Patrick Pruniaux, CEO of Ulysse Nardin, sees a promising future for the watchmaking industry — if things are done the right way

(Aug 26): Come September, it would be two years since Patrick Pruniaux took on the role of CEO at Ulysse Nardin. When asked how he feels about his journey so far, Pruniaux beams, “It’s getting even more exciting every month now, because the brand is constantly evolving.”

This feeling of “eXcitement”, one could say, is especially befitting for Ulysse Nardin, which over the past two years has been playing heavily on the brand’s “X-factor” — something that sets it apart from other luxury watch brands in the industry.

Placing more emphasis on communicating stronger brand messages and reinforcing the inherent qualities of Ulysse Nardin are among Pruniaux’s top priorities. A good example is the tagline “We Xplore, we Xcite, we Xist, we are Ulysse”, which can be seen at the header of every press release sent out by the Swiss watchmaking maison and serves as a constant reminder of what the brand stands for.

Since its birth in 1846, Ulysse Nardin has been known for cutting-edge innovation. Not only is the Freak (launched in 2001) its most iconic creation, it is also widely regarded as one of the greatest master-pieces in the world of contemporary watchmaking. “A disruptive manufacture brand, inspired by the sea and for free spirits” is how Pruniaux describes Ulysse Nardin.

He also attributes the great reputation that the brand has established over the years to the team of passionate people he works with. Not much has changed in the company since he arrived. He says, “We made very few changes to the management, and whatever we are able to do now is the result of the foundation that had already been laid down in the company a long time ago. For me, it’s just been very exciting to be able to be at the forefront of things.”

At the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie Genève in January, one of Ulysse Nardin’s most talked-about novelties was the Freak X. With a starting price of $32,300, it is the new entry-level model for the much-coveted Freak collection. A simplified version of the original Freak, its mechanics have been significantly pared down and a crown added to make time-setting easier for the wearer.

It has a case diameter of 43mm (2mm smaller than its predecessors) and is fitted with the newly developed calibre UN-230, an automatic movement with a 72-hour power reserve. While Pruniaux declined to reveal any figures, he says the Freak X performed way better than expected. “We knew that it would be well received by the market, but the number of positive responses we actually received since its launch has been way beyond our expectations. We definitely had a blast in January, and that already set a very good momentum for us for the rest of the year.”

With the launch of the Freak X, Ulysse Nardin aims to fill a need in the market. “There were probably some expectations from a lot of people who wanted to get access to the Freak but didn’t do it, couldn’t do it or were looking at a different size or an evolution of the design.

“We realised that there was a need for a product like that, and when we launched the Freak X, I think everyone clearly understood our strategy and the difference between the Freak Vision (the first automatic watch in the Freak collection, launched in 2018) and the Freak X,” says Pruniaux.

He tells Options more at an exclusive interview after the presentation of Freak X in Singapore recently.

Before joining Ulysse Nardin, you were first with TAG Heuer and then Apple, where you oversaw the launch of the Apple Watch. What are some of your takeaways after working with some of the best minds in both the watchmaking and tech industries?

These three companies are very different, but they all have something in common, which is the fact that they are extremely consumer-centric. There has to be a focus on the consumer, and [the company’s] love for innovation. Another key is to ensure that your brand name will always be prominent, and carry with it some important values. I guess the part about constant innovation and improving the level of service we want to provide our customers with will always be at the centre of our concern. That’s something I’ve learnt from my past experiences, with Apple in particular.

What would be the highlight piece from this year’s novelties?

I don’t think you saw this piece (Pruniaux shows me the ‘Freak neXt’) in Geneva in January, because at that point in time, we merely presented it as a concept watch. However, it was already part of the brand’s strategy, because what we had in mind was not only to introduce the Freak X but also to go higher in terms of positioning and prices with the ‘neXt’.

When we presented this piece to the press in London in March, we already knew what we wanted the Freak collection to be. At the centre would be the Freak Vision; then there would be the Freak X on one end and the Freak neXt on the other end — and that would make the collection complete. Hence, to answer your question, there’s no particular piece that stands out more than the others. But with the ‘neXt’, one can now clearly see that these different Freaks belong together in one consolidated family.

Would you say that Ulysse Nardin is a brand that attracts the millennials?

