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Watch Industry Insider Interview: Georges Kern, CEO of Breitling

Georges Kern CEO Breitling

What has been the biggest change in the watch industry over the past ten years?

Luxury has democratised and become more relaxed, which perfectly reflects in Breitling’s positioning and strategy of delivering casual, inclusive and sustainable luxury. This approach continues to strongly resonate with our consumers. This aligns with the growing emphasis on sustainability and ethical practices in recent years within the watch industry. Consumers increasingly care about the environmental and social impact of their purchases.

A good example is our first ‘traceable watch’, the Breitling Super Chronomat Origins launched in 2022. It’s the first time Breitling – or anyone in our industry – have included a precious-materials supply chain on the watch’s NFT. Its artisanal gold and lab-grown diamonds can be traced from the mine to the wrist and each step along the supply chain is documented, verified and shared back with our customers. This is not a prototype or a one-off. By 2026, all our products will be made with this level of transparency.

Digital marketing has revolutionised the watch-buying experience. Online platforms now serve as vital channels in the decision-making process of the customer. They enable brands to engage with a worldwide audience, provide tailored shopping journeys and boost sales. Blockchain technology, which we introduced as the first watch brand in 2020 is another way, revolutionising how we engage with our customers and offering them a new level of transparency.

What do you consider the golden age of watchmaking and why?

Breitling Navitimer Ref 806 Vintage Ad 1963

Breitling Navitimer Ref. 806 Vintage Ad (1963)

Breitling Chronomat Original Catalog 1984Breitling Chronomat Original Catalog (1984)

There are several significant phases that have contributed to the industry’s rich heritage. The first half of the 19th century saw an unparalleled level of innovation, craftsmanship, and artistic expression in the industry. Following World War II, the post-war economic growth provided a fertile ground for the flourishing watch industry. There was remarkable technical progress. Iconic timepieces like our Breitling Navitimer were connected to the emergence of civil aviation in the 1950s. Its circular slide rule, a key feature for pilots at the time, allowed them to perform all necessary flight calculations.

Moving into the 1960s, watchmaking continued to evolve, influenced by design, lifestyle influences, and cultural shifts. This era saw the emergence of iconic designs and timepieces that reflected the changing tastes and aspirations of society, often associated with influential actors.

Breitling Chronomat 1984 Ref 81950

Breitling Chronomat Ref. 81950 (1984)

In the 1980s, the industry experienced a revival of mechanical watches following the quartz crisis of the previous decade. This resurgence underscored a renewed appreciation for traditional craftsmanship and mechanical complexity, marking a pivotal moment in the industry’s history. Breitling contributed to this resurgence when it launched the Breitling Chronomat in 1984. It reintroduced the mechanical chronograph, on which the brand had built its global reputation, to its rightfully prominent place.

The Chronomat’s technical legacy, combined with its stylish design codes, positioned it as the ultimate sport-chic watch of its era. It became an expression of aesthetics and confidence, effectively making the chronograph ‘cool’ again. Each of these phases contributes to the history of watchmaking, representing periods of innovation, creativity, and resilience that have shaped the industry into what it is today.

What is the biggest misconception about the watch industry and what would you change?

Breitling Movement

Breitling’s first in-house movement (Calibre 01) from 2009.

A big misconception about the watch industry is the notion that customers these days purchase a timepiece primarily due to its movement or mechanism. While the quality of the movement and technical innovation is undoubtedly a precondition, it’s often assumed that this is also the primary factor driving consumer decisions. However, quality, is a conditio sine qua non and in reality, the majority of customers today first buy the brand, then the design before considering the movement of a watch.

It would maybe be good for the industry to become more progressive and transparent. Currently, our industry is often characterised by its reserved and secretive nature, which can be seen as overly conservative and traditional. This approach can sometimes result in a slow pace of innovation and adaptation to changing market dynamics.

What do you think the next big thing in watch industry will be?

