SINGAPORE (Dec 20): To young Rolf Studer, his grandfather’s shipyard by the lake of Lucerne was the most magical place in the world. It was not the quintessential.

Swiss tableau of crisp blue sky, glassy lake and surrounding snow-capped mountains that fascinated Studer. Instead, it was a dusty workshop by the lake’s edge from which the faint sound of hammering broke the silence.

“In the old days, my grandfather lived above the workshop in his shipyard. My mother grew up there. I used to visit as a boy and I still remember how the sunlight came in through the dusty windows, the smell of the mahogany and lacquer — 12 layers applied to each boat. It was very atmospheric. I fell in love,” says Studer, leaning forward in his seat.

“There were usually seven or eight boats in the workshop, which had sections for wood and mechanical work as well as storage rooms. I remember playing around and using his tools. Whenever I borrowed one, my grandfather would point to its handle and say, ‘You see, very small here, it says, thank you for bringing it back.’ And I could never see it but I believed him and always brought his tools back! Of course, there was no actual script engraved there. He had a very personal relationship with his work. It’s that pride old-fashioned craftsmen have in doing something with purpose that lasts for life. He made boats that are still around — wooden boats, if you take good care of them, they endure. It was a privilege to experience him like that, as a very genuine human being doing with a great deal of pride what he did best — making boats. He was a carpenter, a mechanic, an electrician, an upholsterer. He did everything himself, from drawing the plans to making the final product. I was always impressed by that and respected it.”

Studer might not have been able to articulate it as a child but those endless afternoons in the workshop stoked a deep appreciation for craftsmanship that he would carry well into adulthood. It might have taken a back seat in the early years of his career as he worked his way up to customer development manager at Coca-Cola, but when opportunity knocked in 2006, he left the global company to join Oris as a regional manager.

“Coca-Cola was a great thing to do,” says Studer, who is now co-CEO. “I trained as a lawyer but was never that interested in the actual business of being a lawyer. What had always attracted me was interactions with people, and law espouses that to a certain extent. Coca-Cola was a highly efficient, world-class organisation, so it was an excellent training ground. I was there for seven years, but I did something different every six to 12 months, so it was always interesting.”

Watch and learn
Many Swiss watch brand captains credit their interest in the field to their upbringing — you are surrounded by timepieces in Switzerland, so exposure is inevitable, they joke. Studer says the same, but his comprehension of craftsmanship always goes back to that lakeside in Lucerne.

“I received a good education in marketing and sales at Coca-Cola, but at Oris, I regained the common sense for which we are known. That is my idea of real luxury. We say our luxury is the luxury of common sense,” he laughs.

Of course, common sense is not an easy sentiment to market — it is far from sexy and does not thrust itself forward with flashiness or pretence. With his innate understanding of the romance of honest materials and handiwork, Studer was well-equipped for the challenge of bringing Oris into mainstream consciousness.

Founded in 1904 by Paul Cattin and Georges Christian, Oris was established on the site of the former Lohner & Co watch factory in the German-speaking Swiss town of Hölstein. The new watch manufacturer was christened after a brook visible from a window in the factory. Production grew steadily over the decades and moved with the times. In 1925, the company began fitting bracelet buckles to transform pocket watches into wrist models. The 1930s saw the manufacture open a dial factory and produce its own watch escapements as well as expand its workforce. Oris was among the first employers to offer equal opportunities to men and women.

In 1938, on the cusp of World War II, the Big Crown was born. Oris named its first watch for pilots after its distinctive oversized crown, so designed for easy adjustment by fingers encumbered with leather gloves. Aviation would go on to become one of the four pillars of Oris’ portfolio, alongside motorsport, diving and culture. But most important to the modern history of the brand is the 2010 reveal of its new company slogan. Chinese artist Liu Bolin, known as the Invisible Man for painting himself into pictures, was commissioned to lend his artistic flair to a series of campaign images featuring the tagline, “Real watches for real people”.

