Nestled deep in the valley of Môtiers, impervious to the winds of change sweeping the Swiss watch industry, lies the charming family home of Finnish-born Kari Voutilainen, renown as one of a small handful of independent watchmakers considered to be at the pinnacle of watchmaking today.
The location exudes an authenticity somewhat lacking in the immense warehouses of some big brands, and the structure is spit into two parts – one part Voutilainen private residence, the other, the Voutilainen Artisan d’Horlogerie d’Art atelier which has become like a second home to his 15 staff which work with him on his creations round the clock.
“ The tie that binds is a strong belief in the strict principles of watchmaking tradition and quality craftsmanship ”
His team has become “like a family”, he says, and the tie that binds is a strong belief in the strict principles of watchmaking tradition and quality craftsmanship.
Voutilainen regards his craft as “art, like a painting”, he revealed when I met him at the recent Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie (SIHH), and he is adamant in his stance that this art must be passed on in the most authentic fashion, not lost in a factory line amidst a frantic race to meet production volumes, budgets and sales quotas.
Indeed, a quick glance at his booth at SIHH in Geneva, is all that was needed to notice Voutilanen’s absolute dedication to his craft – and his customers.
“ Journalists jostled for his attention & Voutilainen was courteous with all, but never strayed from his clientele ”
While journalists jostled for his attention, Voutilainen was courteous with all, but never strayed from his clientele, giving them the utmost importance and greeting each as an old friend – even in the midst of an interview.
In person, Voutilainen is friendly and approachable in his demeanor, with a gentle humour, and refreshingly modest – especially when reminded of his many achievements over the years.
Since founding his independent watchmaking business in 2002, Voutilainen has won four awards from the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève (GPHG) – starting with the Men’s Watch Prize for his ‘Observatoire in 2007, followed by the same in 2013, for the ‘V-8R Power Reserve’, before winning the GPHG Artistic Crafts Watch Prize for his Hisui creation in 2014 – a collaboration with “Japanese national treasure” and legendary lacquer artist Kitamura Tatsuo – then the Men’s Watch Prize again in 2015 for the ‘GMR’, and the Watchfair 2015 Classicwatch prize for his ‘Vingt-8 BGR’.
Kari Voutilainen’s home & atelier in Môtiers, Val-de-Travers, Switzerland
In between that, he was rewarded for his search for perfection in creating innovative and unique watch mechanisms with a GAIA Award in 2014, and a prize from the Finish Suurmestari Foundation for his high standard of work.
Such recognition has been well-earned, however, and Voutilainen has had to progressively carve his niche in an industry which is becoming increasingly saturated by both big brands and new independents throwing their hats in the ring. A niche which, by default, he is fiercely protective about.
“With us independents, it’s often the founder, the owner, that is running the show. We are here, we don’t change, we remain the same, so there is consistency in terms of the relationship. Some customers prefer that and I feel like I do too – it’s my name and I’m doing it all by myself,” he says.
“ Unlike many other brands which have crumbled, Voutilainen has managed to stay at the top of his game ”
Indeed, unlike many other brands which have crumbled under the weight of volatile economies, changing customer dynamics and struggles in the digital era, Voutilainen has managed to stay at the top of his game since he first burst onto the scene at Baselworld in 2007.
Now, in the present day – and despite the doom and gloom predicted for the watch industry by some experts – he is as positive as ever that better days lie ahead, with 2015 having been his best year yet in business, he concedes.
Here, ahead of the next Baselworld instalment, Luxury Society delved deeper into the world of one of the best independent watchmakers of our time.
“ We’ve created all the components here at the workshop, so that’s an important point for me ”
You are known for your creations and awards, however, what do you personally regard as some of the milestones and achievements of your business, since inception?
I would say my first watch, when I created it and finished it in 1994, that was the first very big achievement for me. Because it was a lot of work, through to the evenings, and I also learnt a lot through this work, so that was important.
Then, when I started by myself, I think what I started to do with the repeaters, that was also something special. Afterwards, I would say my first Grand Prix in 2007 was also a moment for me.
Followed by our own caliber and all of that, which we also started to make in 2007, and then launched that in 2011. That has been a big milestone on the way also. The piece caliber, that this caliber is, it’s an in-house caliber and we’ve created all the components here at the workshop, so that’s an important point for me. I would say that these are the main points til now.
GPHG Artistic Crafts Watch Prize: Voutilainen, Hisui
This having been for your first showcase at SIHH – I imagine is an important turning point too. Why do you think the event organisers decided to integrate the independents this year and what were your objectives for the showing?
