Elie Bernheim, RAYMOND WEIL
Angus Davies interviews Elie Bernheim, RAYMOND WEIL. The CEO of the Genevan Maison provides a fascinating insight into the family company’s history, its in-house designed Calibre RW 1212, its watchmaking expertise and its apparent fascination with music.
In the 16th century, Huguenots, fleeing persecution from Catholic France, settled in Geneva. A large number of these refugees possessed incredible artisanal skills and watchmaking prowess.
About the same time, John Calvin, the protestant reformer, decreed that the wearing of jewellery was strictly prohibited. This led the city’s jewellery trade to fear about the future. However, the wearing of watches was deemed less ostentatious and an acceptable form of expression. As a consequence, many jewellers diversified into the watchmaking and watch retailing business with the assistance of the resettled Huguenots.
Over the years, Genevan watchmaking flourished and continues to do so. Indeed, the Swiss city’s eminence in the field of horology attracts worldwide recognition.
In the esoteric world of watchmaking, the Genevan marque, RAYMOND WEIL, is a comparatively young brand. The Swiss firm was founded by Raymond Weil in 1976. Over the years, the brand has enjoyed exponential growth, selling watches throughout Asia, Europe and North America. Its secret has been to offer Swiss watches, imbued with notable style, at comparatively keen prices.
In this age of the ‘Manufacture’ where there is an overriding obsession with making everything in-house, Raymond Weil continues to perpetuate the role of the etablisseur. It is easy to forget that only a few years ago, the venerated Genevan Maisons of Patek Philippe and Vacheron Constantin embraced the same model. Movements were procured from specialists elsewhere in Switzerland, such as the Vallée de Joux region, embellished, paired with a dial and housed within a beautiful case.
While both approaches deliver advantages and disadvantages, RAYMOND WEIL has repeatedly shown that by adopting the role of the etablisseur, it can compete with the best, operating within its chosen price segment.
Interview with Elie Bernheim, RAYMOND WEIL (EB) by Angus Davies (AD)
AD: What makes RAYMOND WEIL special?
EB: We are extremely proud to still be an independent, family owned business based in Geneva. Our family heritage, Swiss-made expertise and horological know-how are the reasons why RAYMOND WEIL is so special and dearly loved by its loyal customers. Likewise, we consider our customers as part of the extended Weil family.
AD: Can you provide a brief overview of your background to date?
EB: As the third generation of this family-owned company and grandson of Mr. Raymond Weil, my role is to ensure the continuity of the Brand’s heritage based on watchmaking know-how and the ongoing adherence to its values. After graduating in 2006, I joined the company and spent a number of years gaining experience, specialising in watchmaking, marketing and business management.
Image – Raymond Weil founder of the eponymous firm
Now, I am in charge of developing and enhancing the global strategy for RAYMOND WEIL. I was appointed CEO in April 2014, succeeding my father, Olivier Bernheim, who joined the company in 1982, later becoming its President and CEO in 1996.
Alongside studying and my career, I have enjoyed honing my musical skills. First, I perfected the piano, before specialising in the cello. I inherited my love of music from my mother, a professional pianist. My family’s passion for music provides inspiration, influencing every new product development and the marketing strategy of RAYMOND WEIL.
AD: Given Raymond Weil was your grandfather and your father, Oliver Bernheim, was CEO for many years.
- What are the benefits of being a family firm?
EB: There are many benefits to being part of a family owned business – something that is becoming increasingly rare in the Swiss watch-making industry.
Firstly, the Swiss horological know-how and expertise are handed down from generation to generation. Likewise, the passion for RAYMOND WEIL is passed on from one generation to the next.
Secondly, we are proud to have been able to maintain long standing relationships with partners, many of whom have supported us since the beginning. We are proud to also have a high staff retention rate. For instance, our UK Brand Director, Craig Leach, has been with the company for over 22 years (spanning three generations of the business) and so he knows RAYMOND WEIL inside out.
Image – Craig Leach
Last, but certainly not least, being family run means we are far more flexible and thus able to react much quicker than our competitors. We do not have to wait for decisions to be passed through tiers of management and we are able to forward think and stay on top of trends.
- Are there other members of your family working within the business?
EB: Although I succeeded my father, Olivier Bernheim, as CEO of the company in April 2014, he remains President of RAYMOND WEIL and is still closely involved in the business.
AD: I read that you attended Lausanne Hotel School. I presume you did not originally plan to work for Raymond Weil.
- What attracted you to the watch industry?
EB: The watch industry was hard to resist! I encounter challenges each day, enlivening my role; every day is different and despite this being a historical business it is also ever-changing and evolving.
Image – parsifal
Product development was also an attractive element for me. The opportunity to help evolve existing classic collections (such as parsifal) for the next generation and work on new exciting limited edition timepieces with world famous iconic artists (such as The Beatles, Bob Marley and AC/DC) is something that enriches my role.
