The man behind RJ-Romain Jerome: Up Close with Manuel Emch1:27 pm
The CEO of RJ-Romain Jerome, Manuel Emch visited India last week and gave The Watch Guide an exclusive one on one interview about his story, the iconic watches he’s made and how the young brand RJ-Romain Jerome plans to change the game in traditional luxury watchmaking.
Glad to have you with us Manuel! How has the journey with RJ-Romain Jerome been for you so far?
Manuel – New products, new marketing, new identity – intensive, quite challenging but a very exciting 5 years in which I would say, we managed to come to the first level of what we want to achieve – stabilize, organize, be a profitable company. But we’re still a small, young company and we’ve achieved the first step so we’re now moving to the next step, which is to get one step ahead, i.e., is to start building our own retail stores, to further enhance distribution and to make RJ-Romain Jerome one of the leaders among independent watch companies.
From Jaquet Droz to Romain Jerome: personally how has the transition been for you?
Manuel – Well, the two brands couldn’t be more opposite to each other – you have on one side a very traditional company that has its roots in the 18th century and a lot of what we did was inspired by the past. So it was a sort of set frame that did give me a lot of freedom, but was still a set frame. On the other side, RJ-Romain Jerome is a very young, very contemporary, also quite a provocative brand which is also independent with a unique concept; with no rules, no limitations. But at the same time, for me both companies are very close, because both are built on storytelling. And I strongly believe that the future of watchmaking is about emotional objects of art that tell you a story. Even though on a pure positioning point of view, you might say both brands are very opposite of each other, but both brands have the same essence of storytelling. I’d say both are very similar, it’s just a way of transposing a story into a watch that’s different.
“As much as we are told of stories of the 18th century, of craftsmanship, automatons on one side, RJ-Romain Jerome tells a story of innovative-creative-provocative, to a certain extent avant-garde watchmaking.”
Coming back to RJ, you’ve been toying with elements like Moondust, parts of the Titanic, even metal from the Statue of Liberty on your watches! Apart from that, what else does the brand have to offer?
Manuel – All these elements are accelerators. Any brand needs to have its essentials right and the essentials are the technical aspects, the craftsmanship, highly produced technical complications that are completely Swiss made. All these elements should be the base of any good watchmaker and are obviously also there in RJ-Romain Jerome. Every movement we use is 100% Swiss made. We design and construct some of the movements but we leave the production to the experts and specialists who do movements for all major watch companies. I want my customer to have a beautiful product that has the highest standard of quality, and the movement is a lot like the engine of a car. It’s something that is sensitive, so we have to be sure that what we’re offering is the best out there. We only use one type of movement which is the Valjoux 7750 chronograph movement, the best movement (for almost 60 years now) ever been developed in the watch industry, and it’s used in both our automatic and chronograph watches.
Most brands can try to create links with the past, but if you decide to launch a new brand, you obviously don’t have history and history is still a very good accelerator. That’s when we agreed that -“okay, we don’t have an illustrious past but why not have a part of history and put it in the watch?” It’s another way of paying tribute to history without having this burden of saying “there since the 17th or 18th Century”. So it’s not just the only USP but it’s definitely the one that makes the difference.
We were hearing of some controversy regarding the “Taj Mahal” DNA watch, with regards to your ‘Icons’ collection. Has that been sorted?
Manuel – (Laughs) Obviously we would be very eager to do something specifically for India, but the problem we face the most for all our Iconic watches is to get the material. I mean we can still go out at night and try to take a piece out of it ourselves (laughs), which would be easy to do, but we want it to be certified and yes we’ve tried to do a Great wall of China, Pyramids of Egypt and the Taj Mahal for our Icons collection.
Our DNA collection is a concept that can be regionalized. We built the brand on two pillars, one side “Legends” and the other side “Icons”. Icons can be more regional, for instance: we did a special edition for Germany with actual parts of the Berlin wall, we did a special edition for the US with the Statue of Liberty, we even did a special edition for Mexico with the Mexican ‘Day of the dead’ and who knows, maybe someone will read this interview and want to go ahead with the Taj concept. Getting the material is fine but we obviously would want the certification, and when we’re dealing with elements from monuments like the Taj, it obviously wouldn’t be easy.
In a brand conscious market (like India) where people are not familiar with your brand, where they would either chose say a Rolex or an Omega, how would you want them to perceive RJ-Romain Jerome?
Manuel – I agree, people are still very brand conscious, but at the end of the day don’t forget one thing, watches in the past used to be time telling instruments but the time telling today is done by our mobile phones, so you don’t need a watch for the technical purpose. They’ve gradually become status symbols, and I’ll agree brand consciousness has a lot to do with status but people value status differently now. Things are evolving, mindsets are changing. Omega & Rolex are very good examples of brands that have very strong status and are therefore very aspirational because they’re very strong brands, but we see a trend of evolving from pure status to what I said in the beginning, watches becoming more about objects of art – emotional objects of art. And when we talk about emotional objects we talk much more about personal, sensitivity; we talk about uniqueness, we talk about craftsmanship, we talk about elements that don’t just promote traditional values but personal values as well. And I think that’s what we’re trying to achieve.