“Common sense leads us back to where Oris started,” says Studer. “It doesn’t have the shine of luxury, there’s no glamour about it, but it is about being true and honest. We’re trying to bring back the romance of that genuine approach to craftsmanship and it seems to be working rather well. The champagne times have gone; we’re in the era of value and craftsmanship. That’s the message people want to hear, right? They want to understand what is behind a product. They don’t want to be blinded anymore.

“Luxury products started out in a workshop, like my grandfather’s boats did,” he continues. “A wooden boat then was a luxury. It still is, like a timepiece or leather saddle or custom-made shoes. You would go to the workshop and see the craftsmen at work. Then luxury goods became industrialised and brands lost that direct contact with customers as distributors, agents and retailers took over the task of interactions. Sometimes they did well, and sometimes part of the message would get lost along the way. The digital age we’re in is an absolute blessing because we’re back in direct contact with customers again. For a brand like Oris, whose values are subtle, almost fragile, being able to speak directly to customers means we can say exactly what we mean.”

Put it into practice
If it is actions, far more than words, that prove who we are, Oris exemplifies its principles. A regional cohort of journalists gathers in hip hotel The Edition in Shanghai for the launch of the Big Crown ProPilot X Calibre 115. An afternoon of in-depth product familiarisation precedes the main event in one of the two adjacent towers that comprise the luxury property.

A virtual reality corner is ready to whisk us into the adventure devised by Oris — and what an adventure. I slip on a headset and am absurdly hurtled into a scene from Gulliver’s Travels as Lilliputian me wanders around a gargantuan timepiece. It rests on its side and looms large in the horizon, its resounding ticking enveloping the intrepid explorer. This would be our first look at the new Big Crown model, and the clever encounter allows us to see the galvanised finishing up close, go behind the cut-outs on the dial to examine the Calibre 115 and study the “10 days” inscription that refers to its immense power reserve. With an array of technological innovations wrapped in an affordable package, this is certainly a watch you want to poke around in.

The Big Crown ProPilot X Calibre 115 is unlike any of its predecessors, not just from the pilot’s range but from the brand’s entire stable of timepieces. It marshals everything Oris has learnt in 115 years and directs this wealth of expertise into a single standout piece. A manifestation of its spirit of candour, every single component is on display, though not by traditional skeletonising methods.

Instead of subtracting superfluous material from the mainplate and bridges, the manual-wound Calibre 115 was designed as an open-worked movement and fitted into a 44mm purpose-built titanium case. Artifice is avoided even in the finishing — the movement is free of chamfers, bevels and polish, but is given a galvanic treatment for a raw, industrial aesthetic. The design language is prolonged across the bezel, whose motif is inspired by the composite fan blades of modern jet engines. Visible through these is the extended mainspring that drives the impressive power reserve, measured by a prominent non-linear indicator. Amid the grey landscape of the dial, Super-LumiNova-ed hands and markers create vivid contrast for easy readability. Finally, the integrated bracelet with a seatbelt-inspired clasp is expressed in fluid links and can be effortlessly swapped out for a NATO or leather strap.

Around the floor dedicated to the presentation, stations are set up to help us better understand the artistry and mechanical prowess of the timepiece through printed visuals, full-colour sketches and displayed components. Before we sit down for a chat with the co-CEO, he groups us together for a video call with the manufacture in Switzerland to include a watchmaker who could not join us for the event. The rather moving gesture resonates with a quote Studer would later give about the lean organisation resembling a family.

The launch proper takes place that evening and proceeds without fanfare. Studer delivers a welcome address, a cloth is whisked off a concealed display to
reveal the watch and we sit down for dinner with a view over the dazzling lights of The Bund. That was it — no fuss or frills. It is an introduction unlike any other in an industry famed for bells and whistles in similar circumstances.

Dial it up
“This is the biggest launch, the biggest marketing event we’ve ever done,” says Studer. “Shanghai is one of the most future-driven cities in the world, yet it is firmly rooted in its past. It is cosmopolitan, yet decidedly Chinese. Similarly, we believe this watch, steeped in Oris’ heritage, will drive us into the future.”

