VIVIAN STAUFFER, CEO of Hamilton, sat in the audience at the premiere to Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar with absolutely no knowledge that the prop watch his brand had created especially for the film would become one of the greatest, most poignant, props utilised in film in recent times.

As Matthew McConaughey’s Cooper reaches through time itself to communicate with his daughter, Murph, through the watch he had given her decades ago, you can only imagine the chill that ran down Stauffer’s spine. That’s one heck of a product placement.

Except it wasn’t. While, sure, Stauffer and his team revelled in the beauty of Nolan’s masterpiece, he tells me with a wry smile that the excitement was short lived: “You must remember that it was a product that didn’t exist for the consumer, so we didn’t have anything to sell!” It would be another five years before the Hamilton Khaki Field Murph would finally make its way onto the stands of its boutiques – and it has unsurprisingly become a bestseller.

This relationship with Hollywood is how many people first discovered the Hamilton brand, whether it was the Ventura from Men in Black, the Odyssee 2001 from 2001: A Space Odyssey, or indeed Murph’s watch from Interstellar, but it’s worth noting that Hamilton’s heritage stretches all the way back to 1892 when its pocket watches helped to minimise the number of railroad accidents happening in America.

Founded in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Hamilton is a brand that’s American spirit continues to shine through, even though it is now headquartered in Biel, Switzerland. And unlike many of its Swiss neighbours, which remain steadfast in their obsession with purely mechanical watchmaking, it continued to pursue innovation in the face of tradition. It created the first commercial watch to feature an electrical movement and followed that up with the first ever digital watch.

In recent times, led by Stauffer, himself a 20-year veteran of Swatch Group and having been at Hamilton since 2007, the company has continued to forge ahead with a forward-thinking attitude and a desire to never rest on one’s laurels. We sit down with Stauffer to talk films, watches, and what’s next.

There’s been a lot of development, innovation and work: many things have changed

SM: You’ve worked at the Swatch group for more than two decades. How has the watch industry changed in that time?

VS: Thank you for reminding me that I am 20 years older than when I joined! But, in honesty, it would be difficult for me to comment on the change of the watch industry in general. I think especially when we talk about Swiss-made watches, there are different price points, different identities and each brand still has its own approach so the industry may have changed differently from what we have experienced here at Hamilton.

We moved our headquarters from the US to Switzerland in 2002 and for the last 20 years Hamilton has been a growing brand. We relaunched the brand and repositioned it within the Swatch Group. There’s been a lot of development, a lot of innovation and a lot of work that has been done, and I would say that many things have changed.

We were not talking about online or e-commerce 20 years ago. For Hamilton, we started to tackle the world of e-commerce in 2014. This really boosted Hamilton to the next level, especially during the pandemic because we had everything in place a few years before.

SM: Has the demographic shifted?

VS: So I think that there is definitely a trend. First of all, the audience of Hamilton are pretty young people, but it’s also because we are quite active online. There is also definitely a trend of people who want to wear a watch that tells a story, whether it is emotion or something that speaks to the owner. Hamilton’s rich history with its strength of design is an answer to this request and fits with the needs of the people.

“Hamilton is quite unique in many ways. One of the strong values of the brand is first of all the passion that we put into every single level of the product – from the development phase to the design, the partnerships that we do with the movie industry, I think that it’s a strong value that resonates with people.

I would also say that it pays to be a little bit different. We have this American spirit at Hamilton, even if we are based in Switzerland. We are Swiss-made watches, but born in the US with a history that is quite interesting. For example, we launched the very first electric watch movement in 1957, the Hamilton Ventura, which was quite a big revolution in the watchmaking industry. And then in 1972, we introduced the world’s first commercial electronic digital wristwatch, the Pulsar P1, which was a totally new way of displaying the time. This is an amazing story for a brand and I think that this American spirit – or this way of bringing revolution to the watchmaking industry – at that time, could only come from an American brand.

Hamilton Ventura Skeleton

SM: If you look at the likes of the Pulsar and the Ventura, the case shape and the design of the watches themselves is so distinctive. That’s such a strength for the brand…

VS: Well, take a look at the Ventura. I think the interesting thing is for some people involved in the watch world, they’re going to think of the Ventura as the first electric watch, whereas some people will be more interested in the design, and will note that it was designed by Mr Richard Arbib, who was a preeminent designer in the motorcar industry at that time, an industrial designer for some people. Then you’ll have other people who’ll say it’s the Elvis watch, who was someone who revolutionised the world of music, and you’ll have other people who will immediately think of Men in Black. So it’s one product, but it has so many different stories to tell.

