Despite its relative youth, Swiss watchmaker Hublot has made a mark with its unique take on timekeeping. CEO Ricardo Guadalupe, in Kuala Lumpur to celebrate the 10th anniversary of its All Black series, speaks to Anandhi Gopinath about watches, wanderlust and the world of Hublot.

The tall, well-built CEO of Swiss watchmaker Hublot, Ricardo Guadalupe, has what one would call pedigree. Not only was he born in the cradle of watchmaking, the Swiss canton of Neuchâtel, he had worked for some of the industry’s most exciting and innovative brands — Italian jewellerhorologer Bulgari, pioneering watchmaker Blancpain, and aesthetically outstanding fashion timepiece brand Léonard — before joining Hublot, which is known for its audacious take on timekeeping. Guadalupe’s is an enviable career indeed, and one that he worked hard to achieve.

At 51, he makes it look effortless in his dark suit and white shirt, although his steely grey eyes and lined face make him look a tad intimidating. It is nearly impossible to indulge in small talk — the man has no time for such niceties. But the froideur starts to thaw as we discuss the watches he so loves.

During our brief meeting, it was obvious the object of Guadalupe’s affection is the All Black series, a collection of jet-black timepieces inspired by a revolutionary idea that turned 10 last year. Celebrations were held in key cities around the world — Kuala Lumpur included — with pop-up stores and activation events. Of course, a new watch — the Big Bang Unico Sapphire All Black —was unveiled to mark the occasion. It is gorgeous, and I can barely take my eyes off the velvet tray on which it is resting.

The All Black series, crafted from materials so intensely coloured that telling the time requires more than a passing glance, gained recognition for its bold, accurate proposition. Guadalupe admires the watch momentarily before launching into a well-rehearsed explanation.

“We are celebrating 10 years of the All Black concept, which has revolutionised our brand and the watchmaking industry. Before that, no one had the audacity to create a watch with everything so black you cannot even see the time. It is what we call invisible visibility. We sell a watch not to tell the time; we sell it for what it represents, and the All Black concept really exemplifies that.”

The perfect partner for an all-black watch is one that is all white, an idea Hublot’s designers took some liberties with: It presented one that is opaque instead. Based on an idea that Guadalupe has been harbouring for at least 20 years, the Big Bang Unico Sapphire is made almost entirely from sapphire crystal. Its outer case, bezel and dial are all crafted from this super sturdy material, which is usually only used to protect the dial.

He smiles as I slip the watch on my wrist, stunned. It is extremely lightweight and despite its 45mm size, it sits with a remarkable ease and familiarity on my wrist. Certainly not a size I thought I would take to so quickly, that’s for sure.

“This has taken three years to perfect — making all the parts in sapphire is difficult as the material is very hard,” Guadalupe says, arranging the watch back on its cushioned tray. “I have been in the industry for so long and I have always wanted to work on a sapphire crystal watch, but it would have been much too expensive. Now, technology has caught up and it is a little easier to make. We are the first to make this watch in a sufficient quantity [to meet] global demand.”

Reinterpret and recreate
Good things come to those who wait. That could very well be the lesson here as a sapphire watch is not the only idea by Guadalupe that took time to come to fruition. Next up, he says, is a modern reinterpretation of iconic complications. “A reinterpretation of perpetual calendars, for example. In Hublot, we don’t want to repeat the past; we want to re create something. So we try to reinterpret it in a modern way. But that takes time.”

Guadalupe has very specific ideas for what he wants for the brand, and his is the kind of decisiveness that comes from years in the industry. As I soon find out, the man is driven, ambitious and dynamic. And although he was fortunate enough to be born into the world of watchmaking, his success is all his own doing.

I am surprised to learn that as an ambitious 20-year-old, he left the creature comforts his Spanish parents provided him in Switzerland and headed for the US in search of the American dream. “And,” he says, “to learn English. I was well aware that to be successful, you must be able to communicate as effectively as possible, with as many people as possible. That is the secret of my personal success”.

Not only did he learn English — one of six languages he now knows — but Guadalupe completed his education in the US and returned to Neuchâtel to seek out a career in an industry he had loved from childhood. A precious few of the good things that have come his way are the result of chance — such as meeting his mentor, Hublot chairman Jean-Claude Biver. The majority were the result of hard work, the ability to spot opportunities when they presented themselves, and a sharp instinct honed by experience.

‘Dream opportunity to learn’
When Guadalupe started his career as a product manager at Bulgari, the jeweller was just venturing into watchmaking. “It was a dream opportunity to learn, to tackle every aspect of the business, from design and production to procurement, distribution and marketing. Also, Bulgari is Italian and I really got to understand the aesthetic it has perfected over the years, the delicate balance it requires. Some watch brands still don’t have this formula right.”

It was in 1994, after leaving Bulgari for Blancpain, that Guadalupe met the man who would change the course of his life — Biver, who went from mentor to lifelong friend. It was through his encouragement that Guadalupe joined The Swatch Group-owned Blancpain, and rebuilt the entire company from scratch. “I gained a great deal of technical knowledge about the movements, their creation, development and production,” he recalls. When he left Blancpain in 2001, after eight years, the company had a turnover of more than US$100 million.

