AT 40, Claude Bernard would be considered a youth against the giants in the industry of Swiss watches.
Young as it is, it has successfully cornered a share of this competitive market by setting itself apart with hand-assembled Swiss-made watches that are affordable.
Brand founder Victor Strambini is still at the helm today, as chairman and managing director of Montres Edox et Vista SA.
The septuagenarian, who flew in to Kuala Lumpur recently and met with the press, looks every bit the traditional watchmaker.
He is on a mission here, to relaunch the brand with a new Malaysian distributor.
“We are starting over in Malaysia with a new business partner. Together, we aim to refresh the brand and zero in on the target market,” Strambini said frankly.
The need to refresh the brand is understandable, as Claude Bernard has been in Malaysia since 1995.
“The country is changing rapidly, 1995 was very different from today. It is growing… developing very well,” he added.
Malaysia is just one of 80 markets worldwide for the brand that was named after a master watchmaker whom Strambini admired and respected.
Strambini, who comes from a family of watchmakers, opened up a watch-making facility in the famous Jura region for Claude Bernard 10 years after establishing the brand.
He had already made inroads into the Asian market three years prior, launching in Hong Kong and Singapore.
The first half of the 1990s saw rapid international expansions for the brand, to the Middle East, Russia, Eastern Europe and China.
From the Orient to the United States, Claude Bernard gained traction for precision-manufactured watches incorporating Swiss-made movements and using traditional Swiss watchmaking craftsmanship packaged with a price tag that is accessible to young professionals.
Its timepieces are minimalist designs in stainless steel. For women, the brand currently offers only quartz watches.
For men, there are collections for quartz and automatic.
Another reason Strambini is able to keep prices in the desired range is by producing sufficient quantity.
“We make 100,000 watches a year,” he said.
“But there is no compromise on quality because in today’s market, quality is king. Our top priority is quality, then we set the price,” he added.
Unsurprisingly, the brand’s success has attracted the attention of big players in the industry who made tempting offers to buy over the company but Strambini holds steadfast to his independence.
“I do not want to sell to a big group. I want the flexibility to do what I think is best for my company.”
Thus he travels six months of the year, to all 80 countries where Claude Bernard is present and meet up with dealers and customers, a practice that Strambini firmly believes is an important part of the business.
“Having a good local partner is very important; if you do not have the correct partner, you will never succeed in one market even with the best product.
“It is even more vital in the watch industry because it is small; compared to the auto industry, we are like peanuts.
“And Claude Bernard is a niche player, so we have to take aggressive steps to build our brand name,” said Strambini, 70.
The brand has been unfailingly exhibiting at the annual Basel watch fair. This year, he said, would see the introduction of automatic watches under the brand’s stable of timepieces for women.
“More and more women in Asia today are looking for automatic watches, so we are tapping into that segment,” he said.
Other steps Claude Bernard had taken to stay a competitive player over the decades were joining forces with renowned watch designer Christian Glauser in 1995 — a partnership that lasts until today — and appointing Jet Ski world champion Franky Zapata as ambassador last year.
Claude Bernard developed the Aquarider range based on the collaboration with Zapata.
“Traditionally, the Claude Bernard brand is known for its classic watches. As we want to expand further worldwide, we have to design and produce watches for those who like the sports style.
“Aquarider is our ticket into the sports market,” Strambini explained.
The quartz chronograph watch — Claude Bernard’s first sports chronograph collection — has luminescent hands, screw-down crown, diving bezel and is waterproof up to 220m. It was launched in Autumn 2012.
The new collection has been creating waves, more so in the US with the addition of American swimmer and Olympic gold medallist Matt Grevers as brand ambassador.
Looking at chatter on watch enthusiast websites, the brand is receiving favourable reviews in the Land of Stars and Stripes.
In Malaysia, the Claude Bernard classic chronograph retrograde has been most well-received.
But Strambini is not ready to rest on his laurels.
Despite his son and daughter helping with the family business, he continues to work a full day, every day, back in Switzerland when he is not travelling.
A typical day for him starts at 8.30am. He will be at the factory throughout the day, until 6.30pm, breaking for an hour at midday when he goes home to eat lunch.
That is reflective of Strambini’s management style and business philosophy — keep to the basics, treasure the simplicity.
It’s a legacy he will pass on to his children, as Claude Bernard celebrates its 40th anniversary come July.
> Claude Bernard watches are priced between RM600 and RM3,000. For list of official retailers, visit www.crystaltime.com.sg/cb-retailers-my.html