What is Manuel Emch, formerly the CEO of Jaquet Droz, doing at Romain Jerome, an upstart company with no history and a tendency to polarize the watch community? That is the question I asked him when we met in New York City not long ago.
Emch explained he wanted and needed a new challenge and Romain Jerome (referred to as RJ by Emch) became it. After a decade with a traditional brand, he seemed to easily transition into one without a legacy or tenure in the watch business. Let’s see why (and if) this odd couple works.
Emch started his watch career in 2001 when Swatch Group gave him the responsibility of restarting Jaquet Droz, a brand dating to the mid-18th century that had sat dormant for a couple hundred years. Producers of clocks and watches, Jaquet Droz was most famous for the automata they created. Emch spent 10 years building a new philosophy, identity, retail network and the plans for building a manufacture. He achieved his goals and decided it was time to move on. He didn’t want to spend another 5 years in the driver’s seat to oversee the building of the production facilities. Plus, there was that little problem of disagreeing with some of the strategic directions of the group, to put it politely. Emch can’t work without having his creative freedom, so he left.
When first approached by RJ, he was unsure about the brand and turned down the offer. Gradually the company grew on him as he thought about the proposition. Here’s why: He believes the concept to be the strongest one in the industry, one based on “The DNA of Famous Legends”. He finds it refreshing to have a brand that doesn’t play on history. We find this interesting because the watch industry touts their history in order to sell watches, reaching into their archives to release updates of oler models. To Emch, RJ is more than a watch brand. It doesn’t have a narrow frame. And most important, he likes the people involved.
Interestingly, one thing he didn’t like was the first approach to the Titanic watch. In his view, they needed to try something morepolarizing to emerge and give the company visibility. What Emch means is that they launched a new advertising campaign in 2010 because the one before was not strong enough. He decided to go for something much more powerful and recognizable with contemporary graphics that had a strong visual identity: dark colors, saturated images, heroes that are on the edge of an implosion and, as has become RJ’S trademark, a bit provocative and ironic!. The idea was also to be out of touch with the rest of the watch brands’ ad campaigns. They certainly accomplished this strategy, but does it work?
What attracted Emch to RJ is the philosophy, the storytelling, the emotion and, most of all, the possibilities of the brand. Emch feels having no history is an advantage!
Since archives are non-existent for RJ, they work off a Legends and Capsules concept. The Legends relate to Air, Earth and Sea, while the Capsules reference cultural legends of a generation, such as video gaming and contemporary art, that aren’t comprised of physical material. An example of a Legend watch would be the Titanic, and a Capsule, Space Invaders.
Though RJ doesn’t approach watchmaking from a traditional standpoint, Emch says this requires that they play even more by the rules than anybody else. No fast and loose with inflated claims; there has to be complete transparency.
Therefore, RJ makes no pretense of making their own movements because of the price and quality they wish to maintain. They aren’t selling themselves as a manufacture but on the story. Movements come from a modified ETA 7750 base sourced from La Joux Perret and Concepto. They use these movements because they are adaptable, in the public domain, chronographs and automatic. Future projects are in the works with Jean-Marc Wiedderecht’s company Agenhor. He’s the guy responsible for the Hermes Arceau Arceau Le Temps Suspendu and the Van Cleef & Arpels “Make a Wish”. We’re eager to see what comes from this partnership.
A gifted designer with several watch design awards on his shelf from both Jaquet Droz and RJ, Emch is intimately involved in RJ’s design. In two years, he has added 150 new references, two new Legends and 5 new capsules. He has also done more to control the manufacture process, which does 100% assembly, and implemented a Quality Control and technical office, where most plans originate. These things were not in place before Emch arrived.
For dials and cases, RJ has co-financed a venture with a young entrepreneur who works almost exclusively for them. Emch believes in building together in what he refers to as mutualization. This is a progressive concept in a watch world where complete self-reliance is prized.
Every 12-36 months RJ introduces a new Legend. Because Emch doesn’t want to wait so long for new product, he releases limited editions of 50-250 pieces that maybe aren’t too accessible but keep momentum and provide a surprise like incorporating a tourbillon into one of the models. At the Couture Time awards in June, the Steampunk Chrono received the “Couture Time Award for Watch Architecture”.
But RJ wasn’t always such a smoothly operating enterprise. Emch cringes when he remembers the first couple years of his tenure. They were really tough. Literally on his first day, he got a call that their movement supplier BNB was shutting down. If RJ wanted their parts they better haul on over there to get them. Emch lined up a van, rallied some employees and got down and dirty with them, loading up cardboard boxes full of parts and bringing them back to the offices.
Ever the optimist, Emch looks on what many might call a disaster an opportunity. He had to kick into gear and get the models ready for Basel or else the company would be left empty handed. For creativity to flourish, Emch subscribes to the philosophy of restraint and not having watches assembled and ready for Basel was a huge restraint. Restraint also has a practical purpose as well in keeping costs down. For example, the majority of watch brands give out gifts at the fair. RJ pride themselves on coming up with cheap but funny little presents to create emotionality, for example, the stress ball that can be kept and not thrown out like most other party favors.
Undoubtedly, RJ watches aren’t for everybody. Emch breaks his customer base into two categories. The first type of person is a bit hedonistic and looking for something unique, provocative and bold. The second is more refined and elite, what Emch terms young hipsters in the 20-35 year old range who are sensitive to aesthetics and storytelling.
The core of the RJ collection retails between 9-25K and on the top end goes to 40K. Then there are the special tourbillon collections that set you back $150-250K. In a side note, Emch says he doesn’t believe you can build a brand on a tourbillon. Greubel Forsey is attempting to do just this and proved their construction improves timekeeping by winning the Concours International de Chronometrie.
Certainly, Emch loves watches but they aren’t his first love. Contemporary art is. He began collecting at the age of 15, putting his first paycheck into a purchase. Soon we will see a combining of his two interests in Art DNA watches in collaboration with contemporary artists. We await the result of this marriage between watches and art to see how it works out.