Interviews • 22 Oct 2018

Interview with Carine Maillard, Director of the GPHG


The Hour Glass recently hosted all 72 pre-selected Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève finalists for a public exhibition at Malmaison. During that time, we sat down with Carine Maillard, Director of the GPHG and talked about watch culture, the logistics of organising travelling exhibitions and the behind the scenes work that goes into the Grand Prix

[THG] The people working in the industry – be it the watchmakers, journalists or collectors – are in many respects as interesting as the watches. Having said that, I couldn’t find much about yourself and how you got to where you are today. If you could please run us through your background

[CM] My background. I studied Art History and Chinese Art and then I went to London where I learnt more about Chinese Medicine. So, I was very much going down a different path. And then I worked in Geneva, in the Art Museum, and little by little I met people involved in the watch industry. And one day I met the two people who would go on to create the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève. They were two specialized journalists and they had this idea in 2000. The prize was created a year later in 2001 and was something of a private initiative. They were looking for somebody to join them. I jumped at the opportunity because I very much liked the fact that it was a small group (now it’s a foundation) from the beginning; it was a small institution, with a few people who had to do many different things. It was (and still is) about managing every little detail, it’s not routine and I was very free from the beginning in coming up with new ideas.

So you were given carte blanche?

Exactly. We built it from the beginning. So, it was very interesting, starting with just the two journalists. And then they sold the Grand Prix to a press group, but it was difficult for the press group to have such a prize because of conflicts of interest, so then we had the idea to create the Foundation and at that time they proposed that I be the Director. It was about inventing everything because it became officially linked to the government. There was no exhibition, we had to make it international, we had to do everything. And that was very interesting.

Carine Maillard (left) and Suzanne Wong (right)

Was it the historical part that drew you to watches?

It’s more the fact that I always wanted to work in the arts and organise exhibitions. I like the artistic side and the whole logistical effort involved in organising exhibitions, to have a team and bring all the different parts together. I could not have worked in something else that isn’t artistic.

In a way, you’re a curator…

Yes exactly. 

What’s your morning routine like? Do you sit down and take in the news? I assume you have to be switched on all year

I don’t check the newspapers too much. But we are working the rest of the year, it’s not that we are just working during this period. During these months we just do, we are here and we’re running the ceremony and the exhibitions. But from January till now, we have to imagine where we are going to go, which partner to have and to continue building relationships with the brands because they have to register in May. So, we have all these relationships to manage, and we have to plan how we are going to promote the GPHG and see how we can grow.

We have to think for example which trends are now in the market and how could we make changes to the categories. From January to May we think about the new edition and the new partners, we have a group of experts and we have many different meetings with them. And after SIHH we look at what is out and if we should keep the travel time category or not.  And then we have to renew the Jury every year and think about who we are going to take. And then it’s a matter of who will be the private financial partner. So, it’s a lot of preparation. It’s a long process.

And so, behind every GPHG prize, there’s months of preparation. The whole process has to look effortless…

For us, it’s a little frustrating actually. Because it’s all over so quickly. We’re in Hong Kong for two days, there was so much work involved and now we’re like “OK it’s finished” and we move on. We have to think about the labels, are the brands going to change what they want to put down on the label, what watch are they going to lend us; we have to adapt all the time and every year we are speaking with local partners. People don’t work the same here compared to China, for example, each country works differently. It’s always very different work. The shipping, the insurance. It’s all over so fast.

More jury members, more watches, more brands. GPHG looks to be doing quite well.

We spend a lot of time on strategy because the Grand Prix is like a baby.  In fact, we started the Foundation with all the rules and our vision in 2011. So, it’s only 7 years old. It’s like Festival de Cannes, that’s an event that has 80 years of history and it grew but you didn’t know what Festival de Cannes was when it was 10 years old. For me, it’s really like a baby that still has to grow. And we have a lot of things to do. We are already the Oscars of watchmaking because it’s a big prize and the most important, but we can still do a lot more.

It’s very accelerated, like a baby growing up, getting a PhD at 10 and then becoming a CEO at 15

Yes, it’s the same.

Is it important for you to be on the road and physically get the watches to the people?

Like tonight’s event (at Malmaison). It’s nice to see everyone and it’s very important to bring the watches to these types of events. We started doing the travelling exhibition 7 years ago. It’s very important and tonight we’re going to have a private dinner for people to look at the showcases and be able to hold the watches, and there will be an expert explaining their significance. It’s more educational.

