THE first thing one notices of Rolf W. Schnyder is his uncanny zest for life: The septuagenarian prances around with a spring in his step and a twinkle in his eye. He could put many of those half his age (these writers included) to shame with his seemingly boundless energy.
Schnyder, who is president and owner of Ulysse Nardin SA, the Swiss watch-making outfit founded way back in 1846, says his secret lies in the fact that he has pursued work as a passion and not as work per se.
“I call it a hobby watch making. I call it a hobby job because it's very creative, enjoyable and gives me lot of stimulus.”
At 70, he has no plans to retire or slow down.
“I have absolutely no intention of retiring. I believe that artists and entrepreneurs don’t retire,” he quips.
Over a glass of Burgundy at his residence, which also doubles up as his local office, in Bangsar, Schnyder shares his passion for his work at Ulysse Nardin, and how he turned the once ailing company around to its current status as among the greats in the watch-making industry.
“I run the company, I do the creating, the marketing and the aesthetic designs. I have very artistic tendencies,” he says.
“The feeling comes from the heart. I love paintings, I sketch and I’m also very good with proportions. I have also travelled a lot so I can smell tendencies, and can tell which direction the (watch-making) industry is heading. I’m basically quite an artistic person.”
When he first took over the company in 1983, “Ulysse Nardine was for sale because there was no demand anymore. I took over a great name (in watch making), but we had only two staff left. But gradually we turned things around and now we have a staff strength of more than 200,” he says.
The revival of Ulysse Nardin, with Schnyder stamping his mark on the watch-making industry, came in the form of the Astrolabium, an astronomical wristwatch.
“Time is really given to us,” says Schnyder.
“All we do in a watch is we divide it, many people don’t really realise that.
“We learn in school that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. It is not so, it is always there, it is us that are turning.
“The Astrolabium is a complete reflection of the sky. You can tell when the sun will set, when the moon will go up. You can tell which star is where. It could tell you all these things.
“It has one dial but many markings. We still make the Astrolabium but now, of course, it is much, much more expensive.”
With the Astrolabium, Ulysse Nardin shot back to prominence, creating other celebrated watches like the Perpetual Ludwig, the Genghis Khan, the Freak and the Trilogy of Time, to name only a few.
Ulysse Nardin has since regained its position among the elite watchmakers, and now produces as many as 14,000 watches a year.
The often-used saying, “nothing in life is easy” is especially true in the watch making business. Schnyder admits that the going has been tough, especially of late with the limited human expertise left.
“For me the problem is to find highly qualified people, not only watchmakers but constructors for the mechanical movements, engineers, technicians.
“In the old days, up to the early 80s, there were a lot of schools teaching the art of watch making all around the Jura Mountains in Switzerland, at the border between France and Switzerland. That’s where the cradle of watch making is, but now many have since shut down. This is one reason why the prices of good watches go up.
“The demand has increased so much but you can’t find the right people,” he says, adding that watchmakers only come in at the tail of the whole process.
“Before that there is the agony of making the miniscule parts that make up the watch. Until you have the right balance, you have to make the parts over and over again. It’s not just a one-night job; it takes many, many months to make some parts. The production costs have gone up by some 30% in the last five years,” he says.
A good watch, he explains, can have as many 500 parts or more, and some have 20 movements all ticking in perfect harmony.
Feeding a passion for adventureBORN in Zurich, Switzerland to a merchant family, Rolf W. Schnyder’s formative years started during his teens at Jaeger-LeCoultre’s (another legendary watchmaker) advertising division.
It was here that he realised he wanted to learn more languages, travel, and see the world. He admits his love affair with watches happened more by chance.
“I was open (to ideas) at that time, I didn’t look for any particular branch, or job, I was looking for experience, to learn more languages, to see the world and to go out. When I finished schooling, I wanted to learn French, but then neither French nor German gets you very far. You need English.
“In Jaeger (Le-Coultre), I realised no one could speak English very well. They used to run around getting translations, finding out what certain words such as ‘batch’ or ‘colour’ meant,” he says.
So Schnyder requested a transfer to Jaeger’s subsidiary in England where he worked part time, honing his skills in the English language and studying in the meantime.
“My studies gave me exposure, and when I came back it didn’t take long for me to realise I wanted to go further,” he says, reminiscing.
He boarded a ship bound for Bangkok, where he went to work for the Diethelm Company in the late 1950s. He has travelled to many parts of Asia living the life dreams are made of.
Among his many adventures are a trip to China way back in 1966 when the republic was off limits to foreigners; he spent some time in Bali in 1959 when it was still not bustling with tourists; he visited Laos when several factions were fighting for control of the country; and he even built a bamboo raft and sailed up the River Kwai in Myanmar.
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