SM: That’s the thing about having a history: you have all of these cultural touchpoints…

VS: Definitely. We have a very rich history. We’re constantly learning about the brand ourselves. We still discover interesting things because historically we didn’t always keep the best archives, and we moved our headquarters, so even now we may discover something new. But this rich history is the starting point for almost every product we develop. We don’t want to be jailed into a nostalgic world – and I believe that we have to create something contemporary – but our history is a great asset for the brand.

SM: That’s a really good way to put it. Because for any historic brand the question is always how do you honour that rich heritage while also remaining relevant?

Hamilton PSR

VS: It’s always about finding the balance. If I consider, for example, the PSR, the digital watch. We relaunched it in 2022, but we used new technology: it’s a new movement, it’s a new display that has been developed in house within the Swatch Group to really bring something new. It doesn’t make sense anymore nowadays to put on the market something that we were able to produce more than 50 years ago with a battery life duration of six months when nowadays you have new technology where you can offer a battery that is going to last for a few years.

The other example that I would give is the Lady Necklace we launched earlier this year. I mean it’s definitely a piece that is inspired by the 1920s. We were producing these watches back then, but we wanted to give it a little contemporary twist, something a little bit more fashionable that brings something new.

To relaunch something from the past is easy, but to bring something new within this environment is quite exciting. It pushes us further creatively. Our role as well is to continue to develop something that will create the history of tomorrow. I would love that people in 2060, they look back and they say, wow, look what they did in 2023. That’s our role now: to also put something on the market that will create inspiration for the future.

SM: I think one of Hamilton’s greatest strengths in that regard is the movement technology you share with sister brand ETA.

If you look at the Khaki Field, for example, with the Powermatic 80 at its heart, that finds that balance between heritage looks and cutting-edge technology…

Hamilton Khaki Field Mechanical

VS: It’s interesting what you are saying because when we did the change, our sister company or producing company, ETA developed this new calibre with an 80-hour power reserve and we put it in the Khaki Field Mechanical. It’s a hand-winding watch and we had some of our audience who complained because they said, “But I like to touch my watch, I like to wind it and now you give me less need to wind it! I love this connection with the product and by increasing the power reserve, I don’t take it as another value.”

So that’s also the beauty of this: you try to improve something, to be innovative, to bring value, but for some people it might be seen as something that is not what they were expecting. But we are really happy with the product. The Khaki Field Mechanical remains a very, very strong collection on a worldwide basis, but especially in the UK.

SM: Where does the UK market come into the equation for Hamilton?

VS: It’s a very good and promising market. The US remains our number-one market, which is very interesting as an originally American brand, but the UK is well established in the top ten markets of Hamilton. In fact, during the Covid period it has been, and I checked the figures, it has been the fastest growing country in the world for us between 2019 and 2022, so that’s very interesting.

We had quite a big expansion in the UK. We opened about 40 retailers, independent retailers during this 2019 to 2022 period, so that is something that helped us as well to get more visibility in the market and to be available to a wider audience of customers. But we’re very happy with the progress here.

SM: Why has the Khaki Field resonated so much with buyers in the UK?

VS: It’s a strong Hamilton DNA product. It has a strong history – a military history – and it’s a type of watch that has always been part of the collection. We’ve always had this hand winding watch and, maybe it’s by luck, but it seems that there is a demand from some of our audience to be connected back to their watch thanks to the winding crown.

We have also launched the Khaki Field environment, which will remove a little bit of its association with the military world in favour of something more adventurous. We see that people want to go back to nature, want to go back to exploration, and we think that this is a value of the Khaki Field. So that’s why we reworked a new Khaki Field. The Khaki Field Expedition is not linked with a military estate, but I’m pretty sure that the UK customer will be happy with this product.

Hamilton Khaki Field Expedition
Hamilton Khaki Field Expedition

SM: How does the Khaki Field Expedition differ?

