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Entrenching its position

Ben Paul
Ben Paul • 6 min read
Entrenching its position
New moon phase models boost the Longines Master Collection
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New moon phase models boost the Longines Master Collection

(Oct 7): Walter von Känel peers at the audience from beneath his beetling eyebrows and smiles impishly. It is early in the evening at a swish restaurant in Taipei, and the longtime president of Longines Watch Co Francillon is in his element as he hosts an elaborate and noisy event to introduce the new models of the Longines Master Collection, which feature a moon phase indicator at six o’clock and the new L899 calibre movement developed exclusively for the brand.

The new timepieces feature a moon phase indicator at six o’clock and the new L899 calibre movement developed exclusively for the brand.

Despite having only arrived in Taipei late the previous evening, and enduring a string of interviews with the media earlier in the day, the 78-year-old von Känel shows no sign of fatigue as he glad-hands his guests, and extols the technical excellence and classic elegance of the new line of timepieces. “I believe it will be a great success. The reaction here has been very positive,” he says, adding that Taiwan is a microcosm of sorts for the global watch market, given its broad range of customers. “If we win in Taiwan… we will have a worldwide success.”

Up close and away from the madding crowd, von Känel is not just an effusive pitchman for Longines, but also a knowledgeable custodian of its heritage and a gimlet-eyed steward of the business behind it. Sitting in a meeting room with a group of journalists, he answers questions by making reference to watch models from long ago, and reeling off arcane production and financial statistics. And, he occasionally turns to seemingly unorganised stacks of paper — which one staffer jokingly called “his computer” — for information on everything from the average price point of Longines watches to the rate of value added tax in various markets.

The Longines Master Collection, launched in 2005, already accounts for one-third of the company’s business, according to von Känel. In part, this is due to an extensive range of models that “covers all wrist needs” for men as well as women. While models of smaller diameters have maintained their sales over the years, sales of models of larger diameters have increased in tandem with a growing preference for big watches, von Känel says. In addition, the Longines Master Collection spans the whole gamut of calibres, from the three-hands-calendar models that sell in huge volumes to the complicated moon phase with chronograph that fills a niche segment of the market, he adds.

So, where do the new additions to the Longines Master Collection fit into all this? And, why is Longines choosing to roll them out now? Quite simply, because there is demand for them, according to von Känel. “I spend six months a year in the field. My best spies are the shop managers. They know what is working, what is selling,” he says. “They know when they miss sales,” he adds, alluding to comparable models offered by competitor brands.

The way von Känel sees it, the new models of the Longines Master Collection will help the watch brand further entrench its position within its league. Available in two sizes — 40mm and 42mm in diameter — the new timepieces come with a range of different dials: black barleycorn with painted Roman numerals, silvered barleycorn with painted Arabic numerals or blue sunray with applied indexes. “So, it is an additional feature of our No 1 collection,” von Känel says. “It will never outsell the three-hands-calendar… but it could be in No 3 or No 4 position as a calibre.”

Tracing its roots back to 1832, Longines today is part of The Swatch Group and claims to be the No 3 brand in the Swiss watch industry in terms of consolidated turnover. “To be No 3 is not easy, but we have kept our position at No 3. We consolidate and reinforce drastically our position. We are a very profitable company,” says von Känel, who was appointed president of Longines in 1988, and has worked for the watch company for 50 years.

Now, von Känel is hoping to “maintain my bronze medal” as he steers Longines through a number of challenges. In the immediate term, he wants to ensure that any fallout of sales in Hong Kong due to the persistent street protests is compensated by stronger sales in other markets. Looking further ahead, he says one crucial challenge is “to ensure that young people want to have an analogue watch on their wrist”.

The key to achieving this is emphasising Longines’ sporting heritage and providing the market with the appropriate models. There is, for instance, the Longines Conquest VHP GMT “flash setting” watch, a quartz timepiece that allows users to make timezone adjustments using pulses of light from their smartphones. “The VHP is a fantastic quartz watch,” says von Känel, adding that quartz watches have the advantage of not running down if they have been left unused for a few days. “I never stopped quartz watches, especially for ladies, because ladies go crazy when they have to adjust the crown.”

Then, there is the Longines HydroConquest line of diving watches. Diving watches are among the bestselling models across major watch brands, and von Känel is ensuring that Longines is not left behind in this field. “We launched very successfully the HydroConquest diving watch with ceramic bezel at CHF1,500 ($2,088), which drove all the competitors crazy,” von Känel says gleefully. And, sales have been growing very fast, he adds. “The HydroConquest is also already 11% of my business in Singapore, which is a very good sign.”

On Sept 11, Longines announced that its HydroConquest new all-black ceramic version had been preselected by the 2019 jury of the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève in the Diver’s watch category. This timepiece was launched internationally in the beginning of the year. The winners will be announced on Nov 7, at the 19th GPHG Awards Ceremony, to be held at the Théâtre du Léman in Geneva.

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