The Breitling Navitimer turns 70 this year. We sat down with Mr Georges Kern, CEO of Breitling, during his time in Singapore to talk about the iconic watch, blockchains, sustainability, the impact of COVID, and future direction of the brand.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Breitling is celebrating the 70th anniversary of the iconic Navitimer this year. At its launch, it was a key navigation tool to pilots. Of course pilots nowadays have many other tools to help with that; what do you see as the relevance of the Navitimer to consumers today?
Most of the watches at a certain starting point were instruments for professionals: diving watches, watches with tachymeters, etc. Today, when you buy a diver watch, you don’t go to dive at three, four thousand metres. I would say it’s the functionality of the watch. They had the idea 50 or 60 years ago. People want the functionality because it’s part of the design. [For] the Navitimer, the sliding rule is a key element of the design. You take it away, and it becomes a normal watch. The iconic element is the combination of that sliding rule, the design of that sliding rule, and a modern integrated up-to-date design as we have done it today. But very few people are using that sliding rule, just as very few people would go diving at a thousand metres. But people want it because it’s an element of the history, of the legacy of that watch, and [of] the brand.
Breitling is one of the first brands to offer a blockchain-based watch registration and digital passport for your owners. Why have you opted for this? Where do you see this going in the next 5 to 10 years?
Ultimately the analogue watch industry is the anti-metaverse industry per se. But on the other side we need to use technology, to communicate, or to respond to a need. The warranty card is an NFT linked to the watch. And in the blockchain is a portal for traceability and authenticity, right? But ultimately what we want to put in, and we’ll start [doing] now is, to put supply chain into the blockchain, so that you have a total transparency on the sourcing. So for us it was traceability, authenticity, but also sustainability because consumers will understand where the steel, the gold, or the diamonds, or the leather comes from, and how a product was produced. And this I think is a key element in the future. You have this transparency and blockchain for many products. And already now people already want to know where their tomatoes come from, what the carbon footprint is. You have it in food, you have it in many industries and we want to be ahead of the curve in this information transparency for the consumer.
When you make an NFT or put something in the ledger in blockchain it’s quite an intensive process. To do this for every single part of the supply chain is it a massive undertaking. Do you have a team working on it?
First of all, we have a team [working on this]. But you cannot put everything in the blockchain. What I want are the key elements of 4-5 suppliers. For me it’s the [mainly] the case and the material. It’s a sourcing issue.
As a company we have a very low CO2 footprint because everything is made by hand. We’re not heavy industry. For me it’s really the material, it’s the transparency on materials we’re using.
High impact materials?
Breitling has quite a comprehensive sustainability policy, with detailed projects and reports. Are you happy with the achievements of the company on this front? How do you envisage for Breitling’s sustainability efforts in the future?
When people talk about sustainability or climate change, they always talk about CO2. That’s not the issue for us, except when we’re flying around. We don’t have a huge CO2 emission. What we are really concentrating on at Breitling is fighting against plastic. So we want to be plastic free, or not create plastic waste. And I think we will achieve this in the next one or two years. We’ve changed many processes – not to use plastic in transportation, etc. And [if what] we produce has plastic, we will recycle that plastic. We want to be plastic free in the next 2-3 years.
This ties in to your new packaging.
Exactly. Our new packaging goes into this circular ecology, meaning that not only our packaging is made of recyclable materials, but you can recycle it again because it’s full plastic and you can recycle it again. I think is the only way to solve the problem: it’s having that circular sustainability and always [making sure materials are] reusable.
Another global issue that was COVID. You started in the role in 2017 with a 5 year plan. Have you achieved what you set out to achieve? Are you happy with the results?
We have strongly overachieved our plans. We had our incredible record year last year, and we’ve been starting in the new year also with record sales, so the brand is doing very well. I think our design is one of the nicest in the industry. It’s very contemporary and I think our style, with its modern retro feel, with our boutiques, with our advertising, it’s super nice. And I think the values – what we call neo-luxury – sustainability, casual and inclusivity, works. Sustainability we’ve already discussed about it. Casual, we want to be the cool and relaxed alternative to everything out there. We’re less formal than others. We’re not in Formula One and golf etc. We’re in triathlons. We’re in surfing. So it’s much more approachable, and that reflects also our third element. We’re exclusive by price and by distribution, but we don’t want to be exclusive by arrogance. These three elements, these values are great post-COVID values.
How have the last five years changed how you view the next five years?
I think what the last 4 or 5 years have taught us is you cannot plan anything. You always have a new crisis and you have always to be super flexible and you need to adapt to any situation all the time. And I think you need to have a lot of courage to go new ways. Our design totally changed. Our sustainability policy – everything we are doing is something which is important. You cannot stand still. The Swiss watch industry is very slow to reach, very slow to adjust and to adapt and we try to be ahead of the curve in everything we’re doing. So it’s visibility. It’s courage. It’s adaptability, in a world that is confronted with new crises every day.
What’s your strategy for Asia-Pacific going forward?
It’s basically the same all over the world. I think we will have a huge retail push with our partners. We have internal retail and external retail, but today customers want to have a 360 experience. The want to immerse in the brand, and I think it is very important to strengthen our retail networks with our partners and to be present in all these countries. It’s sometimes more or less difficult depending on import duties, in terms of taxes. What you can do, etc. And also with the situation. In Southeast Asia, it’s opening now. It’s hard to gauge right now. [Countries like Cambodia, Vietnam] are moving because the supply chains are going somehow from China to Vietnam or Thailand. I see a very positive development in Southeast Asia. I see a huge development for the region.
Do you have any message for The Hour Glass clients and readers?
We’re very happy with the partnership with The Hour Glass. You have different concepts – different retail concepts, and it’s very high quality, cultivated environment, very different to other retailers. The only recommendation is to check out our products at The Hour Glass.