For one of the few independent watch brands in Switzerland to organise regional events just to touch base with stakeholders is no small investment, but not for all the resources in the world would Oris have it any other way. “Our independence permeates everything we do, from company ownership to our day-to-day practice. It is a mindset adopted by everyone at Oris. It makes us want to go the extra mile because we do what we want, what we believe in — and we wouldn’t trade that for anything,” says the candid Swiss native.

Beside him is a triptych that inspired the Big Crown ProPilot X Calibre 115, depicting scenes from nature, culture and watchmaking. Studer turns surprisingly poetic as he picks apart the photographed views: A tree trying to branch out from a craggy mountainside is an imagery of the brand’s determination to grow. An installation by a Swiss artist captures the interaction between people and reflects the brand’s approach to watchmaking, while a zoomed-in picture of a galvanised bridge is a snapshot of the watchmaker’s attention to detail.

“Our timepieces are the product of the age of enlightenment,” says the captain of the ship. “They are for the citizen who needs to work for a living and is
careful with how he spends his money. We at Oris have the utmost respect for people who work hard and save to buy that special piece.”

The Big Crown ProPilot X Calibre 115 is priced between CHF7,200 (about $9,905) and CHF7,600, chump change for the well-heeled who keep the elite names of the watchmaking world in business, but an aspiration for a large swathe of society. Aware and appreciative of this, Oris grants no compromise in its ambitious innovations and gives back by supporting causes such as global movement Movember (a portmanteau of moustache and November to raise awareness of men’s health) and ocean pollution through special-edition timepieces and sales proceeds.

“Perceptions are changing. People seem to be moving away from the old notions of luxury, where exclusive meant to exclude others. More and more, we are seeing that people don’t want to belong to a group that is uniform in its tastes and aligns strictly to certain brands. We don’t make watches to be put in safes or on shelves, but for people who know a timepiece’s value is evoked when it’s worn on the wrist. Casual luxury is growing quickly. We pride ourselves in being independent and living according to our own values and now we find ourselves in the middle of a movement that is pushing for openness and accountability, which includes taking responsibility for our community and environment.”

Just look at Baselworld, continues Studer. “Its idea of exclusivity locked people out, which used to be cool, but the current reaction to being rejected is, ‘Fine, leave me out, I’ll go somewhere else’,” he says, shrugging to demonstrate his point. “This was a great development for our brand. People who used to mentally yawn when I talked about our brand values, who wanted expensive and exclusive, are now telling us that what we’re doing is cool.”

But holding their ground during the “champagne times”, as Studer called them, could not have been easy. “We kept going because we’re us,” he affirms.
“As Martin Luther supposedly said, ‘Here I stand, so help me God.’ It’s a matter of fact. This is who we are. We just do this as well as we can and hope people like it, and retain that authenticity in good times and bad.”

Family values, Studer reiterates — an apt description of the Oris team. “We call ourselves a family because we’re lean and tight-knit,” he says. “Despite what I said about Baselworld, it’s a very important event for me because it’s the one week in the year our team has time together and we enjoy that. As a small, independent brand, we need to do more than our peers to be successful. Everyone believes in working and playing hard, and we fight to maintain our values in an industry that is sometimes a bit full of itself. We have a maverick approach to producing well-made mechanical watches that do what they are supposed to and don’t cost an arm and a leg.”

The transition from a multinational powerhouse like Coca-Cola to an autonomous label such as Oris could not have been plain sailing, but Studer regrets nothing.
“I like working with an independent brand because you’re not just a cog in the machine. I can go out there and share a message that resonates with my personal values; I don’t have to bend the truth,” he elaborates. “Like when I tell you the Big Crown ProPilot X Calibre 115 is more than just an aviation watch, I mean it. It incorporates all the tenets I love and believe in.”

I ask him to pick a favourite model from the four product categories, but he wriggles past the challenge with a protest I cannot counter.

“I think the diving collection might be the one I relate to best since I love the water and have been sailing since I was a child,” he says. “But I could never pick a favourite watch. How do you choose a favourite child? As a parent, that’s a tough ask. You love each child for different reasons and the same goes with watches. I’m not being diplomatic, I’m being honest.”

Or rather, he is being Oris.