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, blockchain, 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, pilot’s watches, etc. Today, when you buy a diver’s watch, you don’t go diving at three, four thousand metres. I would say it’s the functionality of the watch. People want the functionality because it’s part of the design. The sliding rule is one of the key design elements of the Navitimer. If you take it away, it becomes a normal watch. Breitling preserved the most recognizable aspects of the icon’s design code. From a distance, this is unmistakably a Navitimer, with its circular slide rule, baton indexes, trio of chronograph counters, and notched bezel for easy grip. Up close, however, its modern refinements come through loud and clear. 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 digital passport for the watch 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 the blockchain is a portal for traceability and authenticity, right? Instead of obtaining a warranty card, customers register their watches through this e-warranty service. A so-called digital wallet enabled by blockchain technology. It allows our customers to access information on the computer or smartphone hence tracing product information, check authenticity, warranty status and full product history. We have just started to add new information to this service to keep track of all the materials our watches are made with. The client is then able to know the source of the steel, leather, diamonds and other materials that were used in his watch. 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 the food industry, you have it in many industries and we want to be ahead of the curve in terms of 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 we want are the key elements of 4-5 suppliers. For us it’s 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 strategy, 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, it is always 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. We aim to become CO2 neutral and plastic free, or not create plastic waste. And I think we will achieve this in the next one or two 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 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 clearly 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. In my opinion our design is one of the most beautiful 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 the results shows that our values – what we call neo-luxury – sustainability, casual and inclusivity, work. Sustainability – we’ve already discussed about it. Casual, we want to be the cool and relaxed alternative to other brands in the industry. 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 are inclusive in the way we communicate and interact with our customers. 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 always have to be flexible and you need to be able 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 react, 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 expansion of our retail network with our partners. Today’s customers want to have a 360-brand experience. They 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 and also with the situation. Southeast Asia is 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.