What’s the application process like?

Anyone can apply, it’s international. We aren’t turning anyone down, it’s a matter of the Jury selecting the watches. We want to promote the whole industry and of course, there are more Swiss brands because fine mechanical watchmaking is mostly Swiss but more and more often we give prizes to say for example Seiko. And we have more brands from Germany of course, A. Lange & Söhne (as an example). I think it’s very important to have prizes for international brands.

The Challenge category is good in that it makes it more accessible

And it can be affordable. It’s exactly what we wanted, often we were criticised because if you were to look at the prices of the watches that won they were very high, so they weren’t exactly for the public. And I think it was really important to go and get these brands, and it’s why we call it Challenge because it’s really a challenge to do these kinds of watches.

You’ve compared the GPHG to the Oscars of watchmaking. Do you look outside the industry, at other ceremonies, for inspiration?

A lot actually, we look at the Festival de Cannes. Because we are the same in that we are both an award ceremony and that we are a showcase for all the brands in the industry. But the difference is that for a film festival, of course, it’s more glamorous because of the actors – the celebrities get the prizes but for us, it’s the watch. So it’s more difficult to have the glamour on the stage, seigneurs come and they are the stars in a way but only in that small world of watchmaking, which not that many know outside of that world. So yes, we adopt parts of their model, but we have to rely on our model as well.

It’s an interesting point about the seigneurs. The watch is the star but so too is the watchmaker, as the watch can be seen as an extension of the maker, they put their soul into it…

Of course, and when there’s a small independent on stage you can really feel it because it’s direct. When it’s a big brand it’s more difficult to see the link of course. 

The Jury members are quite diverse. Gaël Monfils (for example), has it always been important to bring in external voices?

I mean we try really hard to balance Jury members, ok we don’t have many women, but we try to have more and have that balance. And internationally as well, from America from Europe. At one point we thought: ok there are retailers, there are collectors, there are experts, journalists and historians, but we also need people who are buying the watches who aren’t in the industry. So, we wanted to have that side of the Jury, people who are authorities in design, architecture and fashion. We had Philippe Starck, Jean-Michel Wilmotte and Chantal Thomass – so every year we try and have one person who knows less about watches (well Philippe stark is very much interested and so is Gael Monfils), but who each gives their own view of how they see the watches. Because if you have only 30 experts and watch people around the table, you need an external viewpoint.

So I guess another part of your job throughout the year is constantly looking for new Jury members. Does that take a long time?

No, it doesn’t because it’s all about relationships. We meet a lot of people during our events as well. I think for this Jury everybody said it’s a very good Jury. It’s quite diverse and mixed. And at the end, a Jury of people is subjective anyway, even if you take 1000 people in the Jury it’s still subjective.

I think that’s why people relate to mechanical watches because beauty is quite subjective…

In a way, it’s subjective and objective. Because they have to judge not only on beauty but also technique, design, price, value, quality, they have to look at everything. If you look at each of the categories, there are 6 watches in each category, and all of them are quite different. When you look at each category and have to decide which one you prefer, it’s difficult.

Each category in a way represents the whole industry because there’s so much variety within each. One final question, once the ceremony is over do you have any time to relax? Or is it then back onto next year’s planning?

No, its back on, but it’s different. Because it’s never the same work. During these 2 months, it’s days of really little sleep and a lot of stress… that’s events! And when you organise events it’s very stressful. A few days ago a friend told me, “I read in the paper and they said that you know what are the 3 most stressful jobs?” and he said “the first is one is being in the army, the second one is like being a fireman or being in a job where you’re saving people and the third one is to be doing events” {laughs}. Because when you’re doing events it’s not like you write a letter, and if it’s wrong you cannot go back and correct it. If on the 9th of November something is not here it can be really terrible because the media is here. You saw it on the Oscars last year, they read the wrong name.  So, we have one person who just is re-checking on stage that the Jury member will announce the result, has the right envelope, knows how to read the name of the brand and the name of the watch, to make sure that the envelope didn’t get mixed up. What we do now, for 2 months during the exhibition involves chasing the details and checking did we think of everything.

The watches are the stars at the GPHG. But if it weren’t for the months and months of preparation Carine Maillard, Valérie Boscat and the team put into each and every edition of the GPHG, it wouldn’t be what it is today. And for that, we are extremely appreciative. We have their efforts to thank for promoting and popularising watch culture on the world stage.

Minor edits have been made for clarity.



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