For the past two decades, Victorinox Swiss Army has put the same high standards into its watches as it has into the Original Swiss Army knife that was created over a century ago. Best sellers in the US since their launch, the timepieces that bear one of the world's most iconic logos are heading into the 21st century with a new global strategy.
Karl Elsener, the founder of Victorinox (a word formed by combining the name of Elsener's mother Victoria and an abbreviation of the French word for stainless steel, 'inox') developed his version of the Swiss Army knife in 1884 and became the official supplier of knives to the Swiss Army in 1891, allowing the company to register the name in key markets. The Victorinox Swiss Army knife has since orbited the earth as part of the standard crew equipment of the Space Shuttle, gone on expeditions to the North Pole, Mount Everest and the Amazonian rainforest and is today included in the permanent design collection of New York's Museum of Modern Art.
While the Infantry takes its key style cues from classic aviator watches, its overall look reflects the authentic values of military engineering, and the core heritage of Victorinox Swiss Army.
A classic indeed, but following a drop in knife sales post-9/11 - after all, what good is an emergency pocketknife if the pocket in question is inside a suitcase you are separated from? - the company underwent a degree of restructuring in 2003, with an emphasis on uniting its four product divisions (watches, knives and cutlery, luggage and clothing). 'Watches' was the first product category to be introduced, after the original 'Swiss Army knives and cutlery' division. After all, what could be more natural for a Swiss brand, recognised for its quality and reliable products, its industrial skills and its innovative spirit, than to progressively become a trusted watch brand too?
So, the watch arm of the company was launched in 1989 to the American market, where it went down a storm, the number of units sold there increasing by 20 per cent each year. And now in 2012 there appears to be another shift within the company and an attempt to push watches to the forefront, with new designs plus a (relatively) new Product Director brought in specifically to oversee timepiece design and product development. The man chosen for the job is none other than François Nuñez who has spent two decades working in the watch business and whose last position was Head of Marketing and Product at Rado.
"I have spent 20 years in this industry," says Nuñez, "and I have always enjoyed working for very different companies. But, from Audemars Piguet to Calvin Klein, I have always been responsible for the same thing: going to the essence of the brand and faithfully applying its core identity in a contemporary way."
From assembly through to final timepiece control, Victorinox is every inch the modern, professional Swiss watchmaking facility, producing 500,000 units a year, 20 per cent of which are mechanical pieces with ETA movements.
To an outsider it seems that the past few years have been lost ones for the watches segment of Victorinox Swiss Army - good solid watches lurking at the back of a bigger parent company. But with Nuñez on board, and a brand new and discreetly impressive collection, it appears that the winds of change are blowing through the brand - starting with the shiny new flagship store on London's New Bond Street.
Nuñez insists that this is not really evidence of a stronger focus on watches, more a willingness to give the collection a contemporary twist to fit the needs of an ever-evolving world. "This is still a family-owned brand," he says, "where things are approached with a long term perspective and commitment for a steady and healthy growth. We take everything step by step, blade after blade."
Unlike some other multi product brands, the Victorinox range is brought together by the company's core values: innovation, quality, creativity and functionality. Like Hoover and Jacