Collectionneurs line.
We have a huge second-hand market exploding on products that are, in theory, eternal
How are different brands reacting to the second-hand market? It seems a lot of brands are having to be a lot more reactive than perhaps they have been in the past.
For us, I would say it's a lot less of a reaction, it's more of a natural process: being the oldest manufacture in continuous production, the management and preservation of our heritage is part of what we do. Our heritage department has existed for a very long time and is fully integrated with our marketing and commercial teams, and also in the design of our new products.
We really see it as a lifecycle: the old inspires the new, and the new will slowly become the old. The Historiques collection, which is our interpretation of iconic Vacheron Constantin watches, has pieces like the Cornes De Vache 1955 or the American 1921. Originally, the Historiques were only made in very small quantities – and at the time it wasn't even a business potential, but a request from some of our very particular connoisseur clients – now it’s incredibly popular.
It's not so much about just being the oldest but what comes with that – the richness of the history, the archive, researching old watchmaking techniques. You know, we can look at what we were doing in the 1950s and the questions we were trying to answer then, and how that applies nicely to the new collections. It's a real comfort for the brand to have that, and it's something we try hard to perpetuate.
Take the FiftySix collection that we launched in September 2018 in London. Christian Selmoni, Vacheron Constantin's style and heritage director, worked closely with our designers to create a watch that was contemporary but rooted in the DNA of the brand.
As they looked through the archives, they came back to the 1950s for a few reasons: firstly, it was a very dynamic period for watchmaking, a time when we saw a lot of practical designs, and it was a time when the automatic movement was slowly imposing itself on the industry.
We wanted something contemporary, easy to wear and from its time and we settled on a design inspired by the Ref.6073, created in 1956, which had these beautiful Maltese Cross-inspired lugs.
It's a circle and you always come back to the most relevant time of history to tell your story, but of course it's with the technologies of today and it comes with the standard of quality that has evolved over time.
Is there a trend towards slightly more accessible price points in watchmaking?
It's funny how it's always a surprise at first and then people realise it is in fact a consumer need, which is where most trends come from. For us it was never really a surprise. I think if you know the industry and the organic price increase throughout the past decade, you can see that this changing price point was needed.
Our main aim was not a question of price, but what was the right watch for the audience of today, what's missing in our collections and what do we want to offer.
It's true that when we launched the FiftySix at SIHH 2018 it came as a bit of a surprise, but by the time it was available for sale in September it was actually a very natural addition to the line-up and the success we've had since then has only confirmed that. It has easily outperformed expectations.
Are you aware of trying to reach out to a younger consumer? There are certain pieces that are perhaps not right for the audience – high complication watches for example.
You'd be surprised. It's always the expectation that high complication, perhaps more expensive, pieces are for the older generations, but that's not the case. As I always say, our one segmentation is watch connoisseurs and fans of the brand in general.
With the quantity we produce, starting to segment or subdivide our clients wouldn't really make sense, and it wouldn't be respectful of those aspiring to own our watches.
Funnily enough, when we look at our clientele, first of all it's pretty stable in terms of average age, but some of the models you might expect to be most effective to a more senior consumer are actually sought after by younger consumers. So, for example, if I take our Métiers d'Art collections or the the vintage Les Collectionneurs, they are extremely successful with younger clientele, meanwhile lines like FiftySix and Overseas are really in the average of the maison. But in general the complicated watch average age is constantly going down, which is brilliant for us and the industry because it means that high-end watchmaking drives interest with the younger generation.
Beyond what people think, the younger generation aren't just after labels and flashy advertising – they want meaning, they want history – so often our younger clients are so eager to know more, to connect with brands like us, and are our the most engaged audience in vintage topics.
When you know people are ready to pay for a phone that can only make phone calls, or to go on a retreat without their phone, or take time to meditate, I think there must be a part where people are seeking something more spiritual and tangible than the connected and virtual world.
It's a good thing for the whole industry because it brings us back to real tangible values and forces brands to listen more and more to their clients, and to be more transparent.
I think there must be a part where the vintage trend comes from people seeking something more spiritual and tangible than the virtual world
The watch world has been criticised in the past for not being quick enough to adapt to the digital world. Do you think it's caught up now?
In the past, I worked in fast-paced categories like beauty and fashion where the fast cycles mean that digital is so important if, say, you need to sell a new pair of sneakers every two months. For us, we use digital and other technological innovations when they add value, not just for the sake of it.
