FEATURE: All in the Family

How family-run watchmakers survive and flourish in today’s global economy

The luxury watch industry is dominated by large corporations and even larger conglomerates. The Swatch Group, LVMH, the Kering Group, and the Richemont Group pack enormous power, leading the industry in sales volume and diversified distribution. But most watch companies originated as family businesses, often named after their founders. Brands like Jaeger-LeCoultre, Piaget, and Vacheron Constantin, as well as myriad others, are now under corporate ownership.

Still, some of the family-owned businesses that have remained independent are flourishing in today’s ultra-competitive luxury watch industry. Specialty companies appeal to collectors and dealers, who benefit from the personal connection that businesses of this size can offer. In order to discover what it takes to succeed as a small-scale business with large-scale rivals, Watch Journal talked to a three different thriving brands. Here’s what they had to say.

A London Jeweler Builds an Empire

Graff is regarded worldwide as one of the top purveyors of diamond and precious-stone jewelry and watches. Laurence Graff founded the company and is its chairman, while his brother Raymond serves as the director of production. Laurence Graff’s son, Francois, is the company’s CEO.

“Operating as a family business benefits us tremendously; we work together setting goals for the future of our business: to grow, to expand and to always be the very best,” says Francois Graff. “Graff Diamonds was founded in 1960 by my father. At the time our business was primarily a wholesale company, and then in the early 1970s we opened a retail store in Knightsbridge, London. This went on to become one of the most renowned diamond stores in the world, visited by collectors of jewelry and diamonds, kings and queens, and business people.”

Graff Diamonds, Basel, Basel World, Laurence and Francios Graff, Portrait, Booth,
Laurence and Francios Graff

Graff launched its watch collections in 2008, and today operates over 55 stores in countries around the world. While the expansion is global, “we are extremely proud of our British heritage, which spans more than 50 years, and to this day our global head office, design studio, and workshop which employs over 70 master craftsmen—are located in the very heart of London,” says Graff. “We are all very involved in every part of the business, and while we each have defined roles within the company, we monitor every aspect of our operations. We interact with our employees around the world on a daily basis, speaking to Asia in the morning, Europe throughout the day, and America in the evening, so we are each aware of exactly what is going on, from production to design and retail. Many of the high jewelry houses we compete with aren’t family businesses; we are one of the few left that isn’t part of a big conglomerate. I believe that working together as a family puts us at a considerable advantage; it changes the dynamic of our business, making every process faster and more efficient.”

Watchmaking for the British Sportsman 

Nick and Giles English literally flew into their business by chance. The avid amateur pilots were flying across France in the late 1990s when a faulty engine of their 1930s biplane forced them to land in the French countryside. The brothers vowed to repay the kindness of the farmer who welcomed them into his home (and their plane into his barn). The farmer, a fellow pilot with a passion for restoring wall clocks, was named Antoine Bremont.

Now, 14 years after its 2002 founding, Bremont operates boutiques in London, New York, and Hong Kong, and is dedicated to watchmaking in the brothers’ homeland.

Giles and Nick English
Giles and Nick English

“The fact that very few watch brands are family businesses with their founders still around is a big point of difference for Bremont,” Giles English, co-founder, says. “There’s a feel to a family business that consumers like; it’s much more personable, which is what Bremont is all about,” he said. “From our marketing to our customer service we are passionate in our approach and values, which definitely stems from being a family business.”

He goes on to say: “Nick and I have worked together for 20 years. The great thing about working together is that we are on the same page, and we trust one another completely. “We can also be totally honest with one another, which is a huge advantage. I know what he is going to like and vice-versa, which makes designing so much easier … It is quite a unique working relationship because we both do a bit of everything.” In addition to flying, the brothers are avid sportsmen and count sailing, shooting, and tennis among their favorite activities.

“One difficulty is separating work and family life—that can be tricky,” says English. However, “I enjoy our families all getting involved and having this common bond, whether it is them all helping out at an air show or an America’s Cup event, or counting stock.”

Consolidating Under the Family Banner 

Georges-Henri Meylan established MELB Group as a family business, using the initials of his children to form the name. Meylan, a former CEO of Audemars Piguet, bought H. Moser and Hautlence to start his enterprise, and he is actively looking for additional watch-related investments.

“A family business allows true independence in terms of creation but also in terms of communication,” says Edouard Meylan, Georges-Henri’s son and CEO of H. Moser. “We came to make an audit of H. Moser & Cie. as watch experts, and fell in love with the brand. We thought that we would be the right people to bring it to the next level with our experience, our dynamism, and our entrepreneurial spirit.” H. Moser & Cie was founded in 1828 by Heinrich Moser; it ceased operations upon his death until the MELB Group revived it in 2005.

As a family company, “we can be much more reactive because there are not so many organizational layers,” Meylan says. “At the end of the day, we are the shareholders, so we don’t focus on short-term results but look to create long-term value. Sometimes it can be hard to work with family members every day, but communication is key. Our interests are aligned and we can talk to each other in a very direct way. Independent family-owned retailers appreciate our family business, especially since some of the relationships we have date from previous generations.”

Asked about his company’s future, Meylan is cautiously optimistic: “Big groups have deeper pockets and can put pressure on us and our business partners. The future looks tough in general because it requires a lot of money, but it looks bright for those who will be creative, innovative and ready to take calculated risks.” —Keith W. Strandberg