Swiss watchmakers are taking timepieces to a bold newlevel
From the Print Edition:
J.P. Morgan, Mar/Apr 00
On a road leading to the small Alpine city of La Chaux-de-Fonds, numerous hairpin turns daunt even the most intrepid sports car enthusiast. Amidst these curves and spectacular vistas outside Neuchatel, Switzerland, drivers normally slow down, submit to their surroundings, and shy away from testing modern life's power over time.
Luigi "Gino" Macaluso isn't one of them. A flamboyant, hard-driving adventure seeker who is always looking to capture the moment, he's dedicated to conquering time, to making it an aesthetic experience and to working high-tech, horological wonders.
While this ambitious pursuit typically finds him designing chronometers or chronographs, Macaluso, the owner and chairman of the Girard-Perregaux watch company, also finds it exhilarating to race around the Alps in his electric-blue Ferrari 45.
Macaluso is a curious figure in the staid circles of Swiss watch making. He is just as content repairing one of his 29 classic rally cars as he is designing expensive timepieces. In Switzerland, where the good ol' boy network of power brokers and faceless conglomerate czars strictly adheres to Old World rules of low-key refinement and decorum, Macaluso's particular brand of enthusiasm is something new.
"In watchmaking, like racing, there are lulls, and as Girard's team leader, it's my job to push the accelerator, to always encourage the best performance," says the 51-year-old Macaluso, sitting in his office. "I must engage people, lift spirits. We've achieved a lot, yet we must still race forward. Many of the complications [watches offering several functions] we'll be introducing in the next few years will be extremely intriguing if we keep on striving for excellence."
An aggressive leader with a self-described manic personality, Macaluso has brought Girard-Perregaux back from the brink of extinction. In 1992, he assumed control of a firm that was asleep, if not dying, and transformed its image by deftly marketing new pieces and reworked classics, reestablishing the cachet of this legendary firm whose roots go back to 1791.
Today, Girard-Perregaux, which produces about 16,000 watches annually, is extolled for such intricate complications as the Opera One carillon minute repeater, the Pour Ferrari collection, and the Tourbillon with three gold bridges chronograph. It also sells masterfully crafted movements to a host of high-end manufacturers (most prominently Piaget and Vacheron Constantin).
The reason Girard-Perregaux was struggling and little recognized in the early 1990s was its exclusive focus on craftsmanship at the expense of marketing, contends Philip Warner, president of Asprey & Garrard, a London-based jewelry firm. "Macaluso brought energy, style and vision to the company," says Warner. "[He's] just superb at brand management; he's made the world aware of Girard, one of those few Swiss manufacturers which designs, makes and assembles the total watch."
That vision is best viewed at the Villa Marguerite. Adjoining Girard-Perregaux's factory in La Chaux-de-Fonds, this recently restored, early-twentieth-century mansion is not only a museum laden with such treasures as gold Hunter pocket watches, diamond-studded pieces and limited editions graced with the magical Ferrari "Prancing Horse" emblem. It's also a smoker's paradise, as visitors are treated to an idyllic retreat for lunch, where the dining-room walls are lined with humidors brimming with Cuban Cohibas and Bolivars (tours can be arranged by calling 41 32 911 3333).
Macaluso was excited at the prospect of reviving these opulent surroundings. After graduating with a degree in architecture from Turin University in Italy, Macaluso dreamed about racing the Grand Prix circuit. He became friends with Enzo Ferrari's son Piero and Ferrari president Luca Cordero di Montezemolo, and competed in a number of prestigious European races, such as the European Rally Championship in 1972 and the Italian Championship in 1974. While he enjoyed braving hairpin turns and 200-mph bursts, Macaluso realized it was an unpredictable, if not dangerous, lifestyle. So, in 1974, he left professional racing and went to work for SSIH (which became Swatch), first in the advertising department and later climbing the ranks to become the firm's managing director in Italy.
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