Interviews • 06 Jul 2019
Patrick Pruniaux on Innovation
Since taking up the helm at Ulysse Nardin, Patrick Pruniaux has ushered in a new chapter for the Swiss watch manufacture. Expanding the Freak collection to include the Freak Out, the Freak X and most recently the Freak neXt, as well as launching the Executive Tourbillon Free Wheel, the Marine Mega Yacht and a new suite of Executive Skeleton watches (dubbed the Executive Skeleton X). In short, he’s revived the innovative spirit kicked off decades ago by the late Rolf W. Schnyder and Ludwig Oechslin, whilst simultaneously expanding and bringing a greater sense of clarity to the collection.
Not long before the Ulysse Nardin X Party got underway we sat down with Patrick Pruniaux for a quick chat on, amongst other things, the manufacture’s connection to the sea and his advice to those entering the watch industry.
Maybe people don’t know this but you’re an avid kitesurfer. A hobby which I believe pre-dates your time at Ulysse Nardin. Two questions: Firstly, did this influence your decision to take up the opportunity of heading Ulysse Nardin, considering the undeniably strong connection between the brand and the ocean? And secondly, has this influenced your perception of the brand and the way in which you wish to position it?
Well, I did kitesurf before joining Ulysse Nardin, I’ve been kitesurfing for quite some time. I’ll tell you a funny story. I think my first experience was in, have you ever heard of islands near Venezuela called Los Roques? It’s North of Venezuela and when I was there in, it must have been around 2001, I saw someone kitesurfing. There was a kitesurfing instructor so I asked if I could take a lesson. I started playing with the kite, but I was so bad with the kite I broke it, and I wasn’t even in the water yet. So, I had to pay for it. I felt so sorry, but I can tell now the quality of the kitesurfs then aren’t close to what they are today. And that was my first experience with kitesurfing. I’ve since gone kitesurfing in the South of France, Mauritius and other parts of the world.
Has it influenced me joining Ulysse Nardin? Well, indirectly. It’s not about kitesurfing, I’ve always had a passion for the sea. My family comes from the Mediterranean Sea. Part of my family is from the South of France, most of them were born on the other side of the Mediterranean. They were born in Algeria when Algeria was a French colony. So, I have a long-lasting relationship with the sea and thanks to my dad I was told quite early on to go out to sea on different vessels and to learn how to use the sea in different ways. My dad was probably the first, if not one of the first to import a windsurf to France. He was living in the US and came back with a windsurf in the 70s. Later on, I’ve been freediving and scuba diving, amongst other things. So anyway, the fact that the brand is both very strongly related to the sea and the fact that it’s a brand that is also luxurious means that we’re very demanding of the quality of our product. That relationship between our products, the sea and sport was, and still is obviously very attractive to me
The last part of your question was do we intend to get even closer to the sea and cement that relationship. Well, it already exists. Today what happens is that everyone is very active, a lot of people are active. Competition doesn’t really matter to individuals. I think what matters most is the sensation you can get, the feeling you can get from an activity, and I feel that is where we have something to say. I’m marginally interested in competition in that sense. We discussed it last time we met, with sports, in most of the cases today you ignore who is number one worldwide. I think it’s almost irrelevant, except for a few sports and even then, I mean if you’re a golfer you may have an interest in what is happening in a golf competition, but it remains very marginal, especially when you’re at sea. Because everything related to the sea is much more related to human adventure and you will see with Ulysse Nardin were going to search for that expression even more in a year to come. We’ll express that it’s about human adventure, it’s about personal achievement. And that is even more interesting.
I’ll tell you another story, there is a race called the Vendée Globe. It starts in France and goes around the world nonstop. And it’s a solo trip with only one skipper. And the last time it was extremely competitive right down to the finish. Because the guys started off in the West part of France, went around the world, came back and even down to a couple of days before the race finished no one knew who would win. The British contender (Alex Thomson) and the French contender (Armel Le Cléac’h) were shoulder-to-shoulder until the very last few days of the race. Which is amazing that they were so close after having gone around the world. But to my knowledge, the guy who sold the most books after the race was actually the guy who finished last.
It was a more interesting story…
Yes, it was a personal achievement, it was not about the race. It was about his experience.
In the past year we’ve seen the launch of the Executive Tourbillon Free Wheel, the Marine Mega Yacht and the Freak neXt; whilst also launching more artistically inclined watches (not to say the previously mentioned watches aren’t) such as the Classico Manara and the Freak X Marquetry. Is this all part in parcel in asserting Ulysse Nardin’s history and dual capability in excelling at both at complications as well as the artistic crafts involved in watchmaking? And do you find this balance difficult?
