Raymond Weil: An entrepreneur against the odds

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Entrepreneurship is a young person’s game, they say, but Raymond Weil was 50 year old when he founded his watch company — Raymond Weil Genève. The Swiss watch industry was not flourishing, either. It was disrupted by cheaper technology, initially dismissed as inferior by the giants of the Swiss watch industry.

Raymond Weil (photo: Raymond Weil USA)

Swiss watches have been around for centuries. A tight cluster of manufacturers, assemblers, and marketers perfected the mechanical technology that made the watches synonymous with accuracy and dependability. In the 1970s, Switzerland controlled half of the world watch market, making watches largely by hand, competing on mechanical sophistication, and charging steep prices for perfection.

Then, Seiko of Japan and Hamilton of the US commercialized a new timekeeping technology, based not on springs, cogs and gears — but on quartz crystals. The new watches were extremely accurate, battery-powered, and much cheaper. From their dominant position, the Swiss makers dismissed the new technology. But consumers did not. Soon, Swiss watch sales were ravaged by low-cost quartz watches, primarily from Japan. Switzerland counted 1600 watchmakers in 1970. By 1983, only 600 remained.

Many would have avoided such a shrinking industry, but not Raymond Weil. In 1976, amidst the turmoil, he founded a new watch company that bore his name. He knew that he could not compete in low and mid-level watches — these were overtaken by the quartz technology. Instead, he focused on luxury watches, which is sold in prices that ranged between $500 and $4000. High-end luxury timepieces went for $20,000.

Rather than focusing on function or technological sophistication, Weil stressed design and heritage. The watches were gracefully crafted, and carried the “made in Switzerland” label. Realizing that technology is no longer a selling point, he did not shy away from the quartz technology, deploying it together with the more traditional spring powered, cog-and-gear watches.

Jasmine, a quartz women’s watch (photo: Raymond Weil Genève)

In 1983, with the traditional watchmakers in ruins, a new Swiss manufacturer appeared — Swatch. It stressed design; it competed on price. It eventually saved the Swiss watch industry, and it did so by furthering Mr. Weil’s notions of design and heritage.

Raymond Weil died at 87 on Jan. 26, 2014 in Geneva. A New York Times obituary is here.

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