Time machine

Time machine

A Romain Jerome watch may not necessarily tell the time, but its components certainly reflect its passing in their DNA. Josh Sims takes a journey through history.

It is one small step for a man, one giant leap for watchmaking kind. Or at least that’s how Romain Jerome might regard its latest star product.

It comes with a certificate, but unlike other prestige pieces, this is not to authenticate its movement, but rather its materials.

Its steel and titanium case incorporates steel from Apollo XI (the NASA voyage that put the first men on the Moon), the strap incorporates space suit fibres, the paws incorporate fragments from Soviet Soyuz spacecraft, and the lunar dial, complete with craters, is layered with a mineral deposit that includes Moon dust.

Entitled Moon Dust-DNA, it is, by any account, a space watch of an altogether more literal kind. It has long since sold out, and another ‘DNA’ watch has been 12 months in development for launch later this year.

“The ideas are really strong,” says Romain Jerome CEO Manuel Emch, with some understatement, belying the fact that those ideas have already given this new name in watches a turnover amounting to double digit millions of Swiss francs.

As the new CEO of the company - a one-time FMCG consultant who joined from the watch brand Jacot - he finds himself with the dual blessing and curse of a distinctive product in an industry which, in recessionary measures, is increasingly about purveying classicism and a certain faux traditionalism.

“Romain Jerome is a challenge because it’s almost the opposite of ‘classic’,” says Emch.“Sure, we could take on less risk with less interesting products, but this way encourages you to be more creative and innovative. I also think that more people are looking for what you might call emotional brands - ones that have a point of differentiation, that have a story behind them.” And some of the greatest stories of the 20th Century at that, of which these watches have become a small but real part; true value in the eyes of those consumers tired of buying brands over products.

In 2007, Romain Jerome launched the first of its DNA series, the off-beat Titanic DNA, with a case incorporating metal from the hull of the doomed liner, fused with ship grade steel by Harland & Wolff, the company that built the ship.

The dial was dusted with a layer of coal lifted from the ship’s broken bowels 12,500ft beneath the sea; not quite diamonds, but likewise the result of eons of geological pressures on graphite. Harland & Wolff also applied a secret process developed by Romain Jerome to bring the case to an advanced stage of rusting, stabilised so that the case will decay no further.

The idea of buying pre-distressed clothing was once dismissed as an insult to the consumer’s intelligence, yet it went on to command a premium. Perhaps the same may now be said of watchmaking.

Certainly, so popular was the idea - Romain Jerome sold all 2,012 pieces of the limited edition, all of them pre-sold to the end customer without touching a store counter - that the company has applied the same rusting technique to the lugs of the new Moon Dust-DNA.

Such materials, and their finite quantities, mean Romain Jerome’s pieces come in strictly limited production runs; unlike some other brands’ ideas of limited edition, when these are gone, they really are gone.

And if prestige watches often win the lazy accolade ‘work of art’ when they are more typically works of extreme craft, the Romain Jerome approach, as leftfield as it may seem, not only imposes the irreproducible nature of much art, but also its purpose; to cause us to see anew, to prompt reflection.

“I don’t think it’s too much to say that these watches are more contemplative, even philosophical comments on time,” says Emch. “Simply telling the time is an important aspect of a watch sometimes, but I’m not sure that is what the high end customer is looking for today.

“We’re surrounded by time-telling instruments. Who needs a watch for that? And frankly, most of our customers will have several other watches if they want that. They don’t need another status symbol either.

“A watch now embodies history, craftsmanship, mechanical know-how. But it can be more, a piece of art perhaps, something that inspires interaction and takes its wearer away from the daily routine. I think products that can do that are going to become more important, since we seem to be living in an increasingly standardised world.”

Take, for example, Romain Jerome’s one-off T-Oxy Concept - a watch made of non-stabilised rusted parts, which will eventually fall apart and can’t even be touched without contributing to its end, but is arguably as pure an expression of passing time as might be found in any gallery or museum.

Its Day & Night watch, also launched in 2007 and co-created with BNB Concept, runs two tourbillons sequentially, one running for 12 hours, then passing night-time duties over to the other. Interestingly, and perhaps provocatively, the watch does not tell the time.

Romain Jerome’s one-off Titanic collaboration with esteemed independent watchmaker Cabestan is no less avant-garde.

Cabestan founder Jean Francois Ruchonnet’s yacht-inspired winch vertical tourbillon - chain-driven and complete with a winding handle - may give it a vague nod to sea-faring, but more importantly, makes it part of what could be a new vogue for mould-breaking technical and aesthetic designs from the likes of MB&F, Urwerk and Harry Winston.

Indeed, the avant-garde approach of Romain Jerome - and the 30 or so little-known watchmakers or boutique brands that got together for the first Geneva Time Exhibition in January - arguably represents a business model for watchmaking as new as its designs: niche, not rushing to launch new products for the sake of it, appealing to a limited market, and unquestionably different.

If most companies use heritage, the aesthetic value of high-grade materials or the craftsmanship of their timepieces’ movements to win kudos, Romain Jerome assumes the craftsmanship, sets out to use materials for their story rather than their status and, lacking its own history, aims to borrow some from world events.

In doing so, the brand has moved from the prosaic to the poetic: Romain Jerome launched only in 2004 with a mechanical watch designed to allow golfers to keep a record of the hole number, count the number of strokes played per hole and keep a running total around the course.

The Hole in One Golf Counter was the first of its kind and sales were impressive - the company launched in the golf-mad Middle East and the watch’s production run was oversold four times.

But compared with Romain Jerome’s subsequent adventures, it suggested a company desperately in search of differentiation; something it now appears to have achieved. Other Romain Jerome products - with pens already launched - are in the pipeline.

“Brand perception has changed a lot over the last five years” says Emch. “It has become more and more tribal, more particular. That is not to say that a niche cannot also be big - in time. A decade ago, Apple was niche, so I’m sure that Romain Jerome can build a substantial business over the coming decade, too.

“We know that to keep coming up with these ideas is very hard. But then again, this is a new way of thinking about watches.”