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‘Nothing is more contemporary than a high-end watch’: Patrick Pruniaux

  • Ulysse Nardin’s CEO emphasized that the wrist watch will remain relevant in the digital age of smartwatches
  • He believes that 'what’s at stake is creating desirability for the product'

Patrick Pruniaux
Patrick Pruniaux

When Apple hired Patrick Pruniaux, who is now CEO of Ulysse Nardin, in Cupertino in 2014, he had no idea what the nature of the job would be. Pruniaux only knew his salary, designation and location of work when he signed the contract. It was a week after he joined that he found himself part of a special projects team for the Apple Watch.

Pruniaux, who will soon complete two years with the Kering Group that owns the luxury watchmaker, seems to like challenges—of the unknown variety, in particular. For instance, he does not have a clear mandate at Ulysse Nardin except to grow the business—he has to assess the rest for himself.

Ulysse Nardin’s Skeleton X Magma
Ulysse Nardin’s Skeleton X Magma

One of the perks of his job is the “healthy friction" between the modern and traditional lines of thought in the over 170-year-old company. “There are not that many clashes, but discussions about some trade-off…it’s never no clashes and it’s fun, probably one of the most exciting parts of the job," says the passionate sailor, kitesurfer and freediver.

Pruniaux was in India recently to look at a market that’s growing and becoming influential, and to try and catch a new wave of young consumers. At a time when the Indian economy is slowing down, he is confident that luxury watches have a promising future.

“Nothing is more contemporary than a high-end watch. I mean it," he says at the coffee shop of the St. Regis Mumbai. Tall, slim, dressed in dark blue trousers and khaki-green canvas sneakers, with a jacket lying by his side, he continues: “The watch industry believed for a long time that consumers are collectors or watch-lovers. It’s not true. It’s not what’s at stake here—what’s at stake is creating desirability for the product and the brands, not only mine, that makes a consumer buy a watch."

The 47-year-old believes the luxury watch industry is not operating in a silo but is actually competing against many other luxuries, like cars and vacations. “Whether you buy a TV or sneakers or a watch—you buy something that you believe is important for your needs and pleasure. We have to make sure that in that battle, our brand and the message it conveys become clear for the end consumer."

Marine Mega Yacht
Marine Mega Yacht

As someone who has worked with Apple Watch—and Swiss watch company Tag Heuer in an earlier part of his career—Pruniaux has had a long association with watches. He is certain that Ulysse Nardin will not make electronic watches— they don’t see value in it. “The smartwatch is bringing in millions of customers who were not wearing a watch. One day, they will discover a smartwatch is good but most of their functionality is already on the phone. Smartwatches are an opportunity. We compete for the piece of real estate that’s your wrist, but that’s it."

He is certain that wristwatches will remain relevant in this day and age of cellphones.

“Time is central, extremely important, though it’s hard to talk about it this morning," says Pruniaux, who was half an hour late for the meeting, smiling.

“The watch, apart from jewellery, is the only thing you wear on your skin. It says a lot about you, like you have been living with it for a long time," he says, pointing to my scratched HMT. “In many places in the world, cars are less of a status symbol because it’s questionable from a sustainability point of view. The watch is the opposite—as you travel more and travel light, the watch might be the only thing you carry."

He agrees that the inside of a modern watch would not look dramatically different from the way it did a hundred years ago. But the constant evolution would still leave a watchmaker from another century astounded, he believes. This year, for instance, Ulysse Nardin’s Freak collection added a Freak neXt to its repertoire, with a 3D flying oscillator using silicium flexible blades without an axis or a pivot—its centre is literally suspended in mid-air.

“Until recently, we thought design was the aesthetics of the watch. That’s not the case," says the CEO, between bites of chopped bananas and some green tea. “Design is more than that—the technicalities of the watch are part of design. You cannot think of a product by isolating the movement. You have to look at it as one."

One thing that’s common to the places Pruniaux has worked in, including Apple and Ulysse Nardin, is a certain mythical quality. He calls the latter “a traditional watchmaker that’s undamaged in its brand, a bit secretive and niche, with a soul of a mystic". Apple’s legend comes from its values, the fact that it stands for something.

“Whatever the product is, you can recognize it as an Apple product," says Pruniaux. “The whole company is involved in servicing the consumer but we only see the tip of the iceberg. Apple is obsessed about you or me using their product. Not about buying them, but using them."

He doesn’t assume that his consumer will have as many watches—close to 40—as him. He does believe, though, that watches are no longer worn forever. Today’s consumers seek change.

“But it would be interesting to see: If I put a new watch on your wrist, would it change your life? Not because it’s an object, a materialistic one, but because you choose it according to who you are and what you want. Some watches you keep for memories, some for all the time."

Arun Janardhan is a Mumbai-based journalist who covers sports, business leaders and lifestyle.

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