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Born in Lugano, Switzerland, Samuel Friedmann began collecting and selling timepieces while in his teens. In 1990, he transplanted his firm to America, and within 12 years, the global business was generating annual revenues of $25 million. In 2001, Friedmann purchased the historic Swiss timepiece company Gevril, realizing his early dream of owning a prestigious timepiece brand.
Founded in 1743 by Jacques Gevril (who was appointed watchmaker to the Spanish crown in 1758, thus becoming the first exporter of Swiss watches) and headquartered just outside metropolitan New York, Gevril (www.gevril.com) is a Swiss manufacturer of elegant, technologically innovative timepieces. Handmade in Tramelan, Switzerland, by Gevril Horlogerie, each of the models – most of which are named for well-known Manhattan locations, including Chelsea, Gramercy, Madison, and SoHo – is limited to 100 numbered pieces in 18-karat gold and 500 in stainless steel.
Have current economic challenges affected your business, and are you optimistic you’ll achieve growth for the brand in 2009?
As a small company, we are very lucky to have a small problem rather than being one of the major companies who are having big problems. Our outlook for 2009 is very positive, and it looks as if there will be far fewer players in the market. Since the boom of the past 10 years in watches, there have been a lot of players. You could never figure out who was serious and who didn’t have a business model. The most important thing today is to have a business model. It’s not so much a product – it’s the model to back up the creativity and the direction.
Are you happy with the portfolio under the Gevril name, and do you anticipate bringing new pieces into the collections?
I worked very hard the past two years on new pieces, but we have to be careful not to overextend ourselves until we see some positive feedback from the markets. We are always working on improving creativity and quality, and we try to use the best materials in the market. I’m 20 years in the watch market and every day I learn new technologies and new ways of doing a better finish.
How do you keep the price of the GV2 line in that entry-level range while maintaining the same quality as your Gevril brand?
One reason I brought about GV2 is that I wanted to gain market share, which we do by making an affordable watch. I made GV2 so affordable that no big company can compete with us. The quality is the best. A bracelet can have 220 pieces, the case is made from two or three pieces, and the dial can be made from two or three pieces.
Do you foresee changes in your distribution channels?
Eventually, the Internet is going to be the biggest venue for selling watches. There are many reasons people buy on the Internet: they can do research without the pressure of a salesman, and they don’t have to walk out of a jewelry store with an expensive piece and feel afraid somebody is following them. Of course, many people want to touch the watch, but they can walk into a jewelry store, touch the watch, and then buy it on the Internet.
What made you feel the time was right to open a Gevril boutique in Caesars in Las Vegas?
This was long overdue, and maybe it wasn’t the right time because of the economy, but the most important thing I can do for my company is have a direct connection with the consumer. When I get feedback from a retailer or salesman, it might be too late for the market to react. I want to react right away because we are trying to serve the consumer the best way we can. We keep very close control of what’s going on and the reaction to each line, and then we can build a customer.
Are you happy with the customer service you’re able to provide?
We have one of the best customer service reputations in the industry, which is one of the reasons I opened the store in Caesars Palace. Many times, watch stores don’t know how to explain to the consumer how to use the watches they’re selling, and they don’t know how to address problems. I’m trying to change that with my own retail shop, to make sure that when the customer walks out, he knows he can always call us back. We are not here to sell a piece to you to get your money – we are here to serve you. A watch sale is like a marriage. You never finish the sale until the customer is really happy. Even after 10 years, if they have a problem, you try to address it.
Has the concept of Swiss-made lost some of its meaning?
Swiss-made is not as important as quality-made, because there is Swiss-made without quality. Most of the Swiss-made is with quality, but the most important thing is not the country of origin because there are Swiss technicians working in Chinese factories. We try to do everything Swiss-made, but I would stress quality, which means the best materials and the best finish.
What does true luxury mean in an industry like yours where the term is so often overused and misused?
For me, luxury is niche. It’s something special, like a unique painting, a different kind of a briefcase, or a different kind of a magazine. It’s not about how much it costs.
Is it challenging to be involved in every aspect of the business?
It’s my image and my name, so I’m really involved from beginning to end – from the movements, to the look, to the dials, to the bracelets. I’m not pushing the buttons on the machines, I’m not doing the assembly, but I’m involved. There are so many different aspects of watches that I could not even begin to explain them all. Nobody would ever expect how much time and money is spent. We work tireless hours to have the watches come out right. We came out with a super-mini Avenue of Americas watch, which took two-and-a-half years just in discussion. Many projects can take 18 to 24 months to finish. The quickest project normally takes between 12 and 14 months in production alone, not even counting design, which can take two or three years. As a small company, many times it doesn’t even make sense to sell the watch at the price you’re selling it based on the time you put in, but we cannot look at that – we just look at building our brand.