We don’t want to compete with Rolex and Omega, not that we don’t want to, but simply we can’t, not for the next 10 years maybe, because building a brand like this will take years. We produce about 2000 watches a year – Rolex does one million watches a year so you can see the difference right there. We’re more into something personal, more intimate, that’s different and unique and most of our watches are limited to less than a hundred pieces so you can’t really compare and neither do we want to compete. The perception of status is changing, even in India. The younger generation today wants to enjoy their wealth more than preserve it and I’m sure they’ll enjoy our watches.
From a concept to a watch, how much time does it take to develop a watch and how much are you involved in the process?
Manuel – Well, that’s a very random endeavor. From the first design, right up to the first prototype, it can take up to six months if we basically work around something we have established, whilst some can take up to five years. I mean the longest we have taken to develop a watch so far is about four and a half years.
The Spacecraft watch. Why did it take time? Well because the concept of the watch was so unique, we didn’t find anyone to make the movement. Most of the brands when they do complications, they build them in a traditional way i.e., they just add on a new complication to an existing design. But we wanted to do something completely unheard of. We spent hours with different watchmakers trying to convince them that it is feasible and technically you’re touching a new ground so that itself was a complicated endeavour. The volcano watch though took only 6 months. We made a design and created a watch but we didn’t want to produce it. It was just one of our provocative ideas and it looked great once we finished designing it, but we didn’t want to sell it.
So we put a very high price, just so nobody would buy it. When we launched it, there were suddenly 50-60 pieces on order; we didn’t know what to do because we didn’t even have the materials yet! But then we got a mail from the Iceland Volcanic Institute where they praised the design and extended their hand to help us get the material. So we started producing the watches immediately and everything took us 6 months. I even learned how to pronounce the name of that volcano! (Laughs). And that’s what I love about this brand, it’s very organic because we don’t do thought-out strategies, we don’t think about what the next product is going to be. We let things come by ourselves and that helps because back home it makes everything interesting at work and at the same time it’s challenging because it’s not predictable.
In an interview you said – “I don’t imagine you going to a charity ball with a wrist phone” but, despite that, conventional watch makers like TAG, Breitling & IWC are all hopping on to the Smartwatch bandwagon. Are we expecting one from Romain Jerome anytime soon?
Manuel – Not at all. None of the watch brands that do smartwatches have mastered the technology, they just buy it from someone else and I find this a very dangerous path to walk on because what we defend is know-how, technical expertise and if we start to let this go i.e., become body/case makers, that’s a bad sign. I agree that’s the future, but it’s interesting to observe that today they’re selling cars that ‘self-drive’ that are purely electric and don’t need drivers, but at the same time you see people spending a lot of money buying vintage cars. In fact, the vintage car market has exploded. People are willing to spend $20 million for an old Ferrari, and that again justifies what I told you about emotional objects.
I don’t think you can compete with anyone unless you have mastered the technology and to master this smartwatch technology, it’s a lot of investment. On the other side, we talk about smartwatches but in the end, we talk about a device that will de-materialize in the future. I don’t think these companies are into watches at all, they just do their smart technology and in the world of technology, everything de-materializes. We’re not selling technology, we’re going to sell highly emotional objects of art that involve craftsmanship, history, expertise, mechanical know-how and that’s what we stand for. Smartwatches are good in a way, they bring new customers to us! I’m just concerned about brands that are at the smartwatch price point because it’s going to be very challenging for them to compete on that price level.
A watch you’ve worn the most till date? (Your favorite watch)
Manuel – There are three watches I like a lot, not necessarily because of technical or aesthetical reasons, but because they’re close to me and have a very important stories behind them. First, the Volcano DNA because it was such an unexpected watch. And the story behind it was amazing, one that I have a very strong emotional connection to because what was a concept initially became an integral part of the collection. Second, would be the video game collection because when the watch was launched in 2011, in Basel, I had just 1 or 2 pieces on order. Nobody wanted it. Everybody said it’s unsellable, but the watch now contributes around 15% of our entire business. 1 watch out of 8 sold is a video game watch and this is right after the whole watch industry told me that it’s unsellable.
Apart from these, I still have my Jaquet Droz Grande Seconde because it’s the first watch I ever designed in 2001 and it’s still a part of their collection and a reference to the watch industry. To me, it’s a bit of my own history.
Romain Jerome is available exclusively in India at Ethos Watch Boutiques.
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Features Writer, The Watch Guide
Rahul is a watch and sports lover currently living in New Delhi. Having worked as a journalist and a copywriter previously, he is now thrilled to be a part of a team that loves, lives and breathes wristwatches. After joining Ethos and The Watch Guide team, his interest for the world of horology grew and is now completely and hopelessly hooked on watches.