Image – Freelancer AC/DC Limited Edition
The relationships we have enjoyed with our partners ever since the inauguration of RAYMOND WEIL also helped attract me to the trade. It’s not something you find in many other businesses, or industries, and definitely influenced my decision to join the company.
- What skills / knowledge did you acquire at Hotel School which have proven useful for your role as CEO of Raymond Weil?
Although very different industries, there are many skills which I gained from Lausanne Hotel School that I have been able to transfer to my role as the CEO of RAYMOND WEIL. To name a few: entrepreneurial acumen, working well as part of a team, the ability to respond, to be proactive, to be flexible and, of course, to pay close attention to details.
AD: Raymond Weil appears to be an Etablisseur.
- Several prestigious names in watchmaking were originally Etablisseurs and while some have gone on to become Manufactures, there clearly remains several benefits of sourcing movements from third parties. What advantages does Raymond Weil enjoy from being an Etablisseur?
EB: All RAYMOND WEIL timepieces are manufactured entirely in the Swiss watchmaking universe, meaning we are able to choose entirely the best parts from the best suppliers. We have been able to cultivate close, long term relationships with these suppliers over successive generations. We assemble all of our products in-house in Switzerland, and also manage our after-sales service in-house, too.
Another important element is that we have had our own internal R&D department since 1999, helping to ensure the perfect quality of the watches and the uniqueness of each design. This allows us to conceive timepieces that are different, elegant and modern, while upholding the rigour of watchmaking excellence.
- I believe you are relocating some of your production facilities to Geneva. How will this benefit your company and your customers?
EB: Yes, that is correct. This will allow us to centralise activities in one place, making it easier to observe each aspect of the business and better control the production line. Again, this all relates to our quest for perfection in the watchmaking industry.
AD: Your company was founded in 1976 by your Grandfather and has enjoyed incredible success. However, in the sphere of watchmaking, your firm is relatively young. Do you feel this comparative youth has conferred any competitive advantages?
EB: Definitely. Although we are part of a third-generation family run business, being relatively young means we are able to reinvent ourselves within the industry, whilst also promoting our recognised know-how and offering new horological products.
Image – Tango GMT Bob Marley Limited Edition
It also means we have the ability to be dynamic and more creative than our competitors. Furthermore, our customers can count on our treasured expertise and watchmaking know-how.
As an independent brand, our traditional watchmaking allows our business to be steady, whilst our innovation will be key to our future success in targeting new customer segments.
AD: When appraising the dial of a Raymond Weil watch, the name ‘Geneve’ is prominently shown.
- How important is it for your company to be based in Geneva?
EB: Being based in Geneva is very important to RAYMOND WEIL, which is why it is part of our logo. Our historical headquarters has always been in Geneva and this has become an important part of our corporate identity.
It all started in 1976, a time when the watch industry was in crisis, when Mr Raymond Weil decided to establish his company in Geneva and turn his vision of what Swiss watchmaking should be into actual timepieces that would bring something new to the industry.
- What are the benefits of being located in Geneva?
EB: For more than four centuries, tradition, craftsmanship and ceaseless innovation have kept the Swiss watchmaking industry at the top of its game. Being in Geneva allows us to build on this tradition, as well as continuously moving forward with modern watch-making know-how.
It also means that all of our timepieces are Swiss-made, guaranteeing watchmaking excellence across all collections.
Geneva itself is also a beautiful, international city, the perfect base for our company which operates globally.
- When discussing fine wine, the term ‘terroir’ is often employed. This can encompass the climate, the soil, the vines relationship with sunlight, etc. Does the terroir found in Geneva influence your products and, if so, how?
EB: Absolutely. Geneva leads the Swiss watch-making industry in terms of excellence and craftsmanship. Its exceptional dynamism and creativity have made it a state-of-the-art industry, credited with many world “firsts”: the first wristwatch, the first water-resistant wristwatch, the thinnest, smallest or most expensive watch – the list goes on.
AD: Raymond Weil is closely aligned with the world of music and the company supports many music related activities. I appreciate that timing is relevant to both watchmaking and music; hence the association between the two fields appears eminently sensible.
Over the years, Raymond Weil has produced three versions of The Beatles Watch as well as collaborations with AC/DC, Bob Marley, Buddy Holly and David Bowie. Where did these ideas for collaborating come from?
EB: We wanted to expand our music DNA into product design and thus created our Music Icons Series campaign in order to celebrate some of the most famous and iconic artists in global music history. With each partnership we have worked closely with the artist and their estate to develop limited edition timepieces, inspired the artist or brand and promoting these through international marketing campaigns.