VS: We listen to our audience, so it has an anti-reflective coating on the sapphire glass that we don’t have on the Khaki Field Mechanical. It has a screw-down crown. We’ve also totally reworked the shape of the case because the Khaki Field Mechanical is quite an industrial product and perhaps a little large for some.

In the 1940s when they had to produce one million watches for the American soldiers, they didn’t really think about the ergonomics of the product; they had to produce watches at scale. So this time we’ve reworked the shape of the case to ensure it suits a larger number of wrists.

We have a turning bezel on it to give an adventurous touch, and we have removed the second scale – the 13 to 24 that is dedicated to military environment. We come directly with two sizes, 37mm and 41mm. That’s the main agenda coming into this product.

It has a different spirit, I would say, but still inherently Khaki Field in its feeling.

SM: Shifting to the Khaki Pilot Pioneer. I know you’re an experienced pilot – did you offer your own views on the practicalities of a watch design for a pilot?

Khaki Pilot Pioneer

VS: Well, maybe I’m going to disappoint you: I try not to be too much involved in the design because there are other people that are much more competent and have more understanding of the market than myself.

I’m not too much into vintage in the world of aviation – I’m more toward the future or the technical side of things. I’m not one of the types of people who are fans of vintage cars or vintage motorbikes or vintage planes, and need to dress for the same era. I’m more into the technical product from the Aviation collection. Today I’m wearing the Hamilton X-Wind that we launched a couple of years ago, which is much more contemporary.

There is a large audience, especially in the world of aviation or in the car industry, who love their vintage toys, but it has to be right. It has to speak to them.

So the Khaki Pilot Pioneer, it’s quite limited at Hamilton. It’s not a big connection because they have to fit with the story of the brand, they have to fit with the history of the brand, and there are only two main inspirations in the watches that we were doing for the Royal Air Force and that’s why it’s big inspiration for our Khaki Pilot Pioneer collection, and the Model 23 that was used by the US Army in the 1940s. That’s why it’s not a wide collection, but it’s really focused on a specific product from the past.

SM: We have to talk about film. Hamilton’s relationship with cinema dates all the way back to Shanghai Express in 1932, and there have been almost countless films since where Hamilton has been in some way included. Can you summarise how important Hamilton’s affiliation with film is for the brand?

VS: We have the fortune to have this long history with Hollywood, and to have a very close relationship with the people, with the studios, with the prop masters, with the costume designers. But that’s not something that you get from day one. It’s really that rich history that enables us to be able to continue to work so closely with Hollywood and it’s something we’re very thankful for.

We have three ways of working with the movie industry. The first way is to have at the disposal of the studio our current collection, so they have all our products available that they can choose from depending on what they want to do. They don’t have to think too much, they can choose a product that’s going to fit with the character of the movie, which is quite easy. We provide them with watches available.

The other way is that we can offer one of our historical models from our archive that will fit with the time period the film is shot in. When they are shooting a movie from the 1920s, of course they cannot put the new launch of the X-Wind on the actor’s wrist, so it has to fit with the period of the movie. We will make our best efforts to provide the film with a product either from our museum or we might go even further and get in contact with collectors; we purchase back watches that would fit with the movie. I think that’s something that is really valuable for the movie studio to know that we are prepared to go above and beyond to come up with the best possible solution for them.

The third way of working with a film would be prop watches. These are watches that are developed, especially for a specific movie.

The first one was a request by Mr Stanley Kubrick himself for the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. Recently everyone has talked about Christopher Nolan with Interstellar or with Tenet. More recently, at the beginning of this year we have just started working with the Chinese director, Mr Guo Fan, who contacted Hamilton a couple of years ago and we had to develop a prop watch for his latest movie. The film hasn’t been distributed all around the world, but that’s the first time that Hamilton has ever created a prop watch for a movie outside of the USA.

Hamilton Khaki Field Murph 38MM

SM: Let's talk about the The Murph because I don’t recall a watch ever being such a significant plot device in an Oscar-winning movie. What was it like when you first saw the film and you realised how integral the Hamilton was to the story? Did you know quite the extent that it was going to be part of the plot device?

VS: We didn’t know. We had no information about how the watch would be used in the film. And I think that’s also the beauty of the brand is that we supply them with watches with no discussion, no interaction; we don’t want to request anything. We don’t want to be involved in this creative world; I think that’s their job, they want to create the best movie and we want to make the best watches. So we often don’t know if we’re going to see the watch in the movie at all.