No, it’s easy. It’s easy because it’s part of the brand. How would you define the brand? It’s an interesting topic. How would you define Ulysse Nardin? There is the sporty aspect to it. You could actually say it’s about disruption and innovation. You could say it’s about expertise in horology in both a technical and an aesthetic point of view. And you could think the two oppose one another but in fact they don’t. They all express one story. And that story is about, I was actually going to use the word free but it’s like looking, it’s almost about expressing a certain type of daringness within the manufacturing world. Almost like a free spirit. Whether it’s the Manana or the Freak, it’s who we are.
The last time we spoke you mentioned Ulysse Nardin has employed a historian to dig into the archives and bring forth compelling stories to tell. Looking back on the past year, there does indeed seem to be a renewed vigour – confidence if you will – in how the brand interprets its story in a contemporary context. There’s an appreciation of the past without being overly seduced by it. What do you and what does the team at Ulysse Nardin do to look forward, to discover new and interesting avenues to explore and pursue in the future?
Well, he’s not completely full time but he’s very much involved. It’s not that complicated because you can explore the connection to the past, the present and the future in each [collection]. And the way I see it, we basically have five collections. But I actually see 3 families. Some families would communicate one type of message and could more closely look towards the past. For example, the Manara and [more broadly] the Classico collection. The same with the Marine collection, for instance with the Marine Torpilleur this year we’ve done a limited edition called Semper Fortis in reference to the very long history the brand has had with the US Navy.
And then you have the Diver collection which has its own identity. And what it stands for today and how it’s the succession of what happened before with Ulysse Nardin. Then comes the Freak and the Executive collection which we call it [part of] the disruptive manufacture, but, even when it comes to the disruptive manufacture you have a history. You referred to the original Freak which has a little bit less than twenty years of history, so it’s not too complicated to balance the past with the present and the future there.
In the past, Ulysse Nardin released iterations of the Freak years apart. Whereas, under your leadership you’ve successfully expanded the Freak into a full-fledged collection, spanning various price points and levels of complication. Compared to a year ago, has your conception of what the Freak stands for changed in your mind? Do you see its future development as more akin to an iterative cycle? And what can we expect?
Obviously, with the freak, it was very clear for me when I took the job with Ulysse Nardin that it’s an amazing product, an iconic one. We have to make sure it exists by itself as a collection. But it shouldn’t be a large collection. There’s a very real sense of exclusivity. One month after introducing the Freak X we presented the Freak neXt in London; because they both represent two different aspects of the Freak collection. One goes into the innovation of the movement, a variation on the Freak and the other goes on exploring complicated watchmaking with a patented innovation like seen in the neXt. I think you should expect to see more of that, but, my intention is to maintain a certain sense of exclusivity. I think you have to speak if you have something to say.
I think what you’ve done in the past year is bring clarity to the collection. There’s focus. Each collection knows what it is and what it represents. Which is brilliant because the consumer isn’t then confused.
I’m really glad you’ve said that because it’s exactly what we wanted. And in my view for instance, when we launch a product, you know we said “OK we’re launching the Freak X, in 4 SKU’s”, because you have to recognise the product.
First [with Ulysse Nardin] it’s always about the colour blue. Always a blue icon. And that’s in reference to our history. I mean everyone buying a blue watch which is not a Ulysse Nardin is probably making a mistake. How arrogant is that! (laughs). No, but I mean we stand for blue, whenever we introduce a watch, we have it in blue. Introducing a blue, a black, very often an innovative material like this year it was the Carbonium and then some gold. And that’s it! It has to be very clear. When you think of a Porsche 911, you think of a grey or a black one. Not a yellow one with green stripes on it.
Your journey into the watch industry was not the typical route taken, having previously worked at Diageo and Apple (with a stint at TAG Heuer in between). What would be your advice be to those entering the watch business, as either a watchmaker or someone entering the business? And has having taken this less traditional route given you a different perspective in how you see the brand in a more global context?
Honestly, it’s very hard for me to give any advice. Not that I don’t want to, but I feel I have a limited number of certainties. There are things I know for sure, death and taxes (laughs). But having said that there’s a couple of things I know, some certainties about the brand. About what it means, the message and what it is trying to convey.
In the watch industry, because we love the product so much, we tend to forget that the benchmark is not the watch industry. The benchmark is, I mean the world is wide, I wouldn’t say it’s the competition but it’s the competition for excitement. It exists everywhere and we have to look outside of the watch industry. For instance, if I try and introduce our watches to someone I may have to try and compete against the jewellery she’s wearing and the jewellery she wants to wear. But I’m also competing against the apartment she wants to buy, the vacation she wants to have etc etc. And I think in watches we tend to look very narrow. It’s not a competition, I want to get you so excited you want to wear this. And I think that the industry will prevail and continue to grow if we keep that in mind.
And it’s also something I have in mind for instance during SIHH. At SIHH for instance, again I’m not competing against the other brands there, it’s fantastic, they do their own thing and to be honest I love many of those brands and their product. We all have something to say. But it’s the rest of the world we have to conquer.
[Minor edits have been made for clarity]