We actually had one of the first blogs in the industry, because it had the purpose of collectors from around the world connecting with each other and discussing their pieces. Today, we are working with blockchain because we can certify the watches and the same for the watch manufacturing: we use some very high-grade technologies when it helps us delivering a higher grade of finishing or craftsmanship.
Could you explain how Vacheron is using Blockchain technology?
The main interest of blockchain is it's the most secure way to protect the certificates of authenticity. For a long time we have ensured paper authentication of documents for clients, merchants and auction houses, but blockchain is the ultimate technology to protect authentication. Because it’s digital, as well, it doesn't perish meaning you can pass it from one generation to another without concern of losing the documents.
The other interest is that with blockchain you can authenticate with more than one document, so you can attach anything that relates to the watch – so archives, pictures, drawings, the service documents. This means the history of the watch travels with it from one owner to another.
Contrary to what I've read in certain articles, the information is completely anonymous and the data is stored securely. For most of our clients, who are wealthy but discrete people, that’s very important.
For the moment, this project is just on our vintage watches, because it's the most relevant field to explore and make a proof of concept. In the future, there is the possibility to move towards our new collections.
Of course, the technology is democratic, it doesn't just belong to Vacheron. I know at the time of speaking there are other brands from different groups looking into this.
What is the natural progression for the watch industry? How do you balance between the history of the brand and remaining current?
I think most brands would answer the same: it's not so much a matter of being an old brand or a new brand, retail is still the biggest touchpoint for our clients. Even with all of the digital activities available, clients at some point want to come into the boutique – even if it's just to see the watch or have it set for the first service.
The thing that is beginning to change is what happens in the boutique. It's becoming much less transactional and much more a conversation with the consumer. As much information is available online and digitally, people still like to talk.
For me, it's a matter of creating complementary touchpoints and ensuring that the message and DNA of the brand remains the same. The brand is 264 years old, so we're not going to renew who we are today: we're going to keep doing mechanical watches of the highest quality and finish.
How would you expect buying habits to change?
We are seeing buying habits change. One thing we see is that people are more mobile – the place you work isn't necessarily the place you live, in fact you may live in several places. This means that more and more we need to be close to our clients in the way that they live and move.
In terms of media consumption, that's going to evolve with devices and technology, but whatever this is we will still be telling the same story just through a new format.
What I think is quite interesting is to see that because of the dissemination of information, our category will be come more and more interesting to younger consumers. Watchmaking and high watchmaking was a difficult sector to enter a 15-20 years ago because of the lack of internet and information, and maybe entering the boutique was a bit intimidating for some people. Now, of course, this knowledge is readily available so I think the democratisation of the category will continue, which can only be a good thing.
Ten years might seem like a long time, but when the brand is 264 years old, it's not a particularly big leap.
Ten years might seem like a long time, but when the brand is 264 years old, it's not a particularly big leap
What has been the element that has taken you by surprise in terms of the direction the industry is heading in?
For me, it's the borderless world we live in now and the fact that we are moving towards a global culture. Fifteen or so years ago, you had specific models for specific regions. It was very common within the industry to tailor your communication to each part of the world, but today we can have a much more universal message and we can communicate with one voice. For clients, I think this is quite interesting because you now can belong to one big community of watch lovers. I think that feeds into the culture of luxury today, we see much more collaborations now and bridges between the worlds of art, culture and luxury.
What's your favourite thing about working with Vacheron Constantin?
There are many, but the first is very simple: being able to wear one everyday! I think what I like the most working for Vacheron is, because of the culture of the company, is that you learn every day – and that's not because you have to, but because it's interesting to do so. I know that every day I go to the office I'll learn something about the brand, the atelier or watchmaking.
Do you have a favourite Vacheron Constantin?
I'll take one vintage and one new. Vintage, the Reference 222 comes from an incredibly influential time period and is just a stunning design that is still relevant today. In the current collection, I really, really like the watch I'm wearing at the moment, which is the Overseas Perpetual Calendar Ultra-Thin. I think it's a watch of perfect proportion and I don't believe there's a better epitome of sport chic: it's kind of a sports watch, but also a little bit dressy. That and the sophistication of the movement to me makes it an expression of pure beauty.
For more information, see vacheron-constantin