The timing may seem odd, but Guadalupe had his reasons. “I was 30 and eager to be independent and [have a] go at something on my own. Biver was a little disappointed that I left, although he supported my move,” he adds, smiling. Guadalupe’s skills were highly sought- after by then and he was hand-picked to develop the horological offerings of fashion brand Léonard. He applied the same principles that had served him well in his new role, and successfully led the launch and marketing of several models in the highly competitive sector. “ Leonard taught me about being an entrepreneur and that was very important. It’s hard to learn how to become your own boss or manage your own business,” he says.

Three years later, Biver contacted his protégé, urging him to join him at Hublot. This time, Guadalupe’s answer was a definite “yes”. The task laid before them was formidable: revitalise the brand and adjust its production from 90% quartz watches to 90% mechanical ones. Biver and Guadalupe, the new power couple of watchmaking, did just that. Their combined business acumen, understanding of the industry and sharp instincts were simply unbeatable.

“We had a boss-employee relationship at Blancpain, but in Hublot, we are more like friends — he sees me as an equal, even though I look up to him,” Guadalupe says, proudly. “Our relationship has evolved through the years and we have gone through a lot together.” The latter includes the acquisition of Hublot by luxury goods group Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton SE, a move that provided the brand with the financial backing it needed to soar.

Biver took on the chairman’s role in 2012 and passed the CEO mantle to Guadalupe. That came as no surprise, though Guadalupe had joined Hublot with no expectations of inheriting the position. He says: “As part of this duo, I was always in charge of operations. Biver is a visionary leader, someone I consider an icon of the Swiss watchmaking industry. CEO or not, little has changed between us, but it has freed up his time to focus on other brands, such as Zenith and TAG Heuer.”

Bold, brave and technically advanced
Hublot’s brand personality was pretty much set during its critical early years, when Biver and Guadalupe were jointly running the company. Bold, brave and technically advanced — these qualities set it apart from the get-go. They also drew Hublot into the field of football, though high-end watchmaking and the most-watched spectator sport globally are unlikely bedfellows.

Guadalupe sees it differently. “We stay active and relevant by being open to the world, by talking to different people in different domains. We always have a lot of projects going on. Movements take a long time to develop, so we have longterm projects as well as short-term ones. There are some projects which we start, then realise they don’t work, so we stop. The denim Big Bang was a short-term goal that really worked. I once met a guy who does tattoos in Switzerland and we were inspired to work together. So we did. We have to take ideas from anywhere — if they are good, of course.”

In fact, it was a chance encounter with the coach of the Swiss national football team that led to Hublot’s long-standing relationship with the sport. “In 2004, Hublot was not known. Golf and tennis had been ‘taken’ by other watch brands. But we noticed that fine watchmaking wasn’t involved much in football. We were thinking about this two years before the 2006 FIFA World Cup in Germany. The Swiss national team didn’t have a sponsor, and since we knew the coach, we signed a small deal to be their sponsor.

“In 2008, the UEFA Euro championship was held in Switzerland. It was then that we realised the power of football and brand visibility. So we decided to invest massively in the sport. This has really given us brand recognition.”

A huge football fan himself, the collaboration has worked really well for him, Guadalupe admits with a laugh. “You know something... I do things that I like.

“And people like me are not rare. There are thousands of people who like the things I like. So, if I say I like this watch, it already means other people will like it.”

And so they do. Hublot does a roaring business in the US and Japan, where sophisticated customers with a good under standing of watchmaking appreciate the brand’s design aesthetic and technical savoir faire. For the same reason, Hublot does well in Southeast Asia as well. Customers like what they see, Guadalupe says. “We have worked on developing the Southeast Asian market for the last 10 years and it is paying off. People are so passionate about watches and in Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand, our customers’ understanding of the industry is so impressive.”

Part of the reason behind Hublot’s enduring popularity is the way it remains actively in the news; there is always something to celebrate or talk about. “It’s a continuous job, keeping Hublot in the news and being active all the time,” Guadalupe agrees. “Last year, the focus was on the Big Bang; this year it’s the All Black and the Euro Cup. Next year is the seventh anniversary of our Ferrari range, so we will do a lot with Ferrari. Hublot is doing well, but it is hard work and it is busy, not just in events and activation, but also in terms of product development.”

Future product development goals include enhancing the women’s market. “Right now, we sell 30% of our watches to women. Maybe we can grow it to 40%. But to do that, we need more products that are suited to women. And this means coming up with something really outstanding. That is the only way we can come up against established brands such as Cartier and Chopard. The linen, pop art and denim watches in the Big Bang series are examples of this, so let’s see what else 2017 will bring.”

With that, Guadalupe stands up and the interview is over. He turns his attention to The Edge senior photographer Kenny Yap and his impressive-looking camera. Within minutes, he is done being photographed. He has a hectic schedule and wants a few quiet minutes before moving on to the next item on his agenda.

Guadalupe is clearly driven, dynamic and extremely capable — qualities that define him as much as the interesting watch brand that he leads.

Anandhi Gopinath is an assistant editor of the Options desk at The Edge Malaysia.

This article appeared in the Options of Issue 761 (Jan 9) of The Edge Singapore.