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The Watches Magazine Interview: Xavier Dietlin: “tradition has to learn to travel through time”

by Sharmila Bertin & Mickael Gautier

The family-run business Dietlin Artisans Métalliers headed by Xavier Dietlin, renowned for showcasing the watchmaking pieces of the world’s most prestigious groups in a highly-innovative, cutting-edge way, celebrated its 165th anniversary this year, an occasion not to hold incredible festivities but to welcome key industry players to its showroom near Lausanne to discuss the future of points of sale. At the end of these “Secret Weeks” which lasted over a month, we wished to meet this young boss to review the situation.

What was the purpose of these Secret Weeks which crown your firm’s 165th anniversary?

At the outset, I didn’t want to celebrate this anniversary because of a lack of time. Because, basically, we’re always in a hurry for everything, and this prevents us from stepping back and taking a look at what we’ve done well. So, the aim of Secret Weeks was to take a distance and look at the work achieved. I took advantage of the moment to present novelties and projects to the brands yet with the feeling deep inside me that watchmaking’s not in good shape. It’s pretty structural and cultural: there are some who aren’t doing well and others who’re burying their heads in the sand, sure of themselves. But, out of the forty-odd brands I invited, only one didn’t turn up, and didn’t even answer me.

So, how did these famous weeks take place?

As well as the watchmaking groups, I also invited journalists, retailers and students who propose a different vision on the industry. It’s important to receive everyone individually because, when in a group, people tend to talk less. The mix of all these people led to a rather interesting workscape. The question is to find out for how long watchmaking thinks it can continue to be the only exception in the retail world as regards the way products are sold, whereas the other industries such as perfume, accessories, automobile, etc. have questioned themselves over the last twenty years and have undergone an incredible change.

What do you mean exactly? That there’s been no change in watch selling as far as you’re concerned?

Watch boutiques are virtually the same as fifty years ago. At the beginning, you can be led to believe that it’s an exception but, once you’ve analysed it, you discover that it’s a sleepy industry which has old reflexes whereas the young generation has moved away from this sort of selling. I asked the schools which came to see me, like HEAD*, ECAL** and ESVMD***, as well as the Business School, where the young people were aged between twenty and twenty-five and had already graduated, who wore a fine watch, i.e. between 500 and 1,000 Swiss francs, and only three out of twenty put their hands up. You can feel a lack of interest for watchmaking and when I ask them the reason, it’s basically because they don’t need watches. If you ask this generation which type of car they prefer, they don’t even see the interest of having a driving licence. Only a third of them has one whereas, back in my day, everyone was driving by the time they were eighteen.

With this in mind then, what do these young people think about watch points of sale?

The image conveyed by watch boutiques is rather oldfashioned. Watchmaking’s also become rather disinterested in the public over the last two decades. Even the watch shows aren’t really accessible to the public and the evenings organized by the brands are made for retailers and journalists. Nothing’s outside this circle, this sort of self-satisfaction which works like a closed circuit. The time has come to look after end customers because they’re the ones who call the tune. Even me as a display-case maker, I think we should stop making them because they’re not what end customers want.

So, what are end customers looking for?

What they’re looking for is a real experience, where they get up close to the product, touch it, feel it. Our ambition, our new job is to rethink, reinvent a customer-product relationship. And the key question is: how can we roll out this modern-day change when watchmaking is mainly run by people with old mindsets. Then, on the other hand, there are a few exceptions where bosses would like to put a stop to boutiques because very wealthy customers don’t want to visit them anymore and those who can afford to don’t even dare go in because the atmosphere’s generally really bleak. When you enter a point of sale, the products are hidden in display cases. And sellers immediately ask you how they can help you. There’s hardly any contact with the watches at all... So, what good are boutiques?

And what was your key message during these Secret Weeks?

I had two ways I could address this event, either by playing the guy who feels confident, or by being realistic and recognizing that watchmaking needs to take a serious look at itself. For how long is it going to be able to rest its laurels on the Chinese market? Everyone’s surviving thanks to China but these bases aren’t solid either, everything can fall apart. As for old Europe, it’s come to a standstill. So, we need to modernize watchmaking and we need to find the right tools to do so. We can wax lyrical about having the finest tradition in the world, but if we don’t know how to make it travel through time, well then it’s going to die.

For me, the problem’s not the product but everything that goes with it, communication, dealing with customers, educating new generations.

I agree with you. However, as regards the product, it hasn’t evolved much, few risks have been taken. We survive on star products, on icons. They’re the ones that keep the ship from capsizing, there’s nothing new in the product. A bit of folly’s missing, something out-of-the-box. And, you’re right about the way the product’s presented, making it more modern, desirable.

Do you think that brands have lost their way a bit as regards image, price, products... emotions?

