La Montre Hermès, the watchmaking division of the French luxury house, has been steadily solidifying its position in haute horlogerie over the past few years. Its new CEO, Laurent Dordet, is on a mission to raise the profile of the company. Here, he speaks about the strides it has made in the field and the creativity that sets it apart from traditional watchmakers.

When La Montre Hermès unveiled the Arceau Time Suspended timepiece in 2011, watch connoisseurs sat up and took notice. The watch division of the revered French luxury house had created what essentially amounted to a horological tour de force for a company that had, heretofore, largely been known for chic and elegant women’s quartz timepieces.

The Arceau Time Suspended automatic watch was a mechanical marvel. It featured an unusual complication that enabled the wearer to indulge in a bit of science fiction fantasy — that is to suspend time’s steady, unrelenting march. By the press of a pusher, the date disappears and the hour hand assumes a static position. Press the pusher again, and the ticking of time resumes.

The idea behind the whimsical timepiece is to remind the wearer to slow down and savour life’s moments — something we are wont to forget in the hectic lives we lead. The watch was received with much acclaim at the Baselworld watch and jewellery fair that year, but the ultimate seal of approval came when it won the prize for the best men’s wristwatch of the year at the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève.

First established by Jean-Louis Dumas in 1978 in Biel, Switzerland, La Montre Hermès started out making watches that featured its own designs but equipped with calibres from the likes of Jaeger- LeCoultre, Audemars Piguet, Vacheron Constantin and Baume & Mercier. In the last decade, the company has been steadily building up its watchmaking know-how by acquiring stakes in parts suppliers such as movement maker Vaucher Manufacture Fleurier, case maker Joseph Erard Holding and dial maker Natéber.

La Montre Hermès further solidified its position in high watchmaking by introducing its first in-house calibres, the H1837 and H1912, on the Dressage and Arceau lines respectively in 2012. In place of traditional decorations such as Geneva stripes, the calibres feature a stylised “H” decoration on the rotor, mainplate and balance cock — a small but deliberate move to make its mark. Being a latecomer to the world of haute horlogerie, the company knew it had to set itself apart with its own creative vision and aesthetic.

It is a point that current CEO Laurent Dordet drives home early in our interview at a hotel in Kuala Lumpur recently. “Our creativity is different,” he emphasises. “We bring to the market very desirable products for women and very fancy, surprising complications for men. La Montre Hermès is certainly not there to compete with the same weapons as the competition. We have to present our own complications in our own style and aesthetic.

“It is the same philosophy as the rest of the Hermès métiers, which marries technical expertise and creativity,” he continues. “We are purely Swiss, established almost 40 years ago in 1978 in Switzerland. The original motivation was for us to master this know-how and provide the best quality. We were the first non-watchmaker to establish ourselves there. But what’s the purpose of being technically at the best level if it is to express what the others are already doing? So, we worked with designers who knew Hermès but who did not necessarily know watches. That’s how all our successes came about — because we came to the market with styles that were adapted to Hermès’ roots, which is French. The combination of Swiss technique and French roots and creativity creates a unique identity that makes us different.”

Dordet assumed the CEO position just under two years ago, in March 2015. Tall and lanky, the 47-year-old was dressed in a conservative navy blue suit with matching tie for the interview. He had a quiet ease about him, an unassuming comportment that I found appealing. When he broke into a smile, the grin was from ear to ear and his eyes disappeared behind semi-closed crescent lids — it was undeniably boyish and charming.

Unlike his predecessor, Luc Perramond, who was hired from outside Hermès for the CEO position, Dordet had clocked in two decades at the luxury house before succeeding Perramond, who left to head Ralph Lauren Watch and Jewelry. Dordet joined Hermès in 1995 as part of the group’s finance department. He recalls, “I came for an interview and was just seduced by the three people I met during my interview. I thought, ‘This must be a very interesting and attractive company’, and I accepted their offer because of the dynamism, creativity and enthusiasm I felt in the people I met at the time. They are still there, by the way.”

In 2002, Dordet was appointed deputy CEO of the Holding Textile Hermès (Lyon), and subsequently became CEO of Hermès Cuirs Précieux, the group’s leather subsidiary. He was offered the CEO position at La Montre Hermès following Perramond’s departure, a role which he was more than delighted to take on, even though the world of watches was completely new to him.

