Massimo Rossi, Cuervo y Sobrinos
Angus Davies chats to Massimo Rossi, the CEO of Cuervo y Sobrinos, ‘the only watch brand with true Latin heritage’.
The company Cuervo y Sobrinos has a distinctive character quite different from any other watch brand I can recall. The company was founded in Havana, Cuba in the late 19th century (1882).
Originally, the firm was known as a prestigious boutique, attracting the great and the good. Its list of clients included Hollywood’s glitterati, famous scientists and leading figures from the worlds of literature and politics.
Eager to meet the needs of its burgeoning clientele, the family firm established offices in Paris, Pforzheim and La Chaux-de-Fonds. This latter site was responsible for making the brand’s prestigious timepieces.
A consequence of the changing political regime in Cuba led to the firm’s demise. From 1965 – 1996, the company ceased operations and disappeared from view. However, in 1997, the brand was revived by Luca Musumeci and Marzio Villa and began making watches in Switzerland again, near the shores of Lake Lugano.
In 2018, the company was acquired by a group of investors with day to day responsibility for running the firm, passing to Massimo Rossi. As part of the change of ownership, the brand relocated its production facilities to Le Noirmont, Switzerland.
While Cuervo y Sobrinos has experienced many changes throughout its history, its products have always exhibited a Latin character, distinctive aesthetics and Swiss watchmaking know-how. It is for this reason, that I am drawn to the firm’s collection of models and strategy for success. Quite simply, this is a brand which deserves to be written about.
Interview with Massimo Rossi, Cuervo y Sobrinos (MR) by Angus Davies (AD)
AD: What makes Cuervo y Sobrinos special?
MR: Cuervo y Sobrinos has a unique position within the market place. Our creations convey the sophisticated atmosphere of Havana’s golden years. They encapsulate the numerous qualities of the Cuban capital, including its culture, beauty and notable energy. The brand’s heritage is unique, infusing our products with an inimitable style. During the creation process, we harness these characteristics, embracing very different design codes. The result is our watches stand out from the crowd.
AD: What did you do before working at Cuervo y Sobrinos?
MR: I’m a watch industry veteran. I started my career working for the Swatch Group and thereafter I held various executive positions within the watch industry.
AD: Can you outline what your day to day responsibilities are?
MR: Last September (2018), we acquired the company from Mr Marzio Villa and relocated the business from Ticino to the canton of Jura. During this transitional period, we worked hard in several areas. Firstly, we had to look at strategy and operational matters in order to put the new organisation on the right track. I was personally involved in a variety of disciplines. Everything is now in place and I am now able to focus more and more on the implementation of our brand strategy. This involves working side by side with the product department as well as having key responsibility for sales and marketing.
AD: A criticism made about many modern-day cars is they often look the same. A key attribute of Cuervo y Sobrinos models is they look very different to other watches on the market. What is your secret?
MR: The DNA of our brand is very different! If you look at the company’s origins, its exotic name, at least to the non-Spanish speakers, and the remarkable history of Cuba, all of these aspects have influenced the spirit of the brand. Cuervo y Sobrinos possesses a distinctive character all of its own. The secret, or let’s say the challenge, is to ensure the brand and the products continue to evolve by retaining this special DNA. We have to respect our heritage but always ensure we focus upon the future and not just live in the past. Some experts refer to this design language and positioning as ‘modern retro’.
AD: I have thumbed through your product catalogue and note you openly disclose that you use third-party movements from ETA, Sellita, Soprod and Technotime. I would describe you as an Etablisseur. What do you feel are the benefits of taking this approach?
MR: Let’s be honest, our approach is the same as the majority of independent brands who, like us, can’t afford to be a vertically integrated manufacture. Both approaches have their respective strengths and weaknesses. However, the most important thing is that we always deliver quality and make appealing products. Within our market segment (core range CHF 2,000 – CHF 8,000), we aim to match or surpass the standards of our competitors’ products. It is my belief that quality is influenced by many variables, however, what matters is how you master these variables, regardless of whether a component is made in-house or sourced externally.
AD: The Historiador Crono Landeron features a gorgeous vintage movement. Do you envisage offering more watches in the future that incorporate period movements?
MR: Yes, we are constantly looking for movements that have a history behind them. In terms of the Landeron 248, I can say that during Basel fair next year we will present a reissue of the Historiador 1946 featuring this historic hand-wound movement.
AD: In terms of design, your Cuban heritage is clear to see. Do you use former models as inspiration for new models? Do you use in-house designers or engage freelance specialists?
