Interview with Rolf W. Schnyder of Ulysse Nardin

 By: SJX : November 30th, 2008-04:50

Interview with Rolf W. Schnyder


By Su JiaXian

© November 2008


Rolf Willy Schnyder first came to Asia in 1958, when he got a job with Swiss trading firm Diethelm in Bangkok. After a two month journey by ship from Genoa, he arrived in Bangkok and was appointed director of Diethelm’s timepiece division. That was followed by a stint at Philip Morris back in Switzerland before he returned to Thailand to head a dial-manufacturing joint venture partially backed by a Swiss dial manufacturing syndicate which consisted of all the big dial makers of the day including Metalem and Cadran Stern.


In 1974 he sold his interest in the dial making enterprise and formed Precima Sdn Bhd in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. His firm eventually made a broad range of components for timepieces, ranging from dials to whole movements. Eventually he came into ownership of Ulysse Nardin, which at the time was a failing business amidst the quartz crisis. Over the next two decades Rolf proceeded to make Ulysse Nardin one of the most important companies in the industry, noted for its innovation and quirky products which reflected the remarkable personality driving the company.


Rolf Schnyder’s experience in the watch industry spans almost the entire post-war period of the 20th century. Today, well into the 21st century, Rolf is vibrant and shows no sign of slowing down. As recognition of his achievements, Rolf was awarded the inaugural lifetime achievement award at the first Asia edition of the Grand Prix d'Horlogerie de Geneve held in Singapore two months ago.


We caught up with Rolf at his hotel a few hours before the awards dinner where he would receive the award. In the interview, he talks expansively about a whole range of issues ranging from the grey market to the watch business in Russia. Rolf is a pleasure to converse with because he offers frank opinions backed up by a wealth of knowledge, and his experience means that he has an incredible number of interesting stories to tell.


Many thanks to Ching Wyin, Jacqueline and Roslinda at The Hour Glass for arranging this interview.



Su JiaXian (SJX): How does it feel to have been picked for the lifetime achievement award?


Rolf W. Schnyder (RWS) : It feels very good. It feels very rewarding! Nice that all the people share and appreciate one’s work.


SJX: Congratulations on the award!


RWS: Thank you.


SJX: How did you end up owning and running UN? How long ago was that?


RWS: 25 years ago. I’ve been in the watch business all my life. I’ve been working in the industry for so long and for all sides, [in] manufacturing, sales. But owning a watch brand is different; if you sell the canvas, the paint, the frame, you can paint.




SJX: You’ve had a long and successful career, what are the highlights?


RWS: Building up Ulysse Nardin, to have brought back Ulysse Nardin to the peak where it once was in the past. It has now found recognition as one of the brands who contributed most in terms of innovation: mechanical, aesthetic, material.


SJX: Now that UN is so successful, where do you want it to go? Where do you see it in fifty, a hundred years?


RWS: We don’t know what the economic conditions in the future will be. What’s happening now will certainly affect business in general. But Ulysse Nardin, where it will be in 50 years, nobody knows. (laughs)


SJX: Where do you want it to be?


RWS: Where it is now is fine, but it can expand to some extent in this price category, but afterwards it has to stabilise. Of course you still have new countries like China, India.


In the developed world, more or less, now we have reached the distribution which we want. We have been refining, we eliminate some retailers rather than add. We want to keep it to better ones. In Italy we have taken back distribution ourselves.


When you have an agent they think only short term. You have sales people working on commission, they’re not so selective. They don’t do enough for image; that is important, you have to have image, the environment in the shop, so on. We have that in the States. The US has been the showpiece of a market, where we have about 45 shop-in-shops. In all the major cities where we are we have shop-in-shops.


We do that now in Russia where we are already at the top. But Russia is a market which is still growing. There are more people who can spend. A few years back people would say “You are selling to the mafia!” (laughs) Of course when they changed from a Socialist state to private enterprise some of these people got the companies quite cheap. Now you have middle class.


In March I went to Egypt on holiday with my family, in Sharm el-Sheik, and 80% were Russians. Not the type of Russians who buy watches, but Russians who just go for the sun. Only Patek once had a shop there, in the Four Seasons, but now they closed. But it was not just the type of tourists that went there, it’s not the same as those which go to Dubai in the five-star hotels. Now you have Russians who travel, but on a different level. So obviously there is a middle class forming, people who have achieved in business, not mafia business. And of course in raw materials.


