How did Manufacture Royale come about, as it is quite a niche brand known mostly by watch connoisseurs and collectors?
Manufacture Royale is relatively new to the scene of independent watchmakers even though it has nearly 250 years of existence. We only started operation in 2010. The name comes from an 18th-century watchmaking enterprise that French philosopher Voltaire developed in Ferney, a French town in the Jura Mountains. Voltaire’s workshop produced mechanical winding movements and watches aimed at the upper classes. However, by the time he died in 1778, his watchmaking operation expired with him. GNT Luxury Holding, which is owned by two of my brothers and I, revived the brand in 2010. The first models we produced were tourbillon watches and a minute repeater. It was followed by the Androgyne, 1770 and Voltige collections.
What kind of customers do independent watch brands attract?
People who buy independent brands tend to be non-conformists. They want to explore new ways. Our watches appeal to those who like something bold, daring and unique. Probably not for those who are shy because our designs tend to be quite brash aesthetically. Some people call our watches horological art because of our unusual design ethos. Our watches personify the brand’s daring sense of adventure.
Do you see younger customers embracing the collecting culture?
We have customers in their 20s to seasoned collectors who are much older. For example, on a recent trip to Taiwan, I met a customer in his 20s. He came to the shop, saw an Androgyne model and bought it on the spot because he liked it. So he may not be a collector per se but his appreciation for luxurious complicated watches means he’s probably going to buy more in the future.
What must independent brands do to remain competitive in the market?
Create a strong DNA for their collections. For us, we mix contemporary and classic but innovation is constant. Manufacture Royale fuses history of the old name with innovative technology. Plus all our movements are made in-house. The market may be challenging but I believe there is still buying power out there. If you constantly reinvent and stay creative, you can gain new customers.
Ensure your distribution is efficient. Many brands are suffering now because they are overstocked and have high overheads. We only make 150 watches a year so we have to be very efficient. We stay lean. There are four of us in the front line. I travel and I do the marketing myself. Behind, we have three watchmakers and access to a sister production company which employs 35 workers. At our factory, we don’t have an engineer behind each machine. That would be too costly. There is technology that can run some machines without compromising on quality. All this allows us to keep our costs down. For instance, our latest watch – 1770 Micromegas Revolution, which features a double flying tourbillon rotating at different speeds – costs HK$1.1 million for the titanium model and HK$1.3 million for the rose gold. If you compare with other watch models of this kind of calibre, our price is very attractive.
Make use of social media. We will not open brick-and-mortar boutiques because we only produce 150 pieces a year. Instead we will open online boutiques but they are not for shopping. Our online stores allow us to interact with customers everywhere. They can check our stocks, where to buy them and give us feedback. Brands that hide behind a wall and say I don’t care about social media because I only want to sell watches will soon find themselves outdated and losing out on new customers. Look at the big brands; most of them are not on Facebook, Instagram, etc. I think social media provides a great platform for brands to interact with watch lovers out there. But some of the brands don’t see it.
Do you think haute horlogerie will embrace smart technology?
I never say ‘never’. The world is changing rapidly and we have to adapt. For Manufacture Royale, even though we have history, we still consider ourselves a young modern brand inspired by Voltaire. So we like to explore different complications but we will not mix them together. We won’t create a smart watch but maybe in future we can add some connectivity features outside of the watch, but we will always stay true to mechanical watchmaking.
What would you like to achieve in five years’ time for Manufacture Royale?
Increase our production to about 300 to 400 watches per year. We don’t aim to make thousands of watches. I would also like to bring stability to the brand because by then, Manufacture Royale would be 10 years old under us.