I think it is. The values and the stories behind the brand make it attractive enough. It carries a few important things: the history, quality and genuineness; I think millennials want to hear a genuine story.

We belong to the Kering Group, and our CEO Mr [François] Pinault shared something very interesting. He said that a brand is about history and stories. History we have — more than 170 years. And we are telling stories. That’s a very relevant way of doing things. When we think of brands such as Gucci, Saint Laurent and Bottega Veneta, the way they tell stories and share their history plays a very important part in their success. I think Ulysse Nardin is in that same spirit as well.

Many people feel that the watch industry is not as exciting as it was eight to 10 years ago. What is your take on this?

Firstly, I don’t fully agree, because it really depends on which brand we’re looking at. It seems that there’s a trend to veer towards more conservative products on one end. Some brands no longer take that many risks. It’s like what happened in the perfume business some time ago: Many perfume brands stopped taking risks because the price of launching a new product was too high. Once you launch a product, you have to spin off 10 different versions, for example, a lighter one and a summer one, where you change the names a little.

I think the watch industry had a little bit of that going on as well. Marketing has prevailed, sometimes, over genuine innovation. I think there has been a big change in that sense. Another thing: Some brands  play the ‘legacy game’, although there is nothing negative about that; in fact, it makes for very good stories.

Currently, very few brands are actually communicating about the joy of buying a product. I take the example of the car versus the watch. People will sometimes think more about buying a watch than buying a car, when the car is going to depreciate almost immediately. However, people understand the notion of ‘let’s have fun, let’s have that car now’ is about the experience. But for the watch, it sometimes becomes a little different when it comes to the decision-making process.

We could definitely do much better to improve the overall experience of buying a watch, and by saying ‘we’, I mean collectively, the watch industry as a whole. I always look at the consumer experience from the ratio of the price you pay to the experience you get in return. Hence, I feel we’re very fortunate to be partnering with people like The Hour Glass, which, in my opinion, is one of the best retailers in the world, if not the best. And I think the consumer who comes into their store is in for a great learning experience because the staff is knowledgeable.

All right, this is an extreme example, but when you go into Nespresso, you pay, say $50, and get a great experience. Sometimes, when you go into a watch store like The Hour Glass, you’re also able get the same great experience, but for maybe $10,000 or $15,000. We have to tread carefully with that, and make sure that as a brand, we deliver a strong message with a great experience to the end consumer.

What are some of the qualities the watch industry has, that it should be most proud of?

Passion, definitely. This is really an industry full of passionate people, and the business side of it remains a smaller part, which is great. Many other industries have shifted their focus to numbers, and people end up just trading things, but not the watch industry.

We should also be proud of how much emphasis the watch industry puts on the emotional part of things. It’s an industry where emotions matter. A timepiece is something that we wear on our skin, so there’s always a level of emotion attached to it. It’s not so much about the kind of information that the watch is able to give you that is important. It’s more about what it encapsulates, the story behind it, and how you can relate to it.

What would it take to bring the watchmaking industry to the next level and into the future?

We should be obsessed with the ability to deliver and bring more value to the end consumer. We should not lose sight of the ultimate objective of giving information, but at the same time aim to bring comfort, status and so on.

But if you ask me how much of the watchmaking industry is being affected by the smartwatch business, I say it is interesting [and I do know a little bit about the smartwatch business], but smartwatches don’t convey the kind of expertise and craftsmanship that is timeless and sought after by everyone.

Let’s take our shoes and pants, for example. There is always a cheaper option than what we’re currently wearing. But we’ve decided to go for these because it says something about us, and the material and fabric speak for themselves. It’s the same with watches; we need to keep the same dimensions. I mean, I’ve never talked to anyone who has an emotional link to a smartwatch.

Put simply, it’s a tool, like a hammer. And [watchmaking] is far beyond that. I think that the future is about continuing to evolve, in terms of the product, the movements, and perhaps putting more focus on the ergonomics, which is one example that I feel could be key.

I’m not worried at all about the future of mechanical watches. In fact, it’s the other way round. I feel the future of the watchmaking industry is very promising, business is promising, and it’s going to go even further in the future. Because, at the end of the day, the quest for emotion is probably timeless and that’s what watch lovers look for.

Zhuan Lee is an independent, bilingual editorial consultant who has spent over a decade writing about jewellery, timepieces and fashion