Interview with Flavio Pellegrini of Ebel
Recently, Angus Davies travelled to the watchmaking capital of La Chaux-de-Fonds. While visiting this Swiss city, Angus was granted an interview with Flavio Pellegrini of Ebel. Mr Pellegrini, the company’s President, revealed much about the firm he manages on a day-to-day basis and provided a fascinating insight into the brand’s products, in particular the Sport Classic collection.
During this interview with Flavio Pellegrini of Ebel, the President of the company covered a range of subjects, including aspects of the brand’s DNA, its product offering and the future direction of the company.
La Chaux-de-Fonds is synonymous with the creation of Swiss watches. It is located in the canton of Neuchâtel, close to the French border. In 1794, after fire devastated La Chaux-de-Fonds, the city was extensively reconstructed. Streets were arranged in a grid-like form with due thought to safety, health and fairness. Buildings were positioned to prevent potential fires spreading and consideration was given to natural light, an essential resource when working on clocks and watches.
Over the years, clocks, and subsequently watches, enriched the area. In 1867, the industrial production of watchmaking and the division of labour led Karl Marx to describe La Chaux-de-Fonds as a ‘huge factory-town’ in his text Das Kapital. Such is its historical importance that La Chaux-de-Fonds is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
In 1911, Ebel was founded by Eugène Blum and his wife, Alice Lévy in La Chaux de Fonds. The company’s nomen is an acronym of the couple’s initials ‘Eugène Blum Et Lévy’. The couple played to their strengths, with Eugène focussing on ‘functionality’ and Alice concentrating on ‘aesthetics’. These two elements would go on to pervade the organisation the couple established. Today, the company’s brand slogan, ‘beauty marries function’ perfectly conveys this ethos.
Ebel Sports Classic Gents Watch of 1978
Recently, I was granted an interview with Flavio Pellegrini of Ebel. Mr Pellegrini, the company’s President, was hosting an event to announce the release of a new Sport Classic collection. This collection has been an important pillar of the Ebel brand since its introduction in 1977. Indeed, during the 80s and 90s, the Sport Classic proved incredibly popular and was even seen gracing the left wrist of tennis ace, Boris Becker.
My interview and said event was held at The Villa Turque. The building was acquired by Ebel in 1986. Significantly, the building was designed and built by renowned architect Le Corbusier. Charles-Edouard Jeanneret-Gris (known as Le Corbusier since 1920) was born in La Chaux-de-Fonds in 1887. As well as being an architect, he was a designer, painter, urban planner, writer and pioneer of modern architecture.
Clearly, by associating itself with a design genius such as Le Corbusier, Ebel wishes to remind the watch-buying public of its capacity to create stylish timepieces. It would seem Alice Lévy’s legacy lives on.
Interview with Flavio Pellegrini (FP) by Angus Davies (AD)
AD: What do you think makes Ebel special?
FP: What makes Ebel special are five elements.
Firstly, the long heritage of the brand.
Secondly, the origins of the brand. Eugène Blum and Alice Lévy founded the company with Alice designing the watches. This made the company unique. It continues to influence what we do today. We are a feminine brand.
The third element is our logo, the ‘Kissing “E” logo’. It signifies the marriage between beauty and function.
The fourth element is the Sport Classic. It is our icon and an icon within the watch industry. I am not the only person saying this. Normally the ‘watch head’ makes a watch an icon. In terms of the Sport Classic, it is the bracelet which makes it an icon.
Finally, the last element of our brand is this building (Villa Turque). We are not a manufacture, we are not creating movements and we are not having an advertising campaign showing a watchmaker. But we have this beautiful house that tells the world about our attention to detail and where we marry beauty and function. This building is not only beautiful but functional, it harnesses light and plays with volumes, sharing the same philosophy as our company.
This is the story of Ebel.
AD: Ebel is not a manufacture. It uses quartz movements and mechanical movements from ETA. Does the company assemble its own products?
FP: Ninety per cent of our watches are outsourced while some watches are assembled in Biel/Bienne where we also have our offices.
AD: Is the iconic bracelet of the Sport Classic patented?
FP: Yes, it is protected. Both the bracelet and our logo are protected. We spend a lot of money protecting these elements as they are part of our DNA.
