Watches and Wonders: Chopard reaches high note with anniversary special
Like most creative people, watchmakers rarely know when or where inspiration will strike.
Karl-Friedrich Scheufele’s moment came in 2018, when he was sitting in a church in Saanen, not far from the Swiss ski resort of Gstaad. The co-president of family-owned watch brand Chopard was attending a performance by virtuoso violinist Renaud Capuçon.
As the sweet notes of Debussy’s Violin Sonata in G Minor filled the air, Scheufele had a Damascene revelation: “I realised, then, that a minute repeater watch should be designed as a musical instrument as much as a timepiece and that it should deliver more than just an audible indication of the time of day. It should deliver emotion.”
Scheufele subsequently enlisted Renaud and his cellist brother Gautier to assist in the development of a minute repeater model, which sounds the number of minutes past the hour. The piece is launched at this week’s Watches and Wonders fair in Geneva to mark the 25th anniversary of Chopard’s LUC fine watchmaking division.
With the LUC Full Strike Sapphire, Chopard claims to have revolutionised a venerable complication twice in five years. This transparent watch is one of a trilogy of anniversary pieces, the others being a minute repeater with tourbillon and an updated reissue of the brand’s first chiming watch, the Strike One, which sounded the passing hour and first appeared in 2006.
The finely adjusted minute repeater is one of the most difficult complications to master, requiring considerable reserves of skill and time. Scheufele reckons that 17,000 man-hours went into developing and making the brand’s first minute repeater, 2016’s Full Strike, which carried off the Aiguille d’Or prize at the 2017 watch industry Oscars, the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève awards. The defining characteristic was the use of monobloc sapphire crystal gongs attached umbilically to the sapphire crystal, which is used as a resonator, creating an impressive purity and clarity of sound.
While Jaeger-LeCoultre developed what it first called “crystal gongs” in 2005, Scheufele recalls that standard metal gongs were soldered to the surface of the crystal, rather than being milled from one piece of crystal. “There were some brilliant sounding watches on the market,” he says. “But you really had to put your ear right next to the watch to hear it, and I said, if we go into making such a watch, we need to have some added value.”
Sound amplification is a persistent issue that many brands have addressed over the years, but Scheufele feels that the combination of the crystal gong and case will produce outstanding results.
Nevertheless, minute repeaters are notoriously temperamental. Even if they are of identical specification and assembled by the same watchmaker, differences in timbre and volume are likely. “Some are just not right,” says Scheufele. “They go back to the workshop, and we have to change the entire set-up and put in a new crystal with new gongs. From one piece to another, there is a difference — although these crystal gongs are identical down to a 100th of a millimetre.”
With its minute repeater range, in particular the arresting crystal watch, Chopard is announcing itself as having arrived in high watchmaking. “You could put those watches, particularly the Full Strike Sapphire, in the category of, say, supercars,” says Scheufele. “Producing and imagining pieces like this takes you further each time. A minute repeater is the equivalent of high jewellery and we have seen a lot of growth in high jewellery. We don’t have enough.
“Production of minute repeaters [has been] limited since we started selling them back in 2017. We have made between 20 and 25 pieces a year.”
Twenty years ago, had anyone suggested that Chopard would be making its own minute repeaters, let alone developing genuinely innovative technology, there would have been incredulity. Today, Chopard is 18th in the Morgan Stanley/LuxeConsult annual report, which estimates the sales of the top Swiss watch brands.
Much like most companies on the ranking, Chopard does not publish its annual results, but Scheufele says that “turnover in 2021, relating to watches only, amounted to above SFr500mn ($540mn)”, disputing Morgan Stanley’s estimate of SFr369mn.
However, Luca Solca, a luxury goods analyst at Bernstein, says Chopard’s biggest flaw is that its forays into different product categories “don’t seem to come together to provide a clear brand identity”. In watches, it is missing “a significant opportunity” to improve its appeal to its core female customers, he adds.
Scheufele is philosophical, though. “Our product strategy has always been the pursuit of a ‘multi-collection’ approach, and not a focus on just one ‘mono-product’ that is easy to understand and evaluate,” he says. The brand is active in most categories, from minute repeaters to Happy Sport, a signature woman’s watch with diamonds moving around the dial.
Scheufele set up LUC Chopard in the quiet Swiss mountain town of Fleurier, originally occupying a couple of rooms above a cork manufacturer. Today, there are two factories employing 220 staff. One, LUC, is a high-end brand making about 3,500 pieces a year; the other is a high-volume producer, turning out 50,000 movements a year, including the successful Alpine Eagle steel bracelet models.
Scheufele is well aware of the irony that Alpine Eagle is succeeding at the expense of the watches he initially set out to make in Fleurier. “LUC is by definition a very classical leather-strap collection: no metal straps, no integrated bracelets,” he says.
As an independent, family-owned, family-operated brand, Chopard has the luxury of planning for the long term and complicated watches continue to be a central part of that vision. “The Full Strike and now the Full Strike Sapphire put us in a league of very few manufactures able to produce and design such a movement,” he says.