Nowadays, we have to be able to justify the rather high prices of industrial products because the public can’t be fooled, in particular younger people, who understood pretty quickly that some brands were inflating their prices. We need more transparency, to go back to a more normal, more human format. We’ve all cheated a bit, be it suppliers or journalists, because we didn’t have the right to express ourselves and we had to stay in line with the brands whereas we should’ve been a bit more critical, creative, fair, attentive and we should’ve addressed watchmaking differently. We should’ve been federators. Today, in this industry, there’s no family spirit but a lot of businessmen; we’ve lost this emotional aspect and if young people no longer see the point in wearing a watch, well, it’s basically because we’ve never talked to them about the emotional side of the product. Because, for ages now, it hasn’t been used for telling the time.

And customers, the ones who buy the product, how are they perceived?

Well, actually, the problem with watchmaking brands is that they don’t know their customers. Historically-speaking, they created watches which they went on to sell to their retailers who, in turn, sold them to customers. They’re disconnected from customers because they’ve always called on middlemen. Then, all of a sudden, they decide to distribute – wholesale – retail – but opening a one-brand store doesn’t make you get to know your customers any better. They don’t have this bond and are now trying to create it. And inside brands, a lot of decisions are made, actions taken, to please the boss, because people fear they’ll lose their jobs, so no-one’s bothered about the customers because they’re focused on the boss. No-one dares say anything because they don’t want to annoy the almighty boss. How on Earth can you do anything whatsoever for an end customer, for younger customers, under circumstances like these? We have to get away from this system and concentrate on customers, on the knowyour- customer aspect. Everything must stem from them. There’s a young generation out there which wants specific things, which has expectations vis-à-vis boutiques based on the image/movement/sound trio and a market which offers pretty much the opposite. We’re still working with old clichés whereas we really need to break these codes.

Yet... it’s vital to have a business and even a global strategy if you want to survive, right?

Yes indeed and 80% of brands have no vision, even if I don’t like this term vision, on anything whatsoever. They address everything with urgency on a daily basis. But, on the other hand, there are some who understood everything from the word go like Max Büsser from MB&F especially with the M.A.D Gallery or those who’ve worked really well over the last few years like Jaquet Droz. Others which should’ve rocketed yet we don’t even know if they still exist.

As for you, since Dietlin Artisans Métalliers started out, there have been changes, your profession itself has adapted and evolved based on needs and desires.

I reinvented a profession through a Cartier competition by embarking on these exhibition display cases twenty years ago. I quickly understood that everybody was making pretty much the same thing. That really struck me. I didn’t want to do the same thing as the others, I didn’t want to make classical display cases. I wanted to have my own signature, to be unique, I wanted people to recognize my touch. I believe that everyone without exception has a talent but we don’t have much time to discover it.

There’s also passion which is an amazing catalyst, isn’t there?

Exactly. We’re caught up in this competition, then, afterwards it’s all to do with character, but I love challenging the status quo. There’s a passionate side which is brilliant because it’s a fantastic driver and, at the same time, exhausting because we’re forever questioning everything. You have to constantly reinvent everything and, as I reach my fiftieth birthday, I must admit that I find it somewhat tiresome and you never know where or when to stop. But, I’ve widened my circle, I’ve included schools which provide me with another momentum, I’m embarking on other projects which stimulate me intellectually. It’s crazy, I’ve almost left my profession behind. I’m a display case maker and, all of a sudden, I find myself in the middle of the concept of tomorrow’s watch boutique where I have to manage teams... all far removed from my job and display cases.

Let’s go back to younger generations...

Everyone I work with is around fifty or so like me, so we’re old, it has to be said, we have to assume it (laughs) but above all work with younger people. This is why we contacted art schools, to share different points of view. Personally, I find this mix wonderful, and that’s why I spent six days with these students. I’ve got an image in my mind of football teams or other sports’ teams: if they’re only made up of young people, then they lose; if they’re only made up of old people, they lose too. On the other hand, whenever there’s a mix of the two, i.e. marrying risk-taking and experience, then alchemy works and the team wins. Generally-speaking, the oldest want to imitate the youngest but the opposite is rarely the case. With all due respect for my father, I don’t want to do things the way he did but, on the contrary, now he’s seventy-five years old, he’s really interested in what motivates his grandsons. Remarks are often made about millennials, a term which I loathe, and we’re made to feel that only millennials change... but the whole world changes!

So what’s the post-Secret Weeks’ score then?

It’s great to take a sharp look at watchmaking, to discuss without waffling, and to say to ourselves that there are some tremendous things and others which need improving, things that we need to spark, move with the times and stop playing with cycles. That’s what I did with my display cases, I infused them with technology, developed them, and this was also down to my children’s influence. Children, unlike adults, are curious, need to touch everything, test everything, do everything themselves.

* HEAD, Haute Ecole d'Art et de Design, Geneva
** ECAL, Ecole Cantonale d'Art de Lausanne
*** ESVMD, Ecole Supérieure en Visual Merchandising Design, Vevey

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