David Gouten, Manufacture Royale
Angus Davies interviews David Gouten, Manufacture Royale. The co-owner provides a fascinating insight into the brand, its approach to design, the company’s bespoke service and working with his cousins.
Regular readers of ESCAPEMENT will know that I have a penchant for independent watch brands. While I like some products from the major brands, there is often a high quotient of originality showcased by independent Maisons.
The world of the independent brand sidesteps focus groups and market research. Brand owners go with their ‘gut instinct’. It is not a wild gamble where a brand owner places all their chips on ‘red’ and hopes for the best. No, this is a world where experience, instinct and courage have a strong influence on strategy.
A few years ago, I drove to Vallorbe in the Swiss canton of Vaud, close to the border of France, in order to visit Manufacture Royale, a Maison I hold in high esteem. This historical brand once disappeared from view, but was subsequently rekindled by David Gouten and his cousins Alexis and Marc. The brand has gained a loyal following for its thought-provoking watches which set aside convention and showcase extraordinary mechanical movements and original design codes.
Recently, I had the opportunity to interview David Gouten, the charismatic co-owner of Manufacture Royale, and learn more about the brand he runs day-to-day.
Interview with David Gouten, Manufacture Royale (DG) by Angus Davies (AD)
AD: What makes Manufacture Royale special?
DG: Manufacture Royale is a brand that was created in 1770 by the famous French Philosopher, Voltaire. We are proud of our heritage. However, we also consider ourselves a young company, having been reborn in 2010. Our brand stands for sublime craftsmanship, daring design and technical prowess.
Manufacture Royale is a source of creativity and passion. Currently we have nine in-house movements, a network of 20 retailers and a knowledgeable management team.
The brand has a strong personality which is easy to understand.
Our products are about creativity, strong designs and complications. Each product must be that special piece which a collector or watch enthusiast yearns to own. We endeavour to provide product excellence, while remaining grounded and modest.
AD: What did you do prior to working at Manufacture Royale?
I commenced my career working in the car industry, where I enjoyed seven productive years. Thereafter, I have spent 22 years working in the watch industry. My roles have included being the Managing Director of Perrelet, 10 great years as VP international sales for Harry Winston and CEO of Delaneau. These were fantastic experiences and provided strong foundations, teaching me the importance of creativity and courage.
AD: One obvious strength of your brand is that you are a Manufacture. Do you envisage bringing out more complications in the near future?
DG: The name of the brand is Manufacture Royale and we have made our own developments like a tourbillon, a double flying tourbillon with two cages rotating at different speeds and our ingenious floating balance wheel. However, we rely on excellent suppliers to produce them and we have never claimed we produce everything in house. This approach allows us to be more flexible and creative. We are always seeking to develop new complications and conceive exceptional designs while offering an accessible route to luxury.
Image – 1770 Micromegas titanium case with duck blue lacquered dial
AD: The 1770 Haute Voltige was designed by one of my favourite designers, Eric Giroud. Do you always use freelance designers when creating new models? What benefits do you think this approach confers?
Manufacture Royale did not have a round watch in its collection. Eric penned a classic watch for our collection which still integrated our brand’s strong design codes. It was pure and simple yet embraced some of the structural codes of the Androgyne. We also work with other designers as we appreciate additional creative influences. It is never easy to reinvent oneself, especially with the steam punk design inspired by the Opera or Androgyne, yet we managed to do it thanks to Sébastien Perret’s touch. It is always an interesting and enriching process to discover how others see your products. I don’t think it is a weakness, but rather a strength to let others play with our design codes.
Image – 1770 Voltige Steel Coral
AD: One thing about Manufacture Royale is that each collection has its own, distinct personality. For example, the company launched the ADN Spirit in 2018 and it immediately looked very different from other Manufacture Royale models. Have you found this watch has attracted a new type of audience to your brand?
DG: The ADN Spirit is our latest baby, although it was directly inspired by the Opera and Androgyne. The ADN Spirit collection is a wonderful expression of the Manufacture Royale identity. It has the same codes, steam punk look, but has been modernised with a 3-dimensional movement. It has a large case of 46mm yet proves very comfortable. It might have attracted a younger crowd as it is our most accessibly priced watch to date, but still exhibits the strong design language for which we have become renown. We will continue developing this line in the future.
Image – ADN Spirit DLC & Forged Carbon Blue
AD: In recent years, Manufacture Royale has offered prospective clients the opportunity to create their own unique timepiece. What percentage of the watches that you sell are bespoke? Has this service increased the total number of units you produce?
Percentage means numbers and numbers means control. I wish we could do 100 % bespoke products as it would be more fun and creative. It would mean each client has been courageous, choosing to wear a Manufacture Royale with the owner’s personal touch. The number of clients for bespoke watches is growing as the awareness of the service grows. We have to meet this growing demand while remaining mindful that we cannot stock too many components in advance. Each client’s wishes are different and the challenge we face is how to deal with this.
