Juan Carlos Torres at the Vacheron Constantin factory in Plan-les-Ouates, Switzerland. He joined the company in 1981. Credit Matías Costa for The New York Times

Juan Carlos Torres at the Vacheron Constantin factory in Plan-les-Ouates, Switzerland. He joined the company in 1981. Credit Matías Costa for The New York Times

Brand Awareness is the Goal at Vacheron Constantin

New York Times, November 16, 2016

PLAN-LES-OUATES, Switzerland — Mechanical timepieces are a testament to endurance, so with longevity in the Swiss watch industry comes a great deal of prestige.

By that standard, one company far surpasses the competition. Founded in 1755, Vacheron Constantin is the world’s oldest continuously operating watchmaker. The accomplishment is especially impressive in light of the Swiss industry’s turbulent history in the second half of the 20th century, when the advent of Japanese quartz technology put scores of mechanical watchmakers out of business.

At the height of the tumult, in 1981, Juan Carlos Torres, then 25 years old, joined the company as an accountant. “We were 55 people at this time,” Mr. Torres, now the brand’s chief executive, recalled during a recent interview at Vacheron’s headquarters in the Geneva suburb of Plan-les-Ouates. “We are close to 1,300 now. That’s a different perspective, eh?”

The size of the work force isn’t the only thing that has changed during Mr. Torres’s tenure. He has weathered two dramatic shifts in ownership: In 1988, the Ketterer family, involved with the firm for 50 years, sold it to Sheikh Ahmed Zaki Yamani, a former oil minister of Saudi Arabia and an avid watch collector. The sheikh then sold the company in 1996 to the Vendôme Group, later renamed Compagnie Financière Richemont, owner of such prestige watch and jewelry makers as Cartier, Jaeger-LeCoultre and Panerai.

Appointed to the top post in 2005, during Vacheron Constantin’s 250th anniversary, Mr. Torres, known as Charly by his colleagues, guided the company during a period of intense growth in the Swiss watch industry, spurred by the mechanical watchmaking renaissance of the 1990s. Not even the financial crisis of 2008 could dent the demand for Switzerland’s high-end timepieces, exports of which peaked in 2014 at 22.3 billion Swiss francs, or $23 billion at the current exchange rate, on the strength of the Chinese market.

Now, however, the Swiss industry is in the midst of its worst crisis since the 1970s, the result of issues including global currency shifts and the Chinese government’s crackdown on extravagant gifts for officials.

In November, Richemont announced that sales at its “specialist watchmakers” from April through September had fallen 17 percent, from the same period in 2015; it does not disclose sales by individual brand.

“It’s a crossroads for watchmaking,” Mr. Torres said.

However, after 35 years with Vacheron Constantin, the chief executive is convinced that change is not always the best strategy: “Stick to your roots, stick to your people,” said Mr. Torres, a carpenter’s son born in Barcelona.

His one major concession to that philosophy has been a commitment to developing in-house manufacturing. “When I was deputy C.E.O., I started a policy of verticalization,” he said. “Now we control all the components, all the sourcing of the brand.”