You go to St Petersburg, you have tourists, the hotels are full. You have lots of conferences in Moscow which makes very difficult to fly to Moscow, all the hotels are full. Like F1 [race here in Singapore], the rates jump, but they still get it because people have to go.


SJX: You are obviously familiar with the Russian market, do you think the Russian market is influential? Do they have an impact on the products created?


RWS: No, no, not really.


SJX: Do you see them becoming influential? They have buying power obviously.


RWS: Buying power, but Russians don’t go so much for like Rolex and other big watches. For them that’s déjà vu. Patek is always successful. But I have to say Ulysse Nardin is more successful in Russia, our models are really in demand. We have 9 sales points in Moscow and in every one we are the number one brand. There is of course [the luxury retailer] Mercury where we are not present.



SJX: What makes Ulysse Nardin successful in a market like Russia?


RWS: I think we move fast. It’s a new market which only opened up about 10 years ago. It’s in a new market if you’re there at the right time, it’s easier to get yourself in with the right product, but of course the product has to be acceptable. You try to get a new product into Europe, very difficult. Europe the space is taken up.


It’s easier in the States, Americans are always open. If they see they can make a profit out of a product, they take it, if it doesn’t sell, they’ll drop it. But for a European retailer, even if a line or a brand is not very strong any more, they are reluctant to give it up because they feel bad. They sold this to some people three, four years ago and now they don’t have it any more. And customers ask why? It doesn’t sell. They’re far more sentimental about it, but not Americans. Like right now, [it’s] financially tough, they clear what they can’t sell and turn it into cash very quickly.


SJX: Speaking of retailers, what do you think of the grey market?


RWS: We fight the grey market.



SJX: Do you think it’s important to have a grey market?


RWS: No. I’m probably the strictest of them all. We check all the websites. Most of the dealers which offer such goods, they just copy our catalogues and when they have orders they frantically search retailers to find the goods. They don’t really have it in stock.


You know it’s a grey market, they don’t have the overhead, they don’t have to pay rental, advertising. It’s living off the food of others. No investment. If you are too exposed on the grey market retailers will also complain, and will not be willing to invest money and space to sell your brand.


I’ve issued yellow cards and a few red cards. You have to do it. Most retailers appreciate this, in the end we protect retailers. The retailers doesn’t just have one watch for which he got an order, he has a whole collection there so money is tied down. He may sell some of them this month and others in other months, but still a lot of capital is tied down.


This grey market, they copy your website, and once they get an order they just have to go to three stores. With the grey market, I can do it myself. I don’t need you to do that, I can do my own grey market. You see, selling through websites, like in the States [where] companies like where Tiffany do that, but it’s their own thing and it’s not sold at a cheaper price. If you are in the States and you are a brand like Tiffany, you sell yourself on the website. [Customers are] maybe 100 miles from the next dealer, so you actually do a service to people who don’t have to drive 100 or 200 miles to the dealer. That’s fine.


We at Ulysse Nardin we never compete against retailers. Even in the monobrand boutiques, we let retailers run it. When we run it ourselves, we let retailers borrow the watch from the boutique [to show customers], just like in Hong Kong. And of course in the boutique we have a very strict discount, [customers] normally get more from the retailer. I have a different philosophy, for me retailers are my partners. So we protect them, but also I expect from retailers they play the game by the same rules.


SJX: You were speaking of monobrand boutiques, many brands are setting up their own boutiques, even where they have retailers. What do you think of that trend?


RWS: The monobrand boutique has advantages. If you have a monobrand boutique like we have in Hong Kong, it was a simple consideration. Do I pay $200,000 for a billboard here? Or do I use this $200,000 and have a nice boutique where I have goods to be seen? They cost about the same. The boutique in Hong Kong, it’s not to make money. It’s a good image. Like I said, retailers, especially the ones that are [located] very close, they run over there to get some of the good pieces. We don’t mind that. We just have to be partners.


SJX: So for Ulysse Nardin a monobrand boutique is cooperation with retailers, rather than competition?


RWS: Maybe it’s different for people like Chopard and maybe Cartier, where they sell certain pieces in the boutique that they don’t sell outside. A bit different. Cartier is of course a much bigger organisation than we are. Also with Chopard it’s a bit different because mainly in the boutiques it is female oriented, where models changes very quickly. I know Chopard changes very quickly, every year in Basel they have to have so many new models; we don’t have to do that. When you have something new, something becomes old. (laughs) I think for Chopard it’s worked very well. They still work with retailers as well. And I think Chopard in their boutiques they have a good price policy.


SJX: Earlier you were talking about the economy, the credit crunch, how do you think this will affect the watch industry?


RWS: Well there’s’ certainly less money going around, that’s for sure. We will see. You can already see all these people in the banks, lose their jobs. These are normally the yuppies with easy money to spend who will buy little Porsches and so on. The bonuses they got was outrageous compared to other people who did equal work. (laughs) But other people still have money. There was this sale of this British painter in Sotheby’s…


SJX: Damien Hirst?


RWS: Yes. The prices paid was quite incredible. There are now people who will think where do I invest my money? Do I buy some collectibles? I would say those who bought rare and good watches they certainly lost less money in the last year than the ones who put it in the stockmarket. (laughs) You also have some people going into gold, but gold you have to keep it in the bank, you don’t enjoy it.


SJX: Back to your career, over your long career is there anything you’d have done differently?


RWS: No, no.


SJX: Maybe bought another watch company?


RWS: No. Many times I get approached whether I would like to take over this company or that company, and frankly I have one wife now, I have one watch company. No favouritism. (laughs) I am fully occupied with Ulysse Nardin and I don’t need another. I see some of my colleagues who have two and they don’t know which one gets the new development; should I put it there or there? For me, it’s one family, one company, that’s it.


But no, I don’t regret. Not everything worked out everytime but I always say I would have loved to go through my life one more time. (laughs) No regrets.


SJX: In the watch industry, you are a pioneer, along with people like Nicolas Hayek, Gunther Blumlein. Who do you see as the emerging leaders of the industry? The next generation?


RWS: Difficult to say. There is always some independent brains but some of them are only creative, but you also need marketing. It’s a combination, you have to have people around you who are strong in sides which you are not so strong.



SJX: Are there any other brands or watchmakers you like or admire?


RWS: Yes there are. Especially Greubel Forsey, I think it’s grat. Also Renaud Papi, he’s excellent. I also like Michel Parmigiani, he’s a great watchmaker. Among the fraternity, we are jealous about each other. These are creative talents which I also admire. They have come up with ideas. Even Max Busser, how he rebuilt Harry Winston with his Opus. Opus gave the brand some status of a watchmaker, though they were really not watchmakers. It was a great idea to put them on the map. Now his brand is more or less continuation of what he did before, but it was the first part which was very interesting. Of course eventually you run out of independent watchmakers. You make up to Opus 20 and it’s going to be difficult. (laughs) Especially to always top it, because people expect whatever comes next should be even more or better or more attractive.


SJX: You mentioned Greubel Forsey, Richemont bought part of it…


RWS: Greubel Forsey for them is where the ideas come from. It’s a bit like Renaud Papi for AP. How that became [part of] AP is a different story. I remember it very well because we were involved to some extent. I had made my sonnerie en passant, [it was] a Renaud Papi product. At the very beginning, Claret was still part of it.


Any of these new projects, they always take much long than you expect, much longer. When you are small, you don’t have the reserves, the money, because there’s no income coming in. IWC had some work with [Renaud Papi], and I was the second one I think.


Then came Audemars Piguet with the grande et petit sonnerie, so they had to make a big advance [payment to Renaud Papi]. My advance for the sonnerie en passant was small, which I had paid already. AP had given them the grande et petit sonnerie to develop, and they spent a lot of money and when they started to run out of cash, AP wanted to protect its investment. But it became a smart move, in the end it was a great investment.


Like now they rescue this, in the States, they put in the $700 billion, probably in the end the money comes back. But if they don’t save it now, then it thing will go down, that’s for sure. In Renaud Papi in the end, that really paid dividends. They rescued it, became partners, let [Giulio Papi] work on his own. Giulio Papi is also an artist you know, they don’t like to be told too much how to do this, do that. They need certain guidance but artist need creativity. It was very well handled.


I see now Greubel Forsey is also building a new factory; I think the money must come from somewhere. (laughs) But they are very good people, I admire their work. We sold them a license to make their parts in diamond; this was our idea but we gave them a sublicense for it.


SJX: UN is your own company, you own it. What are the advantages of that as opposed to being part of Richemont or Swatch Group for example?


RWS: You don’t have to work for shareholders, you can do what you like. You can invest when you like, take risk when you like. In the big groups, when you decide to make something in new materials, they managers – they have so many levels of managers – very few are willing to stick out their head because if it doesn’t work they get the blame. So the top managers depend on the lower management or the knowhow of individual people. We can move much faster.


Our diamond investment so far has not paid back, but we learned a lot. Not everyone takes this sort of risk but we don’t have to answer to shareholders. I’ve never taken dividends out of the company. If you have shareholders they want to see dividends, they want to see reports. You have to waste a lot of time explaining to other people what you are doing.


Click here  to read Part II.

This message has been edited by SJX on 2008-11-30 05:20:18

This message has been edited by MTF on 2008-12-03 22:41:51

Part II of Rolf W. Schnyder interview

 By: SJX : November 30th, 2008-04:51

Interview with Rolf W. Schnyder

Part II


By Su JiaXian

© November 2008


SJX: What do you think of the watch press nowadays? There are so many magazines, on the internet, everywhere.


RWS: Far too many. Frankly many of these magazines are just there to make money. They are just there because they know in the luxury watch industry the margins are bigger and people want to be inside the magazine with photos. Especially those in Switzerland, and those in China, they don’t reach people. You don’t know how many are printed. I prefer if a magazine is distributed with a reputable magazine or paper, so you know the circulation. But in Switzerland there are so many watch magazines, I think the watch companies that get it, we get it free, so many of them.


In other cases, the ones in the US, that is different. The watch retailers, they don’t like it if they have a watch magazine with an ad of brands they don’t carry so they hide it. Because if they give the watch magazine then the customer says, “I like this one, how about it?” They also don’t like it if you advertise one retailer, because you know Americans phone from one state to the other [to buy]. Because if you buy from one state, and then they just send you the box, you don’t pay the state taxes. So there the watch magazines, they sell them as newspaper. It’s true. It’s very tricky.


We don’t tag [retailers] in magazines, we do referrals. We only put our own [contact details] in the States, and we distribute ourselves in there. You need very good trained people to do that on the phone. So when somebody phones, first we ask in which magazine did you see the ad, so we know very well the effectiveness of various publications. Then we ask for the [caller’s] name, and tell them we can send you a catalogue, because this model also exists in steel or in gold, and we also have not only the marine chronometer but also the marine chronograph. Let me have you address and we send you the catalogue. We send the catalogue and do a referral [to the closest dealer]. Every dealer in the States we know what they have in stock. Then we send [the catalogue] by bonded delivery, so the next day we receive the receipt that they have received it, then we phone up and ask have you received the catalogue? What did you choose? At the same time we copy the retailer we have referred to and make sure he has the piece [in stock]. It takes time, but it works very well. If it’s local newspapers where the retailer pays half, then we go along with that, but that’s for local.


This is very funny, one night I came with Patrick, very late we came into New York, about 7:30, we stayed at the Plaza on Fifth Avenue. We went to see if Kenny is still in the shop [name of watch retailer]. We walk around the block, there he was in the back with no more lights but we could see him .We tapped on the window, we went in and had a coffee. He started talking, he told me, the stupid Swiss, they don’t know how it works. They put my [shop’s] name [in the advertisement], that’s good for me because they bring me a customer and I can sell him what I want. When the people call and they say “I saw that watch in the magazine, how much is it?” and I say $12,000, but they say “Oh that’s so much.” But then I tell them I have another brand, it has the same thing inside but costs much less. [The brands] bring me the customer and I sell him what I want. (laughs) Then he also said never put 800 phone numbers, because then people just phone you and waste your money. If they are really interested, let them phone you and spend the money. That evening he was very proud to tell us about how the Swiss have no clue how it works in the States. I listened, I really listened.


SJX: There are so many magazines, and even in non-watch magazines there are so many watch advertisements. How do you stand out?


RWS: I choose [carefully], we are very particular where we are. We are not everywhere. In those countries where we decide by ourselves, we know the effectiveness. For us the Robb Report works very well, we see the recall rates. Even the American Express travel, what is it called, that magazine?


SJX: Departures?


RWS: Yes, Departures, it’s expensive but good recall rate is very high. But otherwise we are quite choosy where we advertise. When it’s your money, it’s not just you had a budget and you spend it, it’s your money. You still have to negotiate, it’s very important.


SJX: Now let’s talk about some of your watches, which is your personal favourite?


RWS: They’re like children you know, I love them all. (laughs)


SJX: So which is your favourite child?




RWS: Right now I wear the Sonata. This one is the latest one, the Silicium. It’s the first one. But why I also like Sonata, it’s very useful because I have my second time zone which is very quick to change. The alarm I don’t really use so many, I have my body clock. (laughs) But the Sonata expresses what Ulysse Nardin does in terms of aesthetic design, mechanical uniqueness and its materials. It has all three elements in it. Plus it’s got a romantic chime.




SJX: So this watch has silicium parts, quite a few of your watches have silicium.


RWS: Yes but this one has more than that because it is also the dial. Of course the escapement is also in silicium.




SJX: So do you think silicium is the way of the future?


RWS: It’s certainly one of the ways of the future. Not for everything, but for many things, like the hairspring.


SJX: More and more brands are using silicium, Patek, Rolex apparently too.


RWS: There are only two producers of silicium at the moment, one is TSCM, where we were first [but no longer], they continued and they produce for Rolex. I don’t think Rolex will produce it. We recently met the person who was head of research in Rolex, he retired recently. He was rather frustrated because all his many, many things invented never got to use.


SJX: So you should hire him.


RWS: Yes but he’s retired. That’s really amazing but that’s true. At Rolex before they change anything, my god that takes ages.


But we didn’t want to be excluded [from using the new material], so we put this factory into a new building which is coming up. I didn’t want to be excluded when suddenly others come and say we have a patent on this and that, and we can’t use it. That’s the danger when some of these new developments are with the big groups, others don’t get it.


Our products are open, we supply other companies. And we have now formed the hairspring club, for high-end watch companies that can become a member and will be supplied hairsprings in silicium. Because in any case such an investment wouldn’t make sense just for one company.


SJX: Silicium now is used in the escapement, the hairspring, pallet fork…


RWS: Many other things you can use it also. Whenever you need high precision you can use it. But silicium also doesn’t require lubrication and it’s very flexible. The hairspring that’s going to be the main product I would say. We have done the other technology, where you use silicium first and you grow in nickel-phosphor with LIGA technique [Lithographie, Galvanoformung, Abformung], a second component right onto the piece.


SJX: That’s what you used in the Freak right?


RWS: In the special Freak, the Innovision. And you know I don’t think you need silicium for every part. And [critics] say that’s no longer handmade, but then the other [traditional] parts also not handmade. (laughs) They are machine-made. If you make small quantities, you decorate or angle by hand. In large quantities even that [decoration] is not really done by hand. The moment you have large quantities to produce, you make a machine which does this work. But if you have small quantities, you cannot make tools and machinery especially for a component where you only have need for a small quantity. The less you produce, the more handwork is involved. But even these independents, they have many parts made in Mimotec in nickel-phosphor because it’s easier to make them that way and more precise, than to have them made by electro-erosion which is very expensive.


SJX: Now where do you see the next wave of innovation in watch movements? It started with silicium in the escapement and what’s next?


RWS: We will go a bit further with growing diamond on silicium, the Diamonsil.


SJX: Used for what part of the watch?


RWS: That one I won’t tell you. [smiles] It will be amazing.


SJX: When will it be launched?


RWS: I think next year.


SJX: At Baselworld?


RWS: I don’t know if it will be in Basel. You can’t just switch so quickly to that part because it will not be in the same dimensions because with that technology you gain a lot of space inside the movement. So you have to create a movement that incorporates the part from the start, because you are not just replacing this part with a similar sized other part. The advantage is that you can make the same function inside the movement in a smaller size.




SJX: Silicium and such innovations are necessarily in expensive watches for now. Do you see them being used in entry level ETA movements with silicium?


