How Longines Won the Pandemic
Starting any new job during a global pandemic isn’t ideal.
Starting one as CEO of a global brand with a billion-pound turnover would seem particularly unsatisfactory. Especially when Covid just forced that brand to shut down its manufacturing and close up its shops, possibly for the first time in its 188-year history. Put that in your Zoom call and solve it.
“I only joined in July last year, so that was really not the nicest time to join such a fantastic company,” chuckles Matthias Breschan, Longines’s hugely affable CEO. “But on the other hand, I must also say I joined at the right time because then things started to get better. And, actually, in August 2020, Longines, for the first time, we were able to achieve a turnover that was even better than in 2019, which was a record year. So that was a turning point for us.”
There exist various theories why the world of luxury watches – hardly an essential purchase at the best of times, though you didn’t hear it from us – should be holding up so well during the current scorched Earth retail apocalypse. Among them are the ideas that watches are a source of tangible comfort for the future; that we’ve had more time to gaze at them on e-commerce sites and also that the “treat money” we’d saved – perhaps for a summer holiday, or, indeed, any holiday – needs to be blown somehow.
No doubt Breschan – who previously managed the watch brands Rado and Hamilton, also within the Swatch Group – would say brand strategy also had a hand in it. Longines watches sit in the £1,000-£4,000 bracket and have that part of the market sewn up, as the global leader by some margin.
The new Legend Diver
“We stay in our price range, there is no reason to go lower and there is no reason to go higher,” Breschan says. “You see it yourself. There are many brands that sell their products, much, much higher than Longines – but they don’t have this silicon balance spring [proprietary part that regulates the watch’s rhythm] that makes our price/value ratio so strong.”
The Longines portfolio runs from dive watches to dress watches and one of the changes Breschan has made is to make it easier to navigate what the company does.
“We had a total of 1,500 references [fancy name for model number; often delineating dial/color/ strap/bracelet, etc] and we have now reduced it to 900. Sometimes for even half-a-millimeter [difference in size] we had a different number! So, we streamlined. It gives the watches more profile, and people are more able to find what they are looking for.”
Longines CEO Matthias Breschan
Another focus has been on the company’s “immersion in heritage”. Heritage is something every watch brand bangs on about – but Longines have more call to bang on about it than most. Last year it introduced the Longines Spirit, a new pilot’s watch collection honoring "the legendary aviators” of the Twenties and Thirties. It could have been marketing puff, but it wasn’t: Lindberg, Heinmuller, Van Horn Weems, and Piccard all used instruments made by Longines. The company just hasn’t always been great at shouting about it.
This year Longines hopes to do something similar with a couple of other models. First, its Legend Diver watch, originally released in 2007.
“Not many people knew the story with the Spirit,” Breschan says. “And the Legend Diver I think it has a much bigger potential over the coming years. The history of Longines and dive watches is very rich, it started during the second world war. When the British Forces were exploring the grounds of Normandy, they were all equipped with a Longines [the Longines H.S, a military diver produced for British Royal Navy frogmen]."
"Diving watches are hugely popular today but the Legend Diver is a style that no one else has. It belongs to Longines."
The latest versions of the 42mm watch come in steel with blue or brown dials, solidly commercial colors that also nod back to that wartime heritage.
Longines DolceVita, 2021-style
There’s also a new reinterpretations of in the brand’s DolceVita collection, its line of Art Deco-inspired dress watches – “an ode to the sweet Italian way of life”, as Longines has it.
The new collection features a sectorized (ie: divided) dial, silver-on-silver tones and comes with the option of a white, blue, or “golden hue” interchangeable straps.
“There are very few brands that do shaped watches,” Breschan says. “In the past the sector dial was done for easy legibility, and I would say it’s the perfect combination of tradition and design. It belongs to our rich history.”
Another watch boss once told your correspondent that they didn’t understand why Apple was making its watch square – it was a well-known fact that men didn’t buy square watches. And look how accurate that piece of insight turned out to be.
“It’s untrue,” laughs Breschan. “Maybe it is a minority that like square or rectangular watches. But this too is great for us – because there is so little choice on the market.”
That’s certainly a glass-half-full way of putting it. But you get the impression that that's Breschan’s way.
When you take the reigns of a company during 2020, what other way is there?
This story originally appeared on Esquire.co.uk. Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.