Image – Maestro ‘The Beatles Sgt Pepper’s Limited Edition’
Emotion, precision, performance: these are the values common to both music and watchmaking which RAYMOND WEIL wishes to share with its clients
- I notice that Raymond Weil sponsors the BRITS and the Royal Albert Hall. I would imagine that the audiences which attend such events / venues are very different. Who do you consider to be your company’s target audience?
EB: Music is at the heart of all our partnerships throughout the world. We not only support classical music, but have broadened our horizons to all sorts of music, across a variety of genres.
AD: A few years ago you released an amazing watch, the Nabucco Cello Tourbillon.
- Do you envisage offering further complications in the future? For example, based on your brand’s close association with music, could you ever imagine launching a simple chiming watch or even a minute repeater?
Image – Nabucco Cello Tourbillon
EB: Our Maison never stops designing innovative products. Our in-house R&D department ensures we are always at the forefront of watch trends. We firmly believe that innovation is the key to success.
- Some companies have a prestigious sub-brand which not only provides a positive income stream but also has a ‘halo’ effect on the rest of the product portfolio. Is this something Raymond Weil might consider?
EB: At the moment we have no plans to launch a sub-brand to RAYMOND WEIL. We have five current collections for men, excluding limited editions, and six for ladies, meaning we already have sufficient products in our range to meet all requirements.
AD: There has been much talk about so-called smartwatches. Some brands have chosen to enter this market, while others have decided to focus their efforts on quartz and mechanical watches.
- What are your thoughts on smartwatches?
- Do you envisage Raymond Weil entering this segment of the market?
We will not enter the smart watch market. We will reinforce our strengths and our legitimacy: quality, watchmaking know-how, elegant quality timepieces offered at attractive prices.
AD: Personally speaking, my favourite Raymond Weil model is the Freelancer Men’s Automatic Chronograph with a silver dial and blue subdials. Which model are you most proud of and why?
Image – Freelancer Men’s Automatic Chronograph
EB: I am delighted to have been able to launch our first ever fully in-house designed movement, which has been manufactured in collaboration with one of our movement partners – Sellita. The Freelancer Calibre RW1212 movement represents the first time that we have designed a movement from scratch, created by our in-house R&D team in order to meet RAYMOND WEIL’s specific requirements. This represents a significant step forward for our company and provides an indication of the future direction of the brand. It is essential that RAYMOND WEIL continues to demonstrate its horological and watchmaking know-how which has been handed down from generation to generation.
Image – Freelancer Calibre RW1212 Skeleton Men’s Automatic
AD: I believe the UK is a very important market for Raymond Weil. Certainly, there are some areas of business which have suffered temporary decline owing to Brexit. Setting aside whether my nation should leave or remain within the EU, the uncertainty has clearly affected some sectors of the economy. For example, fewer people are moving home and car sales have fallen quite markedly. Has this uncertainty affected Raymond Weil?
EB: Whilst we await a decision on Brexit all we can do is continue moving forward and planning for all eventualities. Up to now, we haven’t seen a significant impact on our business and we continue to remain optimistic.
AD: What are your future aspirations for Raymond Weil?
EB: My main goal with RAYMOND WEIL is to continue to move the business forward and ensure its future stability. Innovation will be key to success, as will technology and the internet. I plan to create demand and attract new customers, as well as continue to develop more musical partnerships since music is part of our DNA and provides a useful source of inspiration.
AD: Lastly, I assume that in your role as CEO, your life can prove very stressful at times. How do you relax away from the office?
EB: Family has always been of upmost importance to RAYMOND WEIL and its workforce. Likewise, I enjoy nothing more than spending time with my children.
As a big ‘foodie’, I absolutely adore dining in a good restaurant with the people I love; trying new cuisine, discovering new flavours and spending quality time with family and friends.
Chatting to Elie Bernheim, it is clear that he is proud of the company’s Genevan roots, acknowledging the city’s rich history of watchmaking. Moreover, he repeatedly mentions ‘family’, inferring the continuity of the firm is perpetuated by successively handing over the reins to the next generation.
While I appreciate that timing is of equal importance in the fields of music and watchmaking, I never understood why RAYMOND WEIL seemed to devote so much time to a world punctuated with crotchets and quavers. However, having heard of Elie’s love of music and his adroit talent for playing the cello and piano, everything starts to make sense. Music is a passion and passion is essential when running a watch brand. Clearly, this a trait that Elie possesses in abundance.
While RAYMOND WEIL is an etablisseur, Elie alluded to the company playing an increasing role in the development of new calibres. Moreover, based on my own personal observations it is clear the Swiss company possesses an impressive profundity to its watchmaking know-how. Quite simply, RAYMOND WEIL understands the art of making quality Swiss watches and offering them for sale at remarkably affordable prices. Elie’s comments only served to reinforce my perception of the firm’s watchmaking prowess and the notable quality of its products.
RAYMOND WEIL may not be the oldest horological Maison in Geneva, but based on its current breadth of talents, I suspect its name will live on for generations to come.