Frederique Constant is a lot bigger than it appears to be, and a lot younger than you think. The Swiss watchmaker has aced the value-for-money game since it was founded in 1988 by Dutch couple Aletta Bax and Peter Staas. The Geneva-based firm sells over 100,000 watches annually, and, besides well-finished watches, it also has an entire range of complications, from perpetual calendars to tourbillons. (Also read: Best watches of 2024 for all budgets)

William Besse talks about Frederique Constant’s 20 years in India.

The company ranked 44th on the list of top 50 Swiss watchmakers in the 2023 edition of the hotly contested but popular annual watch report released by Morgan Stanley. Not surprisingly for a brand that marries high luxury finishing and accessible pricing, India is among its top markets. In this interview with Hindustan Times, Williams Besse, international director of business development at the manufacture, talks about the evolution of the Indian market, the increasingly tough business of making ‘affordable luxury’ watches, and the benefits of being part of the Citizen Group, which acquired Frederique Constant in 2016. Excerpts

Frederique Constant has been in India for about twenty years. What are the major differences you’ve noticed over these two decades?

We’ve always had a great relationship with India, especially over the last 12-odd years. It ranks among our top seven global markets and our aim is to get it into the top five. Frederique Constant is a natural fit for Indian watch buyers, because they pursue value for money and we deliver just that. We had about 50 points of sale here ten years ago, but since 2016 we have also been working with two key partners, Ethos and Helios, and that has really accelerated our business. The market is a lot more international in many ways than it was earlier. There is a new social category of people interested in fine watches.

Watch buyers have started to enjoy automatics, and there are many who have moved to appreciating complications. On the other hand, unlike other Asian markets, where we have been strong online, Indian customers generally like to go to the point of sale, at least to pick up the watch, or they visit the boutique and get the watch delivered. So, there is always this physical context to the watch buying experience here. And women have been buying a lot more of our watches. In some months, it can represent 50% of our sales in quantity, not in value.

The general perception is that that the business of affordable luxury has got a lot tougher, and that several accessible luxury watchmakers are moving upmarket. Would you agree with that?

Yes, over the last couple of years, it has been much easier to sell a $10,000 watch instead of ten $1,000 watches. People are generally spending less than they used to. But I won’t agree with the second statement. We are not moving upmarket. What we have done is to communicate that we know how to manufacture high end complications at affordable prices. In 2021, we launched the Slimline Monolithic Manufacture, in which the traditional oscillator was replaced by a one-piece silicon oscillator that beats a frequency of 40Hz. Last year we produced some 350 tourbillons, which is quite a significant number, at an exceedingly competitive price. This year, too, we plan to do the same, but at the same time, we also have the recently launched Classics Premiere collection with a La Joux Perret movement (movement maker La Joux Perret is owned by Citizen) that retails for about $1,800 and a quartz collection that starts at about $1000. So, we believe in mass production — we will remain a volume brand that lets more people enjoy luxury.

Frederique Constant was the first Swiss brand to launch a smartwatch in 2015. But then you went slow on it. How are smartwatches from established brands such as yourself faring?

We were indeed the first Swiss brand to have a smartwatch movement and we kept at it for about six to seven years. But now we are fully out of the connected watch business. Initially we believed that more brands will come into the ring and grow the market. Some did with limited success. This particular ecosystem, though, is dominated by the likes of Apple and Samsung. Apple today is among the world’s biggest watch producers, and these companies operate in a dynamic, rapidly changing environment. We realised that as a Swiss company, we wouldn’t be able to keep up, and have decided to focus on what we are really good at. (Also read: Best luxury watches to gift: Unveil timeless elegance, top 10 worthy mentions)

What are some of the less obvious benefits of being part of the Citizen Group?

Distribution is of course a major benefit. They are strong in markets such as the US, Italy and Japan. Likewise, we are strong in France. So, we distribute each other’s products. But the thing with being part of the group is that the affiliates are very independent, so it’s more about how can we support each other. There’s a lot of learn from the meticulousness of the Japanese, even though we are a Swiss company, and there could maybe also be some synergy between our movements and their technologies.