Brief Encounters: Steven Holtzman, founder of Maîtres du Temps

Founder of Maitres du Temps, Steven Holtzman talks about how his back to front approach to watchmaking helped him shape the vision for his company, the challenges faced by an American working in Switzerland, and the lifetime commitment a watch brand requires.

PUBLISHED : Friday, 11 July, 2014, 12:09am
UPDATED : Friday, 11 July, 2014, 12:09am

"Watches have been part of my life for a long time, well before I decided to start Maîtres du Temps. I began by working at my father's company, the Gruen Watch Company, one of the last great names of American watchmaking.

I did that for 10 years, and it gave me a different perspective from working with retailers. A lot of people in the watch industry started on the supply side, but my start was working with customers, so it gave me a different outlook.

Many people in Switzerland make watches far away in the mountains, and then put products into the marketplace. I was starting in the markets and then going to the mountains, so it was a backwards approach.

You have to create something personal, that speaks for itself, something that will connect. You really have to make the connection, and the connection can be physical or emotional, so everyone goes about it a different way.

Working in Switzerland demands an organised process, and that's one reason why the Swiss control the watch world. For everything to work, the products have to be well thought out; you can't succeed in Switzerland unless you have a long-term plan.

You don’t have to live or work in Switzerland to be successful, but it does make life easier

They say good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from poor judgment. I've had my share of both. But the education you receive from creating a brand is amazing; you have an idea, and then you're dropped into the world of what actually happens.

In Switzerland, it's very common for suppliers and watchmakers to tell you what you can't do, and to avoid telling you something can be done. Having an outside perspective, I didn't accept a lot of the answers that I got about what could and couldn't be done.

It's difficult to get them to think outside the box, as they have certain ways of looking at things. I think outside the box, I don't just accept what I am told, and that has been helpful.

Although I'm an American, Maîtres du Temps is not an American brand, it's a Swiss brand. The team is based in Switzerland; it has to be, especially as we are a high-end independent company.

There are some fantastic watchmakers that live outside Switzerland, and we use some of them. For instance, we have a great Irish watchmaker, a master watchmaker. There are also a lot of great non-Swiss watchmakers living in Switzerland, such as Kari Voutilainen from Finland, and the UK's Peter Speake-Marin.

You don't have to live or work in Switzerland to be successful, but it does make life easier. About 95 per cent of the talent is there, and it's the centre for the suppliers too. We can pretty much walk to our case supplier, or to our spiral supplier. We can get to anyone in about 20 minutes.

There are many independent brands working really hard to come up with special ideas, and some are more special than others. They're trying to do something that the big groups don't do, and they're trying to do it in a very home-made way.

We don't have to have 100,000 people that like us; all we really need is a few hundred people every year that really love it, love it enough to buy it. But getting any sort of traction with a brand takes at least 10 years. I visit the Baselworld watch show year after year, and I notice people who aren't there anymore. They have just been forgotten.

Everybody wants to be that breakthrough winner, and there are a lot of casualties along the way. The failure rate of start-up mechanical watch brands is extremely high. Most fail in the first year, most won't make any money for the first few years. If you get beyond that, don't expect real success for 10 years.

Maîtres du Temps is 10 years old next year, so we're on track to clear the first hurdle. It takes another 50 years to really establish yourself, so it's no surprise that a lot of companies never make it.

When you're an owner-operator of a watch brand, you realise that you're going to have the brand for your lifetime, and if you're lucky, for generations to come. You have to build something that's going to last forever."

As told to Abid Rahman