MR: Our product collection strategy comprises of three pillars: ‘historical’, ‘contemporary’ and ‘ladies’. The historical collection is inspired, as you said, by the former models Prominente, Esplendidos and Historiador. This pillar is currently our core business.
Now we are building our contemporary offer with innovative, sporty products inspired by the Caribbean Sea, romantic imagery and legendary stories relating to Cuba. Our first contemporary model will be the Robusto Buceador diver’s watch which we will unveil next year.
As for the ladies collection, we are developing new models, bolstering our portfolio of products which target the female buyer. Historically, we have neglected this sector of the market but we are now addressing this issue.
A crucial part of our ‘3 pillar strategy’ is to ensure our product portfolio is well structured, clear and understandable and does not dilute our brand identity. It is our wish to grow our customer base, ensuring the end consumer, male or female, can relate to our brand and what it represents.
AD: In recent years, the ownership of the company has changed and the production facilities have moved to Le Noirmont in the Swiss Jura, a region synonymous with watchmaking. Have these changes provided any benefits to your customers?
MR: We hope so! I must say that the majority of our retailers have known me and some of my colleagues for many years which has helped to smooth the transition from the previous owner to the current shareholders. In terms of the end consumer, I think they will start to see the benefits of these changes in terms of the release of new products and an impressive price-quality ratio. The changes we have made will become very apparent next year.
AD: Appraising your range of models, you offer a broad array of complications, including chronographs, perpetual calendars and tourbillons. Which model are you most proud of and why?
MR: The Chronograph Landeron in 18 carat gold (reference 3148.9B) is a rare watch that perfectly encapsulates the essence of the brand. Having said that, I wish to underline that our future approach is to remain consistent with our core product strategy focussing on the three pillars I previously mentioned. Products such as tourbillons will remain exceptions to our product strategy and they will represent only a small percentage of our total sales.
AD: In recent times we have witnessed large brands voicing a desire to retail their own products. An increasing number of branded boutiques are opening on the high street, particularly in key cities. With the exception of your flagship boutique in Cuba, do you have any other company-owned stores? Do you envisage more independent retailers will look to work with independent watch brands such as yourselves as their existing relationships come under threat?
MR: The performance of our flagship store in Havana is directly influenced by the number of tourists visiting Cuba. In the last 2-3 years, the number of tourists has increased considerably, albeit the last few months have been more difficult. The purpose of the boutique is not only commercial but serves as a means to convey the authentic heritage of the brand.
In 1862, Don Ramon Cuervo opened his first jewellery and watch store in Havana. Some 20 years later, Don Ramon founded the company Cuervo y Sobrinos with his six nephews (sobrinos in Spanish). One of the nephews, Don Armando went on to play an important role in the development of the business. Cuervo y Sobrinos has a long and fascinating history which deserves to be told.
AD: What are your future aspirations for Cuervo y Sobrinos?
MR: To build a dynamic and innovative luxury brand, manufacturing and distributing products to a worldwide audience. We want our watch brand to have global recognition for its Cuban heritage, its quality and creativity. This aspiration lies at the heart of our business.
Between 1930 and 1950, Cuervo y Sobrinos had a similar company profile to Cartier in Paris and Tiffany in New York. It was a family-owned company that grew thanks to the skills and vision of its talented artisans. Today, Cartier and Tiffany are global brands, familiar to all. We hope to emulate their success. Let’s dream big!
While Massimo Rossi clearly respects the company’s patrimony, he is keen not to allow the firm’s heritage to impair innovation. Certainly, its new contemporary and ladies’ models signify a new direction for the brand. Moreover, as a horophile with a penchant for divers’ watches, I am eager to see the forthcoming Robusto Buceador Diver and hope it propels the brand forward.
Certainly Massimo Rossi has no shortage of experience working in the watch industry. Indeed, he has worked for an array of companies, including the venerable Swatch Group. Furthermore, as a former marketing professional, I came away from the interview recognising a man who has a clear strategy on how to take this brand forward. Put simply, if Rossi knows what his brand stands for, then there is a greater chance his clientele will too. This may sound obvious, but it is surprising how many companies drift without a clear outline of what they represent and where they want to go. Rest assured, Rossi knows the answers to these questions.
Moreover, chatting to Massimo Rossi, it is clear he understands the value of the Cuervo y Sobrinos brand, a historical gem that once sparkled brilliantly and then lost its lustre between 1965 – 1996. Now, Rossi and his colleagues are diligently polishing each facet of this gem, eager to regain its forgotten allure. Based on everything Rossi said, I suspect that this brand has a bright future and will ascend to new heights. Like this charismatic CEO, I look forward to witnessing, the company’s continued renaissance and wish him every success for the future.