RWS: Well, ETA is also going into silicium.


SJX: So one day you could find silicium in a one or two thousand franc watch?


RWS: I don’t know what the policy of ETA will be. But from what we understand, ETA and Nivarox, new developments are for their own brands. We don’t know if the will keep it for Breguet or Omega, or lower like Certina.


SJX: But what about for yourself? Will you put silicium in your Marine Diver for example?


RWS: We will put it where it is needed. It doesn’t make sense just to change for changing sake. We only do it where it brings something. If I make a new movement, now I am working on the 161, which is the offspring of the calibre 160 which was our anniversary watch.


But we now produce that in a larger quantity, making your own calibre always cost far, far more money, far, far more. That’s why watch brands which do not sell at a certain price cannot make their own movement, it’s simply impossible. A whole new movement costs you roughly four times more. And you know I would say the 2892 or 2894 are perfect calibres. It’s a very good movement and still one of the best movements. But now we have to make our own. That is going to be very costly, but at Ulysse Nardin we can absorb it.


If you’re not at that price level you will have a problem. And many of these companies which have never been into making movements, or even modules for movements, they have no idea. They just think you have the machine you also make your own movements.


We still work with lots of subcontractors, so that’s ETA but less now. Rolex also buys from subcontractors. The whole industry was organised like that before, you had the ebauche factories, ETA was Fabrique de Ebauches ETA, it was an ebauche factory which worked for the whole industry.


Only during that crisis during the seventies, it was snapped up. At that time [Ernst] Thomke was running ETA, but you also had A. Schild, Fontainemelon, they all belonged to the ASUAG group, which later melded together with SSIH which was Omega and Tissot. Only later they made only ETA [branded movements] and all the others took down their names.


I remember at one point Thomke was furious because he made a development of a new small quartz movement. Then he found out in Basel that FHF, which belonged to the same group, funded it and they already didn’t have enough money at that time to produce. That’s why I started making the complicated quartz movement for ETA in Kuala Lumpur. They had no money to invest. They said if you can invest we can send you machines but they had no money to invest. So we made the movements, we made all the Flatlines at that time in KL. Now they make it in Bangkok. But then in Basel he found out that one of same group secretly made the same thing as him, they used up spare cash and then he really hammered them. He got it through that they always [had to] be coordinated and avoid duplication.


SJX: On that topic, you said back then they didn’t have enough money, but today the industry is awash in money. Business is good. Because of that do you think people will be less innovative than before? It’s so much easier to make money now.


RWS: Of course. When it was quartz, it cost a lot of money because the quartz movements at the beginning were thick, then they became slimmer and slimmer and slimmer, so the cases also had to be adjusted all the time. You had to retool again because it was not the same dimension in weight. I was in those days I had a case factory as well, it was very tough. 


Now yes, mechanical watches came back but not all companies [are successful]. Depends on how you manage your company. You manage your funds available. Some tried to grow too fast and wanted to grow too fast and wanted to be in ten years where the others were in twenty five years. Then you have a problem. So it’s not that all of them are swimming in money. It’s also good financial management and to tailor your investment to what you can afford. Otherwise you lose very quickly your freedom because you need outside funds and you are in this situation where you have to report.


SJX: Is there anything you would like to tell the readers of the forums?


RWS: Well they are very well informed. (laughs) There was a very good story just recently on the innovation of silicium and the Freak. It was really well researched I must say. I copied it to all my sales and marketing people and I told them to read it. I said that gives you excellent know how and knowledge to answer questions.


SJX: Some people from the industry have told me that sometimes the people on the watch forums are too well informed, so it can be difficult to deal with them. What do you think of them?


RWS: Well they not too well informed, but they are well informed. These are the only bunch who go to Basel and get to know and inform themselves. You also cannot tell them nonsense, they find out very quickly. And then you have people like Bernard [Cheong], he’s probably more in watches than in the clinic. He loves it, it’s his life. But I appreciate this relationship because there we have people who understand what one is doing. And for Ulysse Nardin, for a company our size, we need more proportion…


(At this point Mr Schnyder’s wife, Chai, comes into the room to hand him some documents.)


SJX: That’s a very interesting watch you’re wearing.


Chai Schnyder (CS) : Oh you like it? This is the perpetual.