In my opinion, perhaps a particular reason is that they have been making a new face for the SIHH, and then also that the Fondation de la Haute Horlogerie had the will to open it up to the independents and that’s I think one reason that they decided it this year.
For me, on other hand, I would say that we have enough work, so that’s not the reason I came to SIHH, but I think that the visibility is good. But strategically, looking a bit further, not this year, but let’s say for five years from now, or 10 years from now, we’d have to be present to further our business.
I think that if we were just like, okay, now we have orders and that’s fine, I’ll stay in my workshop and just make the watches, business would dry up very fast. In one, two years, we would be forgotten, and the sales would decrease. So we need to increase the momentum. It’s important even if we are not making more or increasing production volumes, to keep this momentum going, so that we have enough work ahead of us.
“ The only way to attract customers & maintain relationships is through exhibitions ”
Because I can’t do advertisements – it’s too difficult when you’re making just 50 watches. I won’t find my customers through advertising. I have noticed the only way to attract customers and maintain relationships, for us, is through exhibitions, when I can see the customers, talk with them, a place where they can put the watch on their wrists.
Otherwise, it’s just impossible to connect with the right market. At events, there are a lot of people, journalists, customers, so this is the only way.
On the note of events — now that you have exhibited at SIHH, is Baselworld still a priority?
This year we will do both SIHH and Baselworld, then we will review. But it’s two very different events, so we could keep doing both. Baselworld is huge, whereas SIHH is more personal and people come only by invitation.
“ This year we will do both SIHH & Baselworld, then we will review ”
Baselworld, by comparison, is open to the public, and in Basel, and it’s also not just watches, but also jewellery, so there are more people. Also, in Basel, it is very fast-moving – and lots of people go there, so I meet a lot of people, particularly my fans who travel there from all over the world, so it’s still important for me to meet these people at least once a year.
I like the atmosphere a lot at Baselworld, it’s more relaxed, people come, and we have fun. But the SIHH event has met all of my expectations. From the place to the customers, I’m happy with the results.
You have been in the industry for quite some time – what key changes have you noted in the independent watchmaking sector in recent years?
For me, there’s been a huge change in the sense that – if I compare 10 years ago and today – the internet and all these forums, have meant that there’s now more information, more knowledge, to share, and thanks to that, more people are aware of us.
A few of the independent brands alongside Voutilainen at the Carré des Horlogers, SIHH 2016
That has given us independents more confidence, and more visibility, because we are more credited for our work. But at the same time, this freedom and sharing of information also mean that you can’t cheat any more, you can’t. If you cheat, it’s done, it’s finished, you are done, they will know.
People are more interested in what they get, and how it’s done, how it’s crafted. And that is really in the independents’ favour.
Of course, there are also different markets but with the collectors, willing to pay large sums for quality and a unique piece, some of them because they can find the information now, are moving to us, because they can see us and then they start to learn more about us, and more they learn, the more they are encouraged to put more money on our watches, because they see there’s a rare value behind it.
“ It’s like the start of a revolution, & I can see that there’s more confidence & more private customers ”
It’s like the start of a revolution, but it’s really going in that direction, and I can see that there’s more confidence, and there are more and more private customers, from all over the world also, because they can have access to the information and purchase from anywhere now.
What role then, specifically has the internet, digital and social media played in your business growth?
Perhaps it’s been the key. Without that, we couldn’t be here. None of us.
In terms of what I’m doing in-house – I am concentrating on what I’m do best, and I have a very clear idea of what I want to do now, next year, and for instance 10 or 15 years from now.
“ When you’re making 50 watches, you don’t really have to do as much market research or advertising ”
When you’re making 50 watches, you don’t really have to do as much market research or advertising, because there will always be 50 clients who want our product. So when you do what you do really well and you don’t have high production volumes, you can let the work speak for itself.
So I don’t do any market research on this, per se, but I have noticed, of course, that after an event when people come and take pictures and post – interest in the product grows, so I am being pro-active with that and it is a consideration in my business plan, more than before.
But what we are doing today is, moreso investing in communication. I mean, there’s nobody really doing communications, so I take care of the press, I take care of the customers, but I spend most of my time making watches, and that’s what I like.
Voutilainen’s Vingt-8, blue version
Ours is a very niche market and very specific. So, for me, customers are family. We talk to each other. They might purchase the watch, and then the next year, they come back, then again the year after, so I start to really get to know them,” he recalls.
In the end, for me, if you compare with the bigger brands – it is obviously a case of two very different strategies.
You have the independents who are more about authenticity, they are more authentic. We really take care of the craft and the art in making a watch, and we’re also very focused on a very niche customer base. Whereas, obviously, with the bigger brands, it’s broader. It’s much, much broader. They have a bigger production volume, so they do big advertising, spend big on marketing … Everything is big. But for us, everything is smaller, but more detailed. I feel like that to me is the difference between us, in almost every aspect.
“ Obviously, with the bigger brands, everything is big. But for us, everything is smaller, but more detailed ”
Events such as SIHH have traditionally served as a marker for the year ahead and the temperature of the industry and consumer appetite – given that, what are the challenges do you you foresee for this year?
Well, last year was the best year in the whole time we’ve been in business, so we are coming off some good momentum. That is even amongst the issue with the CHF going up and the decision of the Swiss National Bank.
So, for me, that’s a proof that pricing and economic changes are not necessarily the main thing, rather, it’s the product of the workshop, the quality and how it’s done, that’s what counts and what will keep us, as an independent, doing good business.
“ Pricing & economic changes are not necessarily the main thing, rather, it’s the product of the workshop, the quality ”
Why do you think last year in particular was so great for you, despite may in the industry reporting a hard year?
Well, even in these hard times, what’s interesting is that, with watches sold in the secondhand market, the price has been going up, not down. So I think this has increased the interest of the customers and I think it’s also given the customers confidence that this caliber of watches really are an investment.
Also, we as a provider have been very constant, always doing the same thing, with no side-tracks, and taking our time with our pieces and so it also feels good for them to have a unique watch on their wrists and that’s psychological, and this is the important part.
In terms of your target market – what are your main markets and have you seen a shift towards more customers coming from certain regions or from a younger generations becoming more prevalent as part of your client base?
Well, for me it’s very niche and mixed, but what I can say is that I don’t really have customers from Russia right now for example, and not many customers from China. I suppose that’s very strange, because for most watch brands, the US and China has been a main market in the past. Not China so much for me. I mean, in the United States, there’s interest, yes. But Latin America, there’s nothing. So I would say the United States, Europe, United Kingdom has been the best in terms of markets.
Voutilainen’s Vingt-8, red version
Age range has been anything from 25 up to, I think, 89. It’s a very board range and always has been. But overall, for most of my customers, it’s not just about buying a watch, but it’s everything which comes with it – the relationships are very Important in this business.
My customers come to visit my workshop, and during an event we might go out in the evenings, because they love to share their passion for watches and talk about watches, so this human contact is a huge part of the game.
The big brands can’t offer that, because they are huge companies, owned by a group, so there’s a CEO there who might get fired the next day and no one really knows him or her. Then the next guy is there, but he can also get kicked out and so on, but the brand continues. Whereas with us independents, it’s often the founder, the owner, that is running the show. We are here, we don’t change, we remain the same, so there is consistency in terms of the relationship. Some customers prefer that and I feel like I do too – it’s my name and I’m doing it all by myself.
“ With us independents, we are here, we don’t change, we remain the same ”
Your background, coming from Finland and having studied there, is arguably, a little out of step with your fellow independent watchmakers – so, as far as being unique goes – is there anything in particular that to you, from you varied experience makes your creations stand out from the rest?
Yes, I think it’s an advantage. The advantage, I think, is that because I come from Finland, like any different area it might be true that I have different type of approach to watchmaking.
Also, the culture, and these values I discussed earlier, come from what I have seen and what I’ve been taught, so I like that, and that’s how we’re doing it. So it’s different, and perhaps people in Switzerland, for them, particularly young people is watchmaking, they see it just as a job, not as an art like I do. They don’t see it. They have seen the industry, and they see it from a different angle and so they do it differently.
“ With mass luxury if you make too many & too many similar things, it becomes just a replica ”
As an independent watch maker, with the values you’ve discussed – what is your definition of luxury?
I think there are two types of luxury, mass luxury and luxury. Mass luxury are those goods that we go in the store and we buy, and then the other luxury, is something that I think that we’re offering, in the sense that it’s bespoke, there’s a value behind it, in the time that is needed to create it, in the way we work with the customer, and the price is just a reflection of that.
So I think that in how it’s made and in how rare it is, it’s almost like a painting. You can make one Picasso. We call it art. With mass luxury if you make too many and too many similar things, it becomes just a replica. It’s like, having an original painting, but then afterwards, once you start to make more, it’s a nice copy, but in the end it’s like a photocopy.
With independents, we make luxuries, and they are unique pieces which are nicely made and all of that, but we never make the same design twice in one season. So when you have it, it’s something not many other people have. So that’s my opinion on that.
For more in our series of conversations with Luxury Leaders, please see our most recent editions as follows: