Alain Spinedi and Manuel Emch, Louis Erard
Angus Davies talks face-to-face with Alain Spinedi and Manuel Emch about the niche brand, Louis Erard. The two gentlemen, both with vast experience working within the watch industry, provide a fascinating insight into the company. The discussions include the firm’s predilection for collaborations and its strategic decision to focus upon making high quality watches at very keen prices.
Image – Manuel Emch by Patrice Schreyer ©
In 1929, Louis Erard established his eponymous company and founded his own watchmaking school. The Swiss firm commenced its operations in the famous watchmaking enclave of La Chaux de Fonds. Initially, the firm specialised in casing, however, just two years later, it began making watches bearing the Louis Erard name.
With the passage of time, Louis Erard grew, employing an increasing number of staff. During the 1950s the brand even made movements. In the 1980s, the Swiss marque began modifying the Peseux 7001 movement, adding a power-reserve indicator or adapting the movement for use in a regulator. Louis Erard’s love affair with this particular movement continues to this day.
Image – Le Noirmont
In the early 1990s, the ownership of the firm changed and the brand relocated to Le Noirmont, some 20km from its inaugural site. This picturesque region is situated in the canton of Jura, again, an area with a rich watchmaking tradition. For most of the 1990s, Louis Erard lay dormant, a sleeping beauty waiting to be revived. Thankfully, in 2003, the brand was purchased by private investors and relaunched.
Louis Erard has become known for its affordable complications. Furthermore, despite the brand’s portfolio encompassing a diverse range of watches, including three-hand-date models and chronographs, it is best known for its eye-catching regulator watches.
In recent times, the Swiss Maison has collaborated with revered watchmaking celebrities such as Alain Silberstein and Eric Giroud. Moreover, Alain Spinedi, a shareholding director of Louis Erard and veteran of the watch industry, has recently been joined by another leading figure within the trade, Manuel Emch, formerly the CEO of Jaquet Droz and Romain Jerome. Emch is known for his design prowess and his remarkable capacity to maximise a company’s potential for the benefit of its stakeholders.
Image – Alain Spinedi by Patrice Schreyer ©
Recently, I had the opportunity to chat with Alain and Manuel in order to learn more about this fascinating niche brand.
Interview with Alain Spinedi (AS) and Manuel Emch (ME), Louis Erard
Alain, you were heavily involved with the rebirth of the company in 2003. Can you tell me more about it?
AS: When we relaunched the brand in 2003 we were quite creative in terms of our positioning. The approach was to create products featuring Swiss mechanical movements and offer them for keen prices when few people within the industry thought it was possible. This business model worked until 2012. However, adverse changes in foreign exchange rates and higher movement prices made our approach unsustainable. In addition, if I am honest, Louis Erard had become a mainstream brand and we had lost some of our focus.
Now, with Manuel’s input, we have built on our strengths and refocussed. We have abandoned the mainstream approach and returned to being a niche brand. Put simply, we are offering watchmaking excellence at entry-level prices.
ME: Building on what Alain said, Louis Erard will always be very competitive in terms of price when it comes to Swiss watchmaking, however, we are not seeking to be a volume producer. Our strategy is to offer more than our competitors in the haute horlogerie segment, simultaneously focussing on craftsmanship, design, exclusivity, materials etc. We have encompassed these latter elements which are usually found on high-end watches, but deliver them at a price more typical of a volume brand.
Image – La Sportive Limited Edition Bronze ref. 78119BR19.BVD71
Can you explain what tasks are undertaken by the company in-house?
ME: We design, create, do some assembly and deal with after-sales service. We do not make movements and some of the watch assembly is out-sourced.
If we consider the Peseux 7001 movement, there are various enhancements such as blued screws, Côtes de Genève motif etc. Is this how you receive the movements? Are the calibres enhanced by a third party?
ME: We source our movements from three suppliers with special executions. Sometimes we develop these executions together, often on movements where we have exclusivity. We are increasingly working closely with Sellita who are very innovative. In addition, we also deal with Soprod and Dubois Dépraz.
One part of Sellita has a customisation service, a bit like ‘AMG’ (Mercedes-Benz), where they work with brands to develop exclusive movements. For a company such Louis Erard, operating within this price segment, this capability provides the means to further differentiate ourselves.
We have collaborated with Sellita when making regulator models, monopusher chronographs and other complications. This company is a very interesting partner. It has a critical size, capable of developing movements in a quick and efficient manner.
Image – Manuel Emch by Patrice Schreyer ©
Manuel, we have met before at Jaquet Droz and Romain Jerome. What is your role at Louis Erard?
ME: I was approached by the management and the shareholders to assess Louis Erard and come up with a new strategy based on the business environment at the time. I did this and, thereafter, I was tasked with helping to implement the new strategy. I also joined the company’s board and became a shareholder as I strongly believe in my strategy. My role is to liaise with the management, acting as a delegate for the shareholders.
Can you tell me a little bit about the design of your watches? Recently you collaborated with two legendary designers, Alain Silberstein and Eric Giroud. However, a few weeks ago, I wore an Excellence Regulator with a fumé dial and was mightily impressed by the styling of the watch. Was that model designed in-house?