“I was a watch amateur and not a specialist at all, and I had to learn from scratch,” Dordet says. “I was selected probably because I knew Hermès’ roots and because I had the interest to learn about watches.”

He adds that what he finds most aweinspiring is the incredible level of craftsmanship that goes into producing each watch.

He is on a mission to spur growth by raising the profile of Hermès watchmaking, which is what brought him to our shores for the first time last November. “I think we have to develop the awareness of Hermès as a watchmaker,” he says. “A lot of people, especially women, know we make watches, but very few know we manufacture internally and that we have been totally integrated since five years ago because it’s very recent. A lot of men don’t even know we are making watches at all. We have to tell them that Hermès is now a serious watchmaker.”

On his inaugural whirlwind visit to Kuala Lumpur, Dordet hosted two intimate dinners with customers in Malaysia and came away impressed. “I was very happy to see that they knew a lot about our changes, about Hermès as a watchmaker and not only as a leather goods maker. A good portion of them wore an Hermès watch. They knew a lot about these products and other brands as well. It was a pleasure for me to discover that they knew a lot about us,” he says, visibly pleased.

It is easy to see why — La Montre Hermès has been making headlines for all the right reasons these last few years. In 2013, it was the Arceau Lift watch that featured a stunning flying tourbillon adorned with the maison’s signature Double H motif. The following year, the company distinguished itself yet again with a playful and unusual complication in the Dressage L’Heure Masquée. The GMT timepiece boasted an unconventional way of displaying time, whereby the hour hand is hidden behind the minute hand and is only revealed with a push of a button. Moreover, the window covering the GMT indication slides aside to display the time in a second time zone. It may be superfluous, to be sure, but it is unapologetically unique.

That same year, La Montre Hermès also released the Arceau Millefiori collection featuring dials and covers inspired by 19thcentury paperweights handcrafted by the Cristalleries royales de Saint-Louis, an Hermès- owned crystal and glass art specialist with roots dating back to 1586.

“That’s a good example of our creativity. The millefiori technique was a technique that didn’t exist in watchmaking. But we had this idea to use it to make a dial, which was not easy,” Dordet comments.

Last year, the Slim d’Hermès line made its debut. The new range is the first by the company in more than 20 years. A fine display of stylistic purity, the ultrathin unisex watches feature Art Decoinfluenced numerals on the dial designed by typographer Philippe Apeloig, who has previously collaborated with the maison. One of the pieces in the collection, the Slim d’Hermès QP, a perpetual calendar timepiece with dual-time display, bagged the calendar watch prize at the 2015 edition of the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève. Following on its success, the company augmented this illustrious line this year with new editions featuring enamel dials, in addition to releasing several stunning nature-themed enamel métier d’art timepieces.

Dordet himself was sporting a rose-gold Slim d’Hermès on his wrist, and he gladly unbuckled it for me to have a closer look. “What I like about this is it’s at the same time classic and contemporary, especially with the typography,” he says. “It’s a bit of a selfish detail… From where you are, you cannot see it’s a Hermès watch. But I know, and I know it’s different. That’s the kind of relationship with my watch that I like — it’s very discreet. I also like the fact that when I take it off, the movement [from the transparent caseback] is as incredible as the dial… This model is becoming a classical icon. A lot of men who didn’t have a Hermès watch before come to us, thanks to this watch.”

What can we expect from the maison in 2017? Dordet teases with this answer: “There will be fancy novelties for women, and you will have stories about Hermès’ time in the men’s collection. We will try to express what time is for Hermès. For us, time is a friend and not something we want to control and measure with the highest degree of precision and so on, even if we have the techniques to do so. Time is a friend with which we want to play, like the Time Suspended watch and hidden hour watch. You will have another surprise next year in the same spirit of playfulness and lightness about the way we consider time.”

When asked about his longevity with the group, Dordet reflects on what it is about working for the world’s most prestigious luxury house that resonates most with him. “I share the values of this company, one of them being authenticity. I say what I do, and do what I say, but everybody at Hermès shares that kind of values. There is respect towards people — employees, customers, suppliers and partners… It’s one of the reasons I’ve stayed that long. The other reason is I always have fun every day. We are in the business of making graceful and magnificent objects, and with people who are passionate in creating these objects. It’s good to be in a company where people are not bored.”

Elaine Lau is a contributor to The Edge Malaysia.

This article appeared in the Options of Issue 764 (Jan 30) of The Edge Singapore.