New Delhi: After retiring as the chief executive officer of Swiss watch maker Raymond Weil, Olivier Bernheim was urged by his son, the brand’s current CEO Elie Berheim, to take charge of the European and Hong Kong subsidiaries and the market in India.
The son-in-law of Raymond Weil, the founder who launched the watch brand in 1976, Olivier Bernheim joined the company in 1982 and served as CEO from 1996 to 2014. The 62-year-old is now the president of its board of directors.
Today, Raymond Weil is present in 95 countries with 23 points of sales in India through Ethos and Helios chains of watch boutiques. It sells about 150,000 watches annually priced between 800 and 3,000 Swiss francs (Rs55,000-2 lakh).
Bernheim was in India recently to launch the limited-edition maestro Beatles watch that features all 13 albums of the legendary British band on its dial. He spoke about music being in the DNA of the brand and its future plans for India. Edited excerpts from an interview:
What comes to mind when you think of The Beatles?
My 16-18 years of fun, love, parties, girls… We used to party and dance to The Beatles’ songs.
What led to the collaboration?
I am not a musician but am passionate about and support music and artists. We have many watches that are inspired by music. Raymond Weil has music in its DNA. Elie plays the piano as well as the cello. My wife is a professional pianist. Collections from the brand in the past have celebrated Mozart and Frank Sinatra, among others.
But it was surprising when The Beatles’ representatives got in touch with us for this watch. It demonstrates that the larger music world recognizes our work. And, as my son said, we were honoured. Several proposals were made before we finalized this particular one. The end product is as much Beatles as it is Raymond Weil. And that was the most important thing.
What has changed in India since the 1980s when you were among the first luxury watch brands to start selling here?
It is black and white. And the changes are still happening. The Indian market then was about smuggling, refurbishing and counterfeiting. It has changed in the last decade. I think part of the story is ethical pricing. Young people today know the fair price of a particular brand. I will always remember this story: I once travelled to Israel with a friend. We went to a store to buy pens. The seller asked for 20 bucks a pen and after half an hour of bargaining, we settled for 10. We were happy. But then we found another where the owner said 10 bucks and we were crestfallen. If we had gone to the second shop first and bargained there, we could have bought the pens for 5 bucks each. That kind of bargaining is still alive and kicking in India. You go to Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s or Harrods, the price is fixed. That is the kind of shopping culture needed everywhere. So, there have been changes in the Indian market, but it still has a long way to go.
How big is the Indian market for you? Where does it sit in the brand’s future plans?
Not much unfortunately and that is the problem. You have 1.2 billion people and on the scale of 1 to 100, we are at 0.001 in India. It needs to change. We need to have local suppliers. That’s why we have tied up with Ethos and Helios. We are in the middle of opening the first chapter here. The local market also needs a shopping experience. I think Mr Narendra Modi’s policies will help local trade in the time to come. But I am not sure that the level of customs duty on watches is fair. And even though I support the goods and services tax, I am a little wary of the higher percentage of tax on luxury goods proposed. Hammering on the luxury segment is not good. The thing is, people who have the money will buy luxury. If they find it cheap overseas, you will lose the business.
How many watches do you own? Which one is the favourite?
Right now, I am wearing the Beatles watch and the Maestro Full Calendar, the 35th anniversary special watch. I usually wear two in India because the time difference from Geneva confuses me all the time. I probably have about 70 watches at home. The Nabucco is my favourite.
Do you see smartwatches eating into the market of high-end mechanical watches? Will Raymond Weil launch a smartwatch too?
The answer to the second question is no. It is contrary to our beliefs.
I personally don’t think that smartwatches will hurt our industry. I have witnessed it since the 1980s. Then, everyone said that a plastic watch brand will kill the market. That plastic watch is still there but nobody talks about it anymore. It just opened the market more. Where is the beauty in a smartwatch? Where’s the craftsmanship, the elegance, the innovations? There are just new chips which are made in Korea, in Thailand, in China. Where is the authenticity? If you believe a smartwatch can replace a mechanical watch, why would women still wear jewellery? A smart device will replace my phone someday, but not the watch.
You are one of the last few private, family-owned watch brands. Is there pressure to go public? Any buyout threats?
There is no pressure to go public. As long as our family is there, we won’t go public. The threats of being acquired have been there, but we have survived so far and should survive in the future as well.