01 June 2022

Successfully relaunching watch brands

Lessons from A. Lange & Söhne and H. Moser & Cie.

by Mike Ortolano

In the watch industry, it’s quite common to see historical brands resurrected after decades of dormancy. Massive success stories like A. Lange & Söhne stick out in mainstream luxury watchmaking. Amongst independent watchmaking brands, H. Moser & Cie. have also excelled since their relaunch about a decade ago. While Lange and Moser appear to be on opposite sides of the watchmaking spectrum, the former more “traditional” and the latter more “modern,” there’s significant overlap in both brands’ relaunch philosophies.

For many readers, it will come as a surprise that both A. Lange & Söhne and H. Moser & Cie. are rebellious at their core. That is to say, rebellious against industry standard practices in product development and marketing. By moving against the grain of the industry, that rebelliousness helped define each brand’s success, one in the early 1990’s for Lange and the other in the early 2010’s.

There are certainly other ways to launch watch brands, and necessarily so as we will see. My intention here isn’t to create some playbook or systematize how watch brands should resurrect brands. As a matter of fact, I’m sure replicating these tactics is a game of diminishing returns. The first time, it’s a creative act and brilliant. The second time, it’s increasingly stale. My hope is that this article casts a light on the subtleties of both brands’ relaunch strategies for collectors and enthusiasts to appreciate each with greater depth. With that, let’s dive directly into the historical context of Lange’s resurrection first, then Moser’s.

“Put an end to watchmaking boredom”

The relaunch of A. Lange & Söhne

Maybe we’re spoiled by modern independent watch brands like MB&F and Urwerk, but it seems quite strange to think of A. Lange & Söhne as subversive and rebellious. Yet the late, great Günter Blümlein, the leader behind Lange’s revival in the 1990’s, was laser-focused on “putting an end to watchmaking boredom,” as he used to say. 

Jerôme Lambert, CEO of Richemont once said, At Lange, every inch is Blümlein. Every single attitude is Blümlein-made.” 

In the context of the early 1990’s, it’s easy to understand what he meant. The Quartz Crisis nearly killed the Swiss watchmaking industry. The number of watchmakers employed in the industry dropped by roughly 70% from ~90,000 in 1970 to ~28,000 in 1988 . There was effectively no complicated watchmaking at this point, everything was confined to the realm of simple, time-only three-handers. When Blümlein spoke of “boring,” he was referring to these sorts of timepieces that simply weren’t going to drive the industry’s revival. The pinnacle of fine watchmaking cannot be a time-only three-hander. With this mentality, Blümlein leaned into highly complicated watchmaking with Lange’s sibling companies IWC and Jaeger-Lecoultre. Probably the most extraordinary of these timepieces was Il Scufusia Destriero, “the Warhorse from Schaffhausen,” released only a year before Lange’s relaunch in 1993. The most complicated timepiece ever at the time, it kicked off a “complications arms race” amongst brands that continues to define the whole fine watchmaking industry decades later.

With Lange, Blümlein approached the product with a more or less similar set of principles, focused on aesthetic differentiation and technical innovation. Upon its public debut in 1994, Lange released four timepieces – the Arkade, the Saxonia, the Lange 1, and the Tourbillon “pour le Merité.” Each pushed the envelope during the early 1990’s, but none more than the Lange 1 and Tourbillon “pour le Merité.”

Now, the Lange 1 is widely regarded as an exceptional, conservative timepiece. Experts like Alp Sever have written extensively on its history of the Lange 1 and rightfully labeled it an “icon.” At the time of its release, it went against the grain of industry standards. It was the first timepiece with a “big date,” asymmetrical dial, and then a few years after its initial release, one of the first with an open caseback. Around the mid-1990’s, there frankly weren’t many movements worth looking at. Industry wide, movements were mostly unfinished and exceptionally small. The Lange 1 set a new standard, one that still exists today, that movements should occupy the entire volume of the case and each should be worth admiring through a sapphire caseback. Nearly 30 years later, the Lange 1 is still the “face” of the brand.

If Lange 1 marked the beginning of a new era, then the Tourbillon “pour le Merité” was a clear signal to the neighboring Swiss that they are not alone in creating the world’s finest timepieces. An exquisite tourbillon from an area that was under East German control, give or take, only 1000 days ago? Many collectors and industry insiders would’ve bet on the whole fine watchmaking industry dying first. 

It’s all too easy to see these timepieces now with a completely different perception. Of course, fine watches are made in Glashütte. Of course, A. Lange & Söhne sits at the pinnacle of watchmaking. Of course, Lange 1 represents conservative watchmaking. During the relaunch, none of these were obvious or true. Blümlein and the team at Lange knew something fundamental, that they weren’t going to make a big splash in the industry by doing what everyone else expected.

The dust settled after the Quartz Crisis … and so did the mood 

Fast forward about a decade to 2005, H. Moser & Cie. relaunched after closing its doors in the 1980’s due to the Quartz Crisis. For the purpose of this article, we’re going to mostly focus on Moser after it was acquired by the Meylan family in 2012. Though the Perpetual 1 earned recognition with the Prize for Complicated Timepiece at the GPHG Awards before the Meylan family’s acquisition, the brand’s ascent to the top of independent watchmaking is more directly connected to decisions made under Edouard, Moser’s CEO. So what led to Moser’s rise after its relaunch? 

In the early 1990’s, Lange responded to an industry that lacked technical innovation and high finishing standards. By the early 2010’s, both those issues had turned around a full 180 degrees. The Swiss watchmaking industry became synonymous with technical innovation and fine finishing. That’s why Moser’s push to differentiate wouldn’t find its success through a new tourbillon or novel complication like Lange’s “big date.” At least for now, those days are done. Differentiation for Moser meant going back to the basics, focusing on creating exquisite dials for collectors to easily admire while on the wrist. It also entailed transgressing one of the industry’s long held beliefs, that the brand must be on the dial.

While the brand’s gorgeous movements and high quality finishing certainly add to the success, it’s Moser’s fumé dials that put them on the radar of most collectors in the mid-2010’s. Often uninterrupted by branding or indices, the fumé dial provided the brand with something to stand on its own feet. It’s a testament to how beautiful the fumé work is that there are often no branding or indices – the entirety of a collector’s focus is pulled into the dial’s colors and textures. They’ve also been quite forward-thinking with their usage of innovative materials to provide their dials with extra “pop.” The Vantablack models are examples of this.

Similar to Lange’s move toward high complications during the technical drought of the 1980’s, Moser’s move to focus on dial aesthetics as a key differentiator goes against the grain of the demand for higher and higher technical innovations. With regards to their relaunch, fumé dials caught the attention of collectors first, bringing them in the door to admire other aspects of the brand’s work from their in-house manufacturing capabilities to their innovative hairsprings. Products alone are never enough to define success. Before we wrap things up, we have to cast a light on how creative both Lange and Moser were with their marketing. Each brand didn’t only push the envelope with timepieces – that ethos permeated these business from top to bottom. 

It doesn’t just sell itself

There’s chatter sometimes that arises in the collector community, that the best watches need no marketing, no story. “Great watches speak for themselves,” is fairly common to hear. The reality cannot be farther from that claim though. Even the “least” marketed brands, for example Patek Philippe, are legendary marketers for campaigns like “You never actually own a Patek. You merely look after it for the next generation.” Greatness requires great marketing, and here is the final major factor to consider when we look at how Lange and Moser found success in resurrecting their brands: they marketed extremely well.

Günther Blümlein, mentioned previously, was the driving force of Lange’s revival and a marketing genius. Eduoard Meyland, spearheading Moser’s ascent in independent watchmaking, has struck a chord with collectors for his own creativity with the brand’s marketing. Both had very different styles of marketing, yet were immensely aware of what collector audiences needed to see and hear to come through the door.

For Lange, Blümlein had his finger on the pulse of the key concern of collectors at the time, “do the Germans even make fine watches?” By leveraging the success of Lange’s sibling company, IWC, Blümlein would regularly take out two-page ads in major publications.

This was advertising with a clear message, addressing a clear hesitation. That pointedness to Lange’s marketing efforts produced a massive positive impact early. Fast forward to the digital era, Moser’s couldn’t stand out through print ads. They certainly didn’t need to prove that the Swiss make great watches. That wasn’t the pain point for collectors. It also wasn’t going to differentiate by showcasing legacy – every luxury brand shows off roots that run back centuries. To stand out, Moser leaned heavily into satire. Since satire is always a form of critique, the brand effectively galvanized collectors around commonly experienced issues in the watch industry. It wasn’t through advertisements though, it was by creating satirical timepieces. The Swiss Icons Watch is probably the most notable – combination of all of the most hype elements of different brands’ watches from the Nautilus’ dial to Panerai’s crown to the Rolex GMT’s bezel. While controversial at the time, it was beloved by collectors.

The brand’s Swiss Mad Watch is also a classic, Moser’s satirical response to the Swiss watch industry’s lax standards for what qualifies as “Swiss Made.” In 2017, Moser removed “Swiss Made” from all their timepieces’ dials out of protest to the new 60% bar. With the Swiss Mad Watch, the brand ensured that the case was made out of Swiss cheese (yes, actual Swiss cheese) with a strap from a Swiss cow. Leveraging products and satire for marketing purposes differentiated Moser from the pack, in the same way that Lange’s extraordinarily high-end products contradicted consumer perceptions of German watchmaking.

Conclusion

With their marketing efforts, Lange aimed to wake up the markets to the arrival of fine German watchmaking. On the other side of the spectrum, Moser aimed to wake up a sleepy industry and act as a rallying point for collectors with similar perceptions of watchmaking culture. Though collectors may view both brands as radically different, Moser more playful while Lange more “traditionally” conservative, Moser and Lange had their fingers on the pulse of messaging that speaks to people, reshapes perceptions, and leads to conversation. The best marketing always leads to conversations with peers amongst themselves and between collectors and the brand.

Taking a step back, it’s clear that each brand’s success in relaunch was driven by audacity – Blümlein with Lange and Meylan with Moser leaned into risky differentiation. There’s a world where each brand takes a much more conservative approach, both with product and marketing, and things simply fall flat. Lange and Moser found their footing by going against the grain of the industry. For new brands to relaunch today and find the same success, the exact same tactics simply won’t create the same returns. It’s no longer exceptional to collectors that Germany produces high-quality timepieces, and most satirical marketing in the future will be viewed as a Moser derivative. For newcomers, success will be found in responding to realities, perceptions, and market landscape of the present. It’s ultimately that awareness of the times that tipped the scales of fortune in the favor of Lange and Moser.

 Mike Ortolano is a watch collector and writer behind The Open Caseback.