Image – bespoke decoration of movement
AD: Several of the large brands have opened their own boutiques, selling to the end consumer. Clearly, one benefit that Manufacture Royale can offer the independent retailer is that they do not have to fear you encroaching on their business in the future. As a consequence of this, have you found more retailers wishing to stock your brand?
DG: Our industry is facing big changes. The fast growth of the past does not exist anymore, and clients and retailers are much more cautious about what they are buying. We have a few very dedicated partners around the globe and they represent an important part of the brand’s development, but not the only one. Most retailers have forgotten how to talk about a brand. To sell a Manufacture Royale watch, you need product knowledge and understanding of the brand. Indeed, selling a Manufacture Royale is not merely ‘a cash and wrap’ transaction. We only want to forge relationships with those retailers who are loyal to our brand and respect our pricing policy.
AD: Unusually, you run Manufacture Royale with your cousins Alexis and Marc. What advantages does this provide? Likewise, does this present any challenges?
It is a great adventure to develop this brand with my two cousins. Each of them came with their own experience in the watchmaking industry, allowing us to combine our many skills. Manufacture Royale quickly took its place in the watchmaking world thanks to this strength and our common desire.
Today, Marc has left the operational side of the brand. Alexis continues to work day-to-day in the business. All three cousins continue to share the same initial dream of building a successful brand.
AD: Some of your watches are very complex, such as the 1770 Micromegas, a watch endowed with two flying tourbillons. Looking at simpler watches, which models would you consider to be Manufacture Royale’s entry level options and what price do these watches start at? Based on some of the economic challenges in some markets, do you envisage making a more accessible, ‘simple’ model in the future?
DG: The ADN Spirit is our entry level product. It retains our best design codes while being offered at a lower price point. This limited collection starts at CHF 25,500 CHF, a keen price for a watch with a beautiful skeleton mechanical movement. Our production will always remain limited and our watches will continue to be rare and exclusive. We would rather make watches exhibiting daring design codes and priced accordingly than cheaper, simpler models. If we adopted this latter strategy, simply because of our limited production volumes, we would have to use the same movements everyone else is using. Clearly, we want to remain different from other brands, hence this strategy would not work for Manufacture Royale.
AD: I have a passion for independent watchmaking; however, I am keen to hear why you love the ‘indie scene’? Moreover, how do you think independent watchmaking benefits the end consumer?
DG: I think the word ‘independent’ is key to our business. We have the freedom of reinventing horology every day, trying to create complexity and beauty with our products. We are developing a new chapter in watchmaking. It is not easy but at least with Manufacture Royale, we are trying our best to create a unique interpretation of watchmaking at the right price. We are not selling a marketing concept, but offering authentic products. This is the real benefit for the consumer and allows us to showcase our amazing creativity. There are so many interpretations, different in their approach, in design, technical aspects, materials, etc. It is a fantastic universe we navigate for the betterment of our consumers.
AD: In recent years we have seen some independent brands collaborating and producing limited edition watches e.g. Laurent Ferrier and Urwerk. Would this be something you could envisage doing in the future?
DG: At Manufacture Royale, we are open to everything. Some brands collaborate on a product level while we have been collaborating in terms of exhibitions for some years now. For example, we collaborate with Louis Moinet, with our ‘Crownology lab’ held once per year in Geneva.
AD: What can we expect to see from Manufacture Royale in years to come?
Be patient! Expect the unexpected.
In my opinion, when we appraise the fabric of the watch industry, independent brands introduce colour and texture. They are courageous and conceive products that the industry’s ‘bean-counters’ would suppress in a fit of profit and loss fascism.
Manufacture Royale clearly inhales air, rich in creativity and mechanical ingenuity. For example, its 1770 Micromegas features two flying tourbillons, each rotating at different speeds, connected by a differential. Owing to its technical complexity and conspicuous styling, it is only likely to appeal to a small percentage of the watch-buying public but, then again, the esoteric audience for this watch is sufficiently large for brands such as Manufacture Royale. I admire this Swiss firm for having the courage to make such an incredible creation.
David Gouten is clearly mindful that the brand needs comparatively accessible products, recently unveiling the ADN Spirit. While this watch would never be described as cheap, its intricate creation would prevent this, it remains keenly priced for a skeleton watch of such complexity and quality.
Gouten understands what his brand stands for in terms of its positioning, target audience and design codes and, indeed, the strengths of his firm as a whole. He evidently appreciates that if the company chose to make more affordable products it would lose the essence of what differentiates it from competing firms.
There is no question that Manufacture Royale makes incredible watches imbued with a high quotient of style and mechanical merit. Moreover, considering their high-specification, they represent incredible value for money. Most notably, Gouten has an enlightened view of the luxury watch market, the needs of the brand’s target customer and how to engage with that person. Based on his multitude of talents and, likewise, those individuals who work with him, the future for this brand looks very bright.