Interview: President of Frederique Constant and Alpina in the Americas, Ralph Simons

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Ralph Simons, President of Frederique Constant and Alpina in the Americas, at The Mark Hotel in NYC

1 – What is your background in the watch industry?

I basically grew up in the watch industry. I am originally from Amsterdam and my father had his own business of designing and producing gold and diamond jewelry. In 1984, he made a move into watches, watch distribution specifically, and I was 9 at the time. I remember he came home with the news that he had acquired the distribution for IWC in The Netherlands. Looking back that is really the moment that my interest for watches, which eventually grew into a passion, was sparked.

In 1999, after completing my degree in Hotel Management, I started working with my father. I was a sales rep going around to stores, helping to build the brands, which included Zenith and IWC at the time, in the Dutch market. In 2002 we added Frederique Constant to our portfolio. It’s funny because initially, I was not so excited about the brand. At the time, they were very classical, smaller sized watches, and did not feature the most exciting movements, as there were a lot of simple quartz movements utilized. It actually took a few conversations with my father and his partner, before I realized the strength of Frederique Constant. Once I got it, I started running with it, and I guess the rest is history…

2 – What are the advantages and/or disadvantages of being in charge of two watch brands versus one?

I have always been in charge of more than one brand at the same time. For me what makes it exciting is that you have two different universes to work in. This adds a lot of variety to my daily job, as well as the additional element of challenge, which I love. Zenith and Frederique Constant were very different, and now Alpina and Frederique Constant are also very different. There are, of course parallels, but also a lot of differences. Besides this variety, it also creates multiple business advantages as it allows us to offer our retail partners two different types of watches. If a retailer already has plenty of traditional watch brands but needs a sports brand, Alpina is a great option. And vice versa, for Frederique Constant.

3 – Why is it important that Frederique Constant and Alpina are moving towards using all in-house made calibers?

The brands are still part of a family owned company. We are among the few successful, larger independent watch companies in Switzerland that hasn’t been acquired by one of the bigger groups. That independence has always been — and remains — very important to the owners and to everybody in the company. The drive has always been there to approach things from a different angle than what is considered ‘standard’ in the industry. To create the most beautiful watches, and to make those watches available to more people as a result of their great intrinsic value. And basically, the initial development of in-house movements has been sparked by that same drive of ensuring our independence and being different. In 2001, we began to develop our first own caliber. Over the past twelve years, we continued and as a result of this process, today we have thirteen different calibers.

4 – What percentage of the Frederique Constant and Alpina timepieces are currently equipped with manufacture movements?

We have seen a steady growth over the past years in terms of manufacture movements. From the beginning until 2008, we developed various Heart Beat Manufacture options, with the aperture in the dial, revealing the balance wheel of the movement. In 2009, we went through a breaking point, coincidentally at the same time as the global financial crisis.

That year, we introduced the Maxime Manufacture with caliber FC-700, which featured a dial without the Heart Beat aperture, attracting a wider audience. The increased sales of that collection and the economies of scale that we achieved as a result can be considered as the ‘big break’ of the Frederique Constant Manufacture Collection. Now, a few years later, timepieces with in-house movements make up 20-25% of our sales. 2013 is again showing a big jump, as we doubled the in-house production and sales versus last year. The products mainly responsible for this, are the Classics Manufacture (cal. FC-710), the Worldtimer Manufacture (cal. FC-718) and our recently introduced immediate bestseller; the Slimline Moonphase Manufacture (cal. FC-705).

5 – How many pieces do Frederique Constant and Alpina produce per year?

Frederique Constant started in 1988, when Peter and Aletta Stas established the company. First sales took place in 1992, when we sold a total of 350 pieces. With 2013 almost ending, we will produce about 128,000 Frederique Constant watches and 9,000-10,000 Alpina timepieces. With Frederique Constant, we have seen a sharp annual growth since the beginning, resulting in a beautiful, fully diagonal graph.

For Alpina, we acquired this historical brand in 2002. We wanted to have a sports brand within the group, versus the more classical style of Frederique Constant. Alpina has a long history of sports watches, they have been around since 1883. Unfortunately, it fell quite deep during the Swiss watch crisis in the 70s and 80s, so when we took over the brand in 2002, there was really not much left. However, over the past years we have been able to re-establish the brand, and this development is ongoing. 2013 actually marked the 130th anniversary of the brand, and we are seeing strong growth. North America is leading this development, now the largest market for Alpina. With the upcoming novelties and partnerships that we will announce at BaselWorld 2014, we plan to double our Alpina business again next year, as we did this year. So that is very exciting and encouraging!

6 – What watch are you wearing today? And what do you like about it?

I am wearing the Frederique Constant Slimline Manufacture Tourbillon in 18K rose gold with a chocolate dial and alligator strap. It is a beautiful combination of a classical watch, featuring traditional Geneva mechanics, but in a very contemporary look. I like that combination very much. I mean, I am 37 now, and I think it is a watch that perfectly matches someone my age. And rose gold is my favorite material. It is very warm and rich.

7 – Manufacturing your own movements in-house is an incredibly difficult and expensive task. Can you give any insight into the cost, impact and importance of becoming a true manufacture?

I can attest to the fact that it is a very difficult process. For a final consumer that is not so familiar with the industry, it may seem easy, but it definitely is not. It is a very complicated process. It takes a lot of hard and smart work to produce an increasing quantity of movements in-house, while ensuring the highest possible level of quality, and most importantly, reliability. It makes us proud to have now thirteen different in-house calibers, and to be able to present our watches to the final consumer at a sensible price. Because that is the thing we always aim to do. We don’t want to inflate the price, just for the sake of generating extra margin.

A lot of large investments in people, systems and machinery are required to produce the in-house movements. We also build our own tourbillons, not something many companies can say. Of course, at the same time, we are continuously working on new developments.

Silicon?

Yes. We have actually already been utilizing Silicon in some of our movements since 2007, so really as one of the first brands in the industry. This is something not so many people know. For next year we will announce a very interesting new development.

In the range of accessibly priced high-end Swiss watches, we are really the only brand with these capabilities, especially at our scale.

8 – Any Baselworld 2014 teasers you can share with us?

In fact, we hosted our distributor meeting in Megeve, France three weeks ago. There is definitely a lot of exciting news to come. The main product line I can reveal a few details on is the Heart Beat Manufacture. First launched in 2004, we will be offering some new limited editions to celebrate the 10th Anniversary of our in-house movements.

We are going to present a few very special pieces of the Heart Beat Manufacture, including two new Tourbillons, limited to 10 pieces only. Of course, as always at a reasonable price!

Lastly, I am very excited about an incredibly beautiful version of the Slimline Moonphase Manufacture, exclusively for the Americas. It will come in stainless steel, finished in 18K rose gold, featuring a deep blue dial and alligator strap. I am very much looking forward to this launch!


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