The watchmaker that hand delivers its timepieces around the world

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When it comes to offering good customer service, many may argue that luxury watchmaker Gronefeld goes a little over the top. For whenever someone buys one of its timepieces, it likes to hand it over in person – no matter where the buyer is on the planet.

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“When we sell a watch we always try to deliver our creation personally to the customer, regardless of where they are in the in the world,” says co-founder Tim Gronefeld, 43.

“We visit them and organise a dinner or small event where we hand over the watch.”

You might question how a little-known, family-owned Dutch company can afford such largesse, but as its watches cost as much as 170,000 euros ($188,000; £120,000) it can stretch to the airfares.

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And as it makes no more than 30 timepieces a year, Gronefeld doesn’t need an army of in-house deliverymen.

Instead the business, which was founded in 2008 by Tim and his 46-year-old brother Bart, has a team of just 12 people.

‘Limited numbers’

In the world of luxury watches, Switzerland remains very much the dominant country.

Led by giants such as Rolex, Swatch Group (which owns Omega and Longines), and Richemont (whose brands include IWC and Jaeger-LeCoultre), overall Swiss watch exports totalled 20.6bn Swiss francs ($21bn; £13.5bn) in 2013, according to industry figures.

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Altogether there are some 90 watchmakers in Switzerland. The industry leader Rolex makes up to 2,000 watches per day. At the other end of the spectrum tiny boutique watchmakers produce fewer than 100 timepieces a year.

But while Switzerland dominates the sector, other European countries are also home to luxury watchmakers, often tiny family firms like Gronefeld.

A smaller scale

Lacking the vast advertising and sponsorship budgets of the likes of Swatch, how do Europe’s small independent watchmakers – both inside and outside of Switzerland – stay in business and find customers?

Finland’s Stepan Sarpaneva keeps a close eye on his cash flows by only making watches to order. And he makes fewer than 50 Sarpaneva timepieces per year.

“I decided early on that I wanted to maintain the quality of my timepieces, and that meant limiting the number I made each year,” says the 45-year-old, who started his business in 2003.

“Because of that I only have a small number of key retailers who sell about 50% of my watches, while the other 50% of sales come directly from me.

“I make to order, so I am able to sell all the watches I make. This means I don’t need to travel extensively, or continually increase the number of resellers.”

Mr Sarpaneva, who learned his craft at the Finnish Watchmaking School and the Watchmakers of Switzerland Training and Educational Program, takes up to two weeks to make his most complicated watches.

The watches’ designs typically reflect his own passions, such as the stars, the Northern Lights and the moon. And prices can be as high as 14,500 euros.

A few years ago Mr Sarpaneva also launched a cheaper sister brand, called SUF, which is quicker and easier to manufacture.

While SUF watches are aimed at a wider customer base, they still cost as much as 3,000 euros, and production is limited to 90 timepieces per year.

Hollywood calls

Englishman Peter Speake-Marin, 47, launched his eponymous watch business in Switzerland in 2002.

With only a handful of staff to begin with, he had to carry out most of the sales work himself. He says that orders quickly built up, and remained strong, only to come to an abrupt halt when the 2008 financial crisis hit.

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Looking back, Mr Speake-Marin says: “In previous years clients focused on quality first, and then the price. But suddenly this attitude reversed completely.”

Forced to spend even more time on the road to drum up sales, things got worse for Mr Speake-Marin in 2009 when during a car-jacking in Los Angeles several very expensive watches were stolen.

He says he realised that nothing but a completely new sales approach would work to turn the business around.

“Selling a small number of watches each trip wasn’t going to grow the business,” he says.

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So Mr Speake-Marin started to try to sell his watches through shops and distributors, and took on an investor who brought in fresh finance.

Like most independent watch-makers, Mr Speake-Marin has also increasingly used social media as a free way of promoting the business. Yet this cannot hope to compete with the exposure the big luxury watchmakers get from celebrity endorsements.

However, luck was very much on Mr Speake-Marin’s side in 2013 when he got a call from film production company.

The makers of a movie called Survivor wanted him to advise on scenes in which a character played by actor Pierce Brosnan made upmarket watches.

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Mr Speake-Marin agreed, and through that involvement, built up a friendship with Mr Brosnan. So much so that the actor agreed to start promoting Mr Speake-Marin’s watches.

Today sales are strong again at the company, and the 10 members of staff sell more than 800 timepieces per year. Prices are as high as 250,000 Swiss francs ($257,000; £165,000).

Back in the Netherlands, Bart Gronefeld says sales have steadily built up after a difficult start.

“Launching a high quality handmade watch in 2008 was, in retrospect, bad timing,” he says.

“Orders were difficult to come by, but we always knew that it would take 10 years to build a brand. Each year our production numbers have increased steadily, and today our order book is filled for the next six months.”

Courtesy BBC News

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