RWS: Yes, the lady version.


CS : I was at Redwood City in Silicon Valley and they were telling me that the Hewlett Packard CEO was also wearing something like that and I saw that there was the possibility to put extra diamonds on it. This was for our tenth anniversary.


RWS: Ladies always love extra diamonds.


(Ms Schnyder leaves the room.)


RWS: I feel as an independent I think we have done, without exaggeration, incredible work in pioneering, opening doors, inspiring other artistic people in the industry. The Freak has changed the landscape of watchmaking, of aesthetics in watches. Nobody has dared to make a movement like that. But aesthetically others got inspiration. And the Astrolabium was the beginning of the renaissance of mechanical watches, because that’s a product that had not been done before, not in a pocket watch. We have contributed a lot to the industry and we don’t think just for ourselves, we are very open, to share. Of course we can’t share it just with everybody; they have to be of a certain level.


SJX: Thank you for your time.


RWS: My pleasure.





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This message has been edited by SJX on 2008-11-30 05:05:02

It was a great read, SJX!

 By: amanico : November 30th, 2008-05:47

To recommend to all of us who are interested in UN Watches, and Horology in general...

Rolf is not only a great Person, but also a " visionnaire "...

God, I'm excited by the Cal 161 and how it woiuld be used on Future UN Watches.

I also saw Mr R.S many times with a Sonata on the wrist, some years ago...

Seems it is one of his favourite watches.

As for what he said on the Freak, can't agree more...

This watch was a great innovation and inspiration for he Horological world.

Great Job, and very nice interview, SJX!



Sonata Rolf

 By: MTF : November 30th, 2008-06:33

Thanks SJX and Rolf for the interview.

The Sonata is also special to Rolf because the funky see-through hands were at his suggestion. At the beginning, they seemed a bit freaky but eventually, people got used to the better visibility.

I remember the first platinum UN GMT +/- Perpetual with Sonata hands came out in 2004 and there was a mini-fight between a couple of PuristS......eventually a fine southern gentleman from USA won it  smile 




I always thought the Sonata was an ugly watch

 By: SJX : November 30th, 2008-06:35

and I still do.

BUT I think the silicium Sonata in white gold as on Rolf's wrist, looks terrific. For some reason the grey and blue colours work perfectly despite the awful hands (sorry Mr Schnyder). This is the only Sonata I would wear.


Thanks for the great read SJX !

 By: GH1 : December 1st, 2008-01:04

UN do have more quirky love it or hate it designs . The Freak and the Sonata may look outlandish and ugly to some but I adore their designs .

Cant put it in words .....just remarkably different !




My God! I own both the PC and the Sonata with these Hands! LOLOL

 By: amanico : November 30th, 2008-06:58

This message has been edited by amanico on 2008-11-30 06:58:51

You must trade in for a silicium Sonata and ask Rolf to make a silicium QP

 By: SJX : November 30th, 2008-07:06
The silicium dial looks amazing. I thought it would look tacky and cheap but
the colour and reflectiveness of the material look terrific.

Don't worry amanico, even though you own two watches with those awful hands,
I know you have excellent taste because you also own a Datograph and Les
Historiques chronograph, unless you bought those accidentally. :-)


Naaah...I keep them! LOL

 By: amanico : November 30th, 2008-07:11

Seriously, I'm so in love with my Sonata First Generation ( no Silicium, and no Sapphire Case Back ), and with my LE Perpetual Calendar that I don't consider trading them for their upgraded evolutions...

As for Silicium, I also own the Freak and the 160, so my bases are covered...LOL

The only thing I miss is somethingg like the Hour Striker, ans an Astronomical U.N watch...

Damn, this brand is Hell!




Hi Melvyn, do you mean this PC?

 By: AV : December 1st, 2008-02:12

Photo a bit dated, but watch is still in my happy hands. Don't you just love those hands, which is why I wanted it so badly. Great interview and wishing much continued success to Rolf and everyone at UN.

Same pleasure here for me, AV

 By: amanico : December 1st, 2008-02:53

Nr 350 says hello to Nr 8! LOL

As you, I bought it for the layout of its dial, its hands, and the fact that you can set the Date Forwards and Backwards...

A Genial Watch!



Well.....since you identified the piece....

