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Family watch firm stands test of time

The latest version of the classic Swiss Railway Watch

Watch companies in Switzerland's financial capital, Zurich, are hard to find but one has thrived there for the past 50 years. Mondaine Watch, known best for its official Swiss Railway Watch, is looking back on half a century of independence.

In a watch industry faced with a concentration of forces putting large marketing budgets to win market share, Mondaine stands out as a family business that has stood the test of time.

History recalls that the founder of the company, Erwin Bernheim, aged 75, should have been a tailor but an introduction to the watch industry changed his career. However, the connection with fashion has not been forgotten.

Mondaine now houses six watch families, including design pieces such as the railway watch, the fashion brand Bally, Camel Active, the ocean-proof Jean-Michel Cousteau watch and the popular M-Watch. Switzerland's largest retailer Migros has sold more than five million M watches since the early 1980s.

Today's managing director, the founder's son Ronnie Bernheim, predicted consolidation in the industry in a thesis 20 years ago.

"The pace of change is significant enough that big independent names in Swiss watchmaking are slowly becoming part of a few large, dominant groups," he says.

"The sheer size of the companies, the number of brands and the spending of marketing funds means they can influence consumer behaviour and retailers," he adds.

At the same time as the continuing concentration process, watch companies are faced with consumers who are swamped by choice.

"Monopolies held by watch companies have slowly given way to fashion brands, particularly in the mid-market range which has become so popular with the consumer, Suddenly, every fashion house is producing a must-have watch," he says.

Mondaine believes there are ways to tackle the challenges of the "big guns" of the industry. One solution is to create strong partnerships, starting with the design process and moving through to the sales channels.

Another is to use technological know-how and combine it with strong marketing skills.

"Widespread introduction of fashion brand watches, with fewer companies existing as just purely watch businesses, means that true watch companies are seeing their market share eroded in the low and middle market by fashion brands. Simply by true design innovation and clever marketing, it is clear that one can capture market share," Bernheim explains.

He believes that partnerships and innovation are just two factors contributing to independent success.

Technically, Mondaine can claim to be an industry pioneer, creating digital watches with LED and LCD in the early 1970s, and introducing solar quartz watches with both analogue and digital displays.

But it is perhaps best known for the official Swiss Railway Watch introduced in the 1980s after a "crazy" period of design in industry. M Watch and Swatch were then in their infancy.

The watch is based on the clocks designed for Swiss railways stations by designer and engineer Hans Hilfiker in the 1940s. There are more than 3,000 clocks in Swiss stations showing rail passengers the time of day.

Considered a jewel in the Mondaine collection, the watch is almost timeless.

"I think the Swiss railway watch stands for punctuality, it's very simple, clean, it has a history to it, yet it has a very modern design," Bernheim told swissinfo.

However, its recognition took some time. "For the first six years after starting manufacturing, not too many people wanted it because it was considered an advertising watch for the Swiss railways," he recalls.

"We felt there was much more to it and remained loyal to it. Today it's a big international success," he says.

Mondaine is investing millions over the next two years to expand its production site at Biberist in canton Solothurn and modernise its Zurich base.

"It will strengthen our backbone to give us the freedom to exploit all the innovative ideas we have and to bring them to the market in the form of well-designed and high quality products," Bernheim told swissinfo.

by Robert Brookes


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