When we talk about the prop watch, there is a collaboration between the brand and the prop master, the designer or the production manager. They’ll ask us to do something special. So we expect that they will show the watch at some point because of course it’s a unique piece, it’s something that has been developed for the movie and by definition they will make something out of it or otherwise they might as well have taken one from of our standard collection. But we go into each screening without any expectations.

For Interstellar, we didn’t know what would be the role of the Murph watch. It was such a big surprise to go to the premiere and realise what the team had done with the product that we developed for them.

SM: Your jaw must have dropped in Interstellar. It’s the climax of the film, it’s an integral part of the plot. You must have been popping champagne?

VS: We were, but you must remember that it was a product that didn’t exist for the consumer, so we didn’t have anything to sell! It’s a prop watch that was made just for the movie. Of course, then we get the pressure from our audience, from our fanbase to make it happen and bring it into reality. That’s why it was launched in 2019, five years after Interstellar, and then a few years later we followed up with a smaller size in order to answer the huge demand from our fanbase.

But it’s been a great success. You have this watch, with this deeply emotional father-daughter relationship, this communication between them, it really resonated with people. And I think that’s the beauty of the watch industry is that you can convey this emotion through a beautiful object. Whenever you receive a watch for your graduation, for your wedding, for your anniversary, you’re going to remember it. We always try to have an emotional link with the product when we put it on the market, but in this instance the movie certainly helped us to transfer this emotion and add another level of immersion.

Hamilton Boulton

SM: And now there’s Oppenheimer – an example of taking watches from the past?

VS: Yes, exactly. We provided Christopher Nolan’s team with quite a lot of really nice museum pieces for the film. Again, we really don’t know ahead of time how well you’ll be able to see them, but the characters are wearing Hamilton watches. We even purchased some watches from collectors to supply ones that would fit. So I’m pretty sure that you can expect to see some vintage watches on the actors and the characters.
[In the end, six Hamilton watches made cameos in the film including three different models on the wrist of lead actor, Cillian Murphy; and the Lady Hamilton A2 on Emily Blunt who was playing Kitty Oppenheimer.]

SM: I love that you have no idea how the watches will be used. It feels like this is not a commercially driven part of the business, but something that is based around Hamilton’s love of the movies.

VS: We don’t want to enter into this creative decision. They work with passion and they have to decide what they want to, that’s their creation, it’s not for us to intervene. We are just a watch producer. We have the chance to have watches that could fit almost every environment, any kind of character, and we give them the opportunity to choose within our collection what would fit and support them to tell the story.

It’s not about product placement, it’s really a partnership I would say between the studio, the people working behind the camera, and ourselves. And that’s exactly why we created the Hamilton Behind the Camera awards. After so many years working with these studios and seeing the passion of the people, what they do behind the scenes to make the magic that you see when you watch a movie, we thought it only right that we created an award to honour them.

Hamilton CEO Vivian Stauffer

SM: Final question. I wonder if, in your specific sector within the watch world, you are noticing any particular trends or anything that you anticipate might become a more important aspect of the watch industry over the next ten years or so?

VS: Well, ten years is a long time and I don’t have my crystal ball. Anybody who tells you they can predict what will happen in the next ten years is lying. I think if we just look back at the last ten years, I’m not sure we would expect anything that we had.

What I can do is look at the figures and use those as a basis from which to look forward. So last year was a record in terms of Swiss watch industry exportation; and it was really big this year. From January to May, it’s +11% versus last year globally about the Swiss watch industry, which would suggest that it’s going to be a record year again.

But if you dig a little bit into the details per price point, we see that the entry price point is suffering more than the higher end or the luxury portion of the market. The good news is that Hamilton continues to be far above the trend. So we are quite confident for the future.

The biggest challenge we face, I would say, on a Hamilton level is to structure the brand to be able to withstand the growing demands on our production. Our success needs to be handled, needs to be faced, and we need to change as well the structure of the company in terms of the way we work.

You know, it’s not a very small company like it was 20 years ago, it’s getting bigger and bigger and we are growing with the company. But with the passion that everyone in this company displays every day, and the strong commitment we have, I am confident for the future of Hamilton.

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