ME: Our strategy has been to focus on two collections, a classical collection, the Excellence, and a sports collection, La Sportive. We have been rebuilding these collections, paying close attention to details, enhancing the quality of the watches, refining the designs and raising the level of our models to a standard you would expect from haute horlogerie or an ‘excellence’ brand.
Clearly, Louis Erard capitalises on my sensitivity for design but we also work with external designers. We have chosen to ‘animate’ certain Excellence models, collaborating with others. The idea behind the collaborations is that designers are encouraged to freely express themselves. To date, these collaborations have centred on the regulator because this is part of our DNA.
We have planned further collaborations, probably releasing one collaboration per annum. There will be one later this year and we will schedule more in the future. All collaborations will be limited to 178 pieces. In the language of numbers, this number means ‘strong together’, which is what a collaboration should be. Future collaborations will involve well-known watchmakers, contemporary artists and, lastly, designers and architects. These collaborations will also encompass traditional watchmaking elements and techniques such as enamelling, guilloché, stones, flinqué etc.
Image – Excellence Regulator Limited Edition by Alain Silberstein ref.54230NS62.BVA09
One notable aspect about Louis Erard watches is that they deliver an impressive level of quality for the price point. What is your secret?
ME: We are more transparent in the way we do things. First of all, we create partnerships with most of our suppliers and openly name them. We also try to apply the minimum markup that we can afford and abstain from the ridiculous markups of some brands. Often, we witness a big difference between the cost price and the retail price with some brands which doesn’t make sense. In addition, we also try to be innovative in the way we work, standardising a lot of things which are not readily visible to the client but which deliver economies of scale, allowing us to spend more on the craftsmanship. It is a mix of many things.
What are your ambitions for the company?
ME: While regulators are part of our DNA, we also wish to be known for offering different complications and not necessarily always taking the easiest approach.
We want to ‘multiply’ distribution channels. We don’t want our own boutiques, but we are keen to engage with the ‘younger public’. Today, younger buyers don’t necessarily visit traditional retailers. Also, traditional retailers are consolidating, with some of the weakest firms disappearing. If your product offer doesn’t meet the needs of ‘A-retailers’ then your brand is vulnerable. Our belief is that by offering high-end watchmaking for an affordable price, we have something that will appeal to ‘A-retailers’. It will provide them with an interesting alternative to entry-level watches and deliver a means of engaging with new, younger customers. Also, we anticipate that our collaboration models will be of interest to existing watch collectors.
When we launch a collaboration, always limited to 178 pieces, we simultaneously offer it via retailers and online partners. Our company can no longer be active on one distribution channel, we have to be multichannel.
Image – Alain Spinedi by Patrice Schreyer ©
AS: I have been a shareholder since 2003 and my ambitions are different from Manuel’s because I am 70 years of age. It would have been difficult for me to reset the brand, so we spoke to Manuel about the future. Production volumes will never return to 20,000 pieces per annum. In my opinion, it is better to reject volume in favour of value. This is what we are trying to do and Manuel is helping us achieve this. As long as I am in good health and have a contribution to make, I will continue to be involved, however, Manuel is the driving force now.
ME: We don’t have a traditional hierarchy in the company anymore, we are a team of people with different competencies. Our approach is to make decisions collectively when it comes to the direction we want to go. I think the idea of CEO or President belongs to the past and is not relevant for today. Furthermore, we are not averse to bringing in competencies whenever we need them.
Firstly, our ambition is to have fun, however, to have fun we need to make profit. We are not going to run around for volume. We want to produce between 6000 – 8000 watches per year, maybe a maximum of 10,000. These volumes, together with our prices, will generate enough revenue to allow us to create new models and pay a dividend to our shareholders. My objective is to achieve sufficient volume, but not too much, and make beautifully crafted, innovative products. Indeed, we want to make watches for people who can’t afford to spend 10,000 CHF on a watch but who still like watches. Therefore, we are targeting a younger public that does not have many interesting options to choose from other than a Rolex and an Apple Watch.
We wish to be a small, niche and innovative brand. Our objective is to fill the gap between the investment Rolex and the utilitarian Apple Watch.
As I previously mentioned, Alain Spinedi and Manuel Emch both have vast experience working for different brands. For example, both have worked for the Swatch Group and have a proven record of delivering results.
Image – Alain Spinedi, Manuel Emch and Alain Silberstein
However, a key difference with Louis Erard is that they are no longer mere employees but shareholders as well. This creates a virtually inextricable link between the two men and the brand they help to run. They are invested in the aforementioned strategy and its potential success or failure.
Listening to both Alain and Manuel talk, their present strategy seems well developed and, in my opinion, it sounds highly viable. I discovered Louis Erard a few years ago and thought the products offered an impressive quality-price ratio. However, in the last 12 months I have witnessed the Swiss marque ascend to new heights. The designs, the dial detail, as well as the execution of the case and movement, all demonstrate the firm’s ambition and, most pertinently, its ability to deliver much for comparatively little.
Image – La Sportive Limited Edition Titanium ref. 78119TS02.BVD72
Personally, I think Louis Erard has a very bright future. It has shrewdly chosen to sidestep the mainstream market, making classical or sporty watches, rich in design and imbued with a high quotient of quality. Since its rebirth, Louis Erard has gained a reputation for creating attractively styled watches, infused with palpable quality and delivered at keen prices. Indeed, based on my observations this niche Maison is a brand to watch.