Breitling Townhouse Hannam Breitling Cafe

Breitling’s Hannam Townhouse in Seoul

Among other new growth markets, India is being considered of great potential for the Swiss watch industry with an average economic growth rate of 6% per year. The Indian GDP has increased in recent years and is expected to more than double by the end of 2030, reaching USD $4.5 trillion, making India the third-largest economy by 2027. By 2028, Swiss watch exports to India are expected to exceed CHF 400 million, according to the 2023 Deloitte Swiss Watch Industry Study. The study expects India to be among the top 10 Swiss export markets within a decade.

Furthermore, brands are enhancing the in person-experience to interact and sell directly to customers. There’s growing demand, particularly among young consumers, for the so-called 360° experience. They want the brand and products to be explained to them, and they want the entire collection to be available and fully immerse themselves in the brand environment. In our boutiques, you experience the relaxed and welcoming atmosphere of an industrial loft, reflecting Breitling’s casual, inclusive, and sustainable approach to luxury.

Breitling Kitchen Geneva

The Breitling Kitchen in Geneva

We view our boutiques as ‘social spaces’, meticulously crafting an environment for the customer to feel at ease. Every element, from decor to music to room fragrance, contributes to this atmosphere. Moreover, our retail concept now also includes restaurants, as we have opened, for example, in Geneva and Seoul. They are a natural extension of our boutique and brand experience. The restaurants have a similar style to the boutiques, offering menus reflecting our brand worlds of ‘Air, Land and Sea’.

This is the experience people crave and the new big topic in the luxury goods industry. By the third quarter of 2024, we’ll reach a milestone of 300 boutiques, a testament to our significant presence and, naturally, a driving force behind our brand image. Nonetheless, we remain committed to traditional retail, nurturing relationships with esteemed jewellers whom we deem indispensable. We continue to pursue our omni-channel strategy, which includes e-commerce and adapting to evolving consumer preferences.

How do you see technology impacting the watch industry in the next ten years?

Breitling Blockchain

Each Breitling watch comes with its own NFT

Our traditional industry needs to embrace technology as technologies like AI will continue to change the world and certainly impact the way we market our products. Additionally, social commerce, which is already well-established in Asia, is emerging as a key sub-channel, especially for younger consumers. It offers personalised recommendations and instant purchasing through connected apps and mobile payment options.

Furthermore, blockchain technologies will play an increasingly important role in traceability, and Breitling aims to remain at the forefront of this change. At Breitling, the direct relationship between Breitling and its customers, offering full transparency, traceability, and tradeability capabilities unlike any other brand.

That’s why we have been among the first to invest in and develop blockchain capabilities in the luxury industry. Breitling is the only luxury brand to leverage blockchain as a true instrument for global customer engagement. Brands have a responsibility to provide a complete ecosystem to customers, centered on experience and values, not just products. Digital technology innovation, with blockchain as the canvas, offers a new way to connect the brand and the customer, anytime, anywhere, and on the customer’s terms.

What style trends do you predict for the next few years?

Breitling CEO George Kern

The watch industry is much less exposed to fast-moving trends as the fashion industry, for example. Currently, we see a trend towards iconisation of products in the watch sector and luxury industry in general, which plays into the hands of a brand like Breitling with an incredible back catalogue and 140 years of history. Building icons takes time. Most iconic designs have a heritage spanning 50 to 60 years, or more, which underscores the importance of timeless designs and craftsmanship. We see proven designs with modern refinements continuing to thrive.

The vintage trend among watch collectors is also playing a role, as is the shift in aesthetic preferences. The lines between men’s and women’s watches are becoming less defined, reflecting a broader societal trend towards individual expression. The influence of the vintage trend and dress watch style are contributing to a growing preference for smaller watches, particularly among men. It’s a fascinating evolution in the world of watches, and we’re excited to see where it leads.

Our modern-retro design style perfectly aligns with the aforementioned trends and shifts, appealing to a broader audience seeking versatile timepieces that effortlessly blend into everyday life.

More details at Breitling.

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About the author

Sam Kessler

Legend has it that Sam’s first word was ‘escapement’ and, while he might have started that legend himself, he’s been in the watch world long enough that it makes little difference. As the editor of Oracle Time, he’s our leading man for all things horological – even if he does love yellow dials to a worrying degree. Owns a Pogue; doesn’t own an Oyster Perpetual. Yet.