 By: MTF : December 1st, 2008-04:37

Yes - I thought that as you flew 17 hrs to was only polite that you had the honour!  smile



Thank you for the fascinating interview

 By: cazalea : November 30th, 2008-10:22
In addition to all the facts about watch production, it was illuminating to hear the rationale behind operating a boutique store, interaction with customers in the US through mailings and phone support, etc.

An excellent perspective on this industry and our hobby.


Great read

 By: Massi : December 1st, 2008-03:28
thanks to Rolf and SJX.

Thanks JSX for the article.

 By: jimsbk : December 1st, 2008-19:20

A very interesting and frank dialogue session with Rolf indeed. Yes he is a pioneer and he dares to innovate.

I wish him more success and creativity and looking forward to seeing his new diamondsil watches.



Great read on the man and his vision

 By: nasty204 : December 2nd, 2008-16:59
Good interview , providing an insight on the man's vision and philosophy.  Had been and still is an admirer of the Freak and Freak II , while these pieces are beyond what I can afford, they will always be an aspirational piece for me, not only for their unique beauty as well as the embodiment of Rolf's vision and passion.

His principles on his retailers and dealing with grey market is  exemplary , hope the other brands can learn from this , with emphasis on "dealing with the grey market"

Thanks for sharing this interview.


when opposites attract...

 By: VIP : December 3rd, 2008-13:36



Indeed an interesting interview... 


Excuse the lack of but I have several questions after reading . Early into the interview Rolf expressed his vehement passion towards the destruction of grey market.

1st what exactly is "grey market" ?  And second is there any similitude to the "grey market" to Rolf's description of monobrands, etc here:

SJX: Speaking of retailers, what do you think of the grey market?  

RWS: We fight the grey market.

Why arent the grey market participants considered "new projects", with "no income coming in" ?

I mean its just one sided to defend one and not the other without logical explanation is not so?

Dont "grey market" participants essentially purchase pieces at or around the same discount as the creditworthy contract retailers?

RWS:  Even in the monobrand boutiques, we let retailers run it. When we run it ourselves, we let retailers borrow the watch from the boutique [to show customers], just like in Hong Kong.

Sounds like grey market consignments to me?

I want to comprehend and engage intelligently about this matter, and not just from an overbearing competitive marketing standpoint either.

The monobrand boutique as mentioned in the interview is same story for grey market except when they can afford $200,000 billboard?

Just stop putting your foot in your mouth Rolf and say what everyone else is afraid to say, its all about money!! since money makes a good image, cost of course.

We all know the grey market dealer who can actually produce 100% of the time usually sell us a watch either the retail doesnt have or doesnt have at discount.

SO who should be punished, oh wait I know the answer, the smalltime seller, until he/she becomes profitable enough to afford $200,000 billboard??


All I know is that in most retailers I have purchased from, mainly Patek, I only feel the pressing of the shop/brand owners to cover their costs, pay employess, keep electrics on to do business while I am happy to walk away with my new found love in time.  The few grey market friends I have manage to make over the years are decent partners who may deserve just a spec of respect from the rest of us.... or at least just me.




Another one is series of many

 By: Ares501 - Mr Green : November 30th, 2008-08:12

Very informative interview SJX!

 By: AnthonyTsai : November 30th, 2008-09:42

Thanks very much for this great interview, and it was very interesting to hear Mr Schnyder's stories.

What did Rolf mean when he said the dial on his Sonata was made of silicium?  Did he mean the entire dial?  Or just some of the cut out parts of the dial such as the center brown colored section of the dial in the below picture?

- AT

Only centre portion is made of silicon

 By: SJX : November 30th, 2008-23:24

It looks slightly brown in the photo due to its high reflectiveness, but in actual fact it is the purplish-blue colour of silicon.


K thanks for the info [nt]

 By: AnthonyTsai : December 1st, 2008-08:36
No message body

SENSATIONAL!! Thank you SJX and Rolf.

 By: MichaelC : November 30th, 2008-10:30
Very enjoyable interview!

Thanks for the great interview -- very insightful . . . The Sonata is a superlative watch!

 By: Craig LA : November 30th, 2008-23:17


Very candid and informative interview. (nt)

 By: Ronald Held : December 1st, 2008-06:35