Besides the companies that actually present their collections at BaselWorld, usually there are a handful of distinctive brands that set up temporary displays, meeting places and pavilions independently all over Basel. This year, Mint spoke at length to Olivier Degen, international marketing director for Graham, a young Swiss watchbrand with an interesting English heritage. “We owe our heritage to English watchmaker George Graham,” explained Degen when he spoke at Graham’s F1 racing garage themed pavilion, a short walk from the main BaselWorld complex.
Graham was born in England in 1673 and lived, for most of his life, on Fleet Street in London. His was a life dedicated to the art of watchmaking, more so than the business. And during his career, Graham’s innovations included the stopwatch, a mercury pendulum system that kept pendulum accurate in hot and cold weather, and the renowned Graham Escapement, a predecessor to the system that currently powers most Swiss mechanical watches. After an illustrious career, Graham died in 1751 and was buried, along with the pantheon of English greats, at Westminster Abbey.
Bold move: Olivier Degen, international marketing director for Graham
In 1995, Degen explained, the Graham watches brand was launched borrowing the iconic English watchmakers’ surname. So, uniquely for Swiss watchbrands, Graham has an English pedigree. But while the brand is anchored in a watchmaking heritage that goes back over three centuries, today Graham makes bold timepieces. “Our watches are very manly and innovative. Yet our movements are very high quality. We use a lot of chronographs. Around 95% of our collection has chronographs in them,” said Degen.
The marriage of sporty good looks and mechanical movements is not unique. Several bigger, older brands such as TAG Heuer and Rolex make watches that are both young and classic at the same time. Yet in a cluttered market, Graham is looking to establish a niche for itself where timepieces combine good movements with a chunky—most dials are 47 or 48mm across—steam-punk design philosophy. “We want to get some of that English eccentricity, passion and colour into our pieces,” Degen explained. That combined with a strong racing theme this year has led to an attractive, bold 2011 collection.
Already, for a brand that is less than 20 years old, Graham watches have signature elements. The racing ranges—Silverstone, TT and Mercedes GP Petronas—have oversized pushers reminiscent of brake pedals. In fact, almost every element of the dial is a little bigger than it usually is: the hands, numerals, pushers. However, perhaps Graham’s most signature touch is the pusher lever on the Chronofighter models that the brand calls “fast-action start/stop triggers”. “This is a tribute to racing car drivers where they wear their watches over their driving suits. They operate their watches with gloves and it is difficult to operate the buttons if they are small. The lever was used to make the button easier to operate,” Degen says.
The Graham Tourbillograph
The Graham Chronofighter pusher lever can, in time, become as important a visual signature of a brand as Panerai’s crown guard or Parmigiani’s lugs. Tie-ups with brands such as Mercedes GP Petronas will help the brand spread the message. “Fifty members of the team wear our watches during races,” Degen said, “including team manager Ross Brawn.” The most striking aspect of this particular range is the design of the hands—reminiscent of the famous Mercedes star—and the Petronas blue.
Graham has also worked with these strong brand codes and motifs to create a couple of off-beat collections as well. The Swordfish timepieces, especially the Ali Baba that is loaded with 303 gemstones, are unique. And while they may be a tad too quirky for some, they are also reassuring for the brand—diversification is possible.
And the efforts are beginning to bear fruit. Degen says that while markets have developed in the US, Germany and the UK, the brand is seeing good growth in South-East Asia and Dubai. And Graham’s prudent pricing strategy will boost business. While entry-level models such as the Silverstone Timezone come in at around 3,900 Swiss francs, top-end complications such as the beautiful Silverstone Tourbillograph can cost several times more.
Degen is optimistic about the brand’s fortunes. “Soon we will have a big booth at Basel. And we will have it in Hall 1 along with all the other major brands,” Degen said.