AD: My wife purchased a Sport Classic in the 1990s. She loves the watch. What can Ebel offer to its existing customers who desire something different?
FP: We launched the Wave three years ago and it is an interpretation of the Sport Classic. It doesn’t have any screws on the bezel, it is thicker and, unlike the Sport Classic, the bracelet isn’t tapered. This is a different line.
On the Sport Classic we will continue to grow the collection. Last year, we only offered quartz in steel and yellow gold. This year, we have released an automatic in steel as well as a steel and rose gold version. Next year, we will continue to enlarge the collection with new materials, new ‘animations’, maybe some automatic chronographs. We intend to offer not just more for ladies but also men. While our focus is on feminine models, I should point out that we offer some very nice gents watches as well.
Ebel Sport Classic Gents (automatic) 2018
AD: Keen pricing is a key aspect of the Ebel brand. Can you elaborate on this?
FP: It’s a luxury product but even in its heyday, Ebel was always cheaper than Cartier and the price was always important. Now, the price is especially important.
The Sport Classic is our most expensive model. However, we also offer the Wave and the Discovery which are more affordable.
AD: Moving forward, will you be offering more products for men?
FP: Yes, as you can see with these three new watches here (Flavio shows men’s models). We are an elegant brand. Even with our sports watches they remain elegant. The cases are 40mm in diameter, hence not too big. This is the direction we will continue with.
Ebel Discovery men’s watch (automatic)
Next year, we will offer more mechanical watches.
AD: More ladies are choosing mechanical watches. This is a growth sector and from your perspective there is an opportunity to increase sales margin. How are you tapping into this market?
FP: We have some automatic ladies’ watches. We are strong in some markets such as Germany and the Middle East where quartz is very popular. It does not make a lot of sense to focus too heavily on mechanical watches. However, in each collection we always offer some automatic models, especially as they prove popular with the Swiss market.
AD: You currently offer chronographs. Do you think you will offer other complications in the future?
FP: I don’t think we will offer other complications. It may be that one day we offer an automatic GMT but we will not get involved with retrograde watches or tourbillons. It is not Ebel. For our company, it is all about the exterior rather than the interior.
AD: Throughout your history you have produced many gem-set watches. Is this something you intend to continue?
FP: Yes. We already have some gem-set watches in our portfolio. In 2016, we created a beautiful watch, La Maison Ebel, with a 35mm case in a trilogy of gold, white, rose and yellow. We also created the beautiful ladies’ moonphase watch with an automatic movement and stones everywhere.
You are correct, we have a history of offering watches featuring gold and stones. We will release more gem-set watches in the future.
The new Sport Classic collection continues to share the same design elements of the 1977 original. However, it has been sympathetically honed into a cleaner, fresher design. Ebel has judiciously made only small changes, ensuring the essence of the former model has not been lost, thereby allowing its iconic status to be maintained.
While Ebel offers some automatic watches, its product portfolio is skewed towards quartz movements, something that is unlikely to change. Moreover, ladies’ models will remain the company’s primary focus. Nevertheless, Ebel does offer men’s watches and, based on comments by Pellegrini, intends to increase its collection of masculine timepieces. Personally, I found the mention of chronographs very interesting and I do hope the company releases future watches equipped with this complication.
‘Design’ is an important facet of the Ebel brand, however, functionality is of equal significance. This is manifest with the Sport Classic’s highly flexible bracelet and the way it ergonomically encircles the wrist. A new ‘jewellery clasp’, released in 2017, has led to the bracelet sitting closer to the skin than the brand’s deployant buckle, heightening wearer comfort.
During my interview with Flavio Pellegrini of Ebel, I was surprised to learn the company does not make its watches, choosing to outsource the production of each watch bearing its name. I suspected that this would lead to a costlier product but as the brand has proved repeatedly it is able to deliver quality products at comparatively keen prices.
Since its ‘heyday’ of the 1980s, Ebel’s fortunes have waned. During the press event, the company alluded to this on a couple of occasions. Now, the brand has planned a new advertising campaign, focussing on the new Sport Classic and referencing its association with Le Corbusier. Based on its many attributes, I hope the company ascends to greater heights and rediscovers the success it once enjoyed.