From Addis Ababa to London: A Watchmaking Family's Odyssey
New York Times, November 7, 2007
When Vartkess Knadjian was growing up in Ethiopia in the 1960s, during the later years of Haile Selassie's reign, he would sometimes accompany his father on formal visits to the Imperial Palace. As official watchmaker and supplier to the court, Antranig Knadjian had rare access to the emperor, who claimed descent from the biblical King Solomon and is still venerated as God incarnate in the Rastafari faith.
"The emperor had a weakness for watches," the younger Knadjian recalls. "Because my father was a procurer of one of his favorite things, he was always welcome in the palace."
Born to Armenian immigrants in Ethiopia in 1915, the elder Knadjian had arrived in Geneva on the eve of World War II and graduated top of his class from the École d'Horlogerie in 1941. Determined to return to Addis Ababa, he boarded a boat for Djibouti, only to be diverted to Madagascar for a wartime two-year stay.
Soon after he finally arrived home, "the emperor summoned him to the palace and encouraged him" to nurture his talent, Knadjian says. Nearly 30 years of service to the court followed, ending only when Selassie was overthrown by a Marxist coup in 1974.
Then a student at the London School of Economics, Vartkess could not return to Ethiopia; the uprising had driven his parents to Canada. On a friend's suggestion, he applied to Backes & Strauss, a diamond company founded in Germany in 1789 and established in London since 1814.
What was planned to be a six-month stint at Backes & Strauss's office in Antwerp, hub of the diamond trade, stretched into decades until, after his father's death in 2002, Knadjian orchestrated a buyout of the company.
The time had come to combine his dual passions, and bring his father's legacy full circle. Knadjian searched for a watchmaking partner, and found one in Vartan Sirmakes, a fellow product of the Armenian Diaspora and the chief executive of the Franck Muller Group, of Geneva. Their collaboration has produced the diamond-studded Backes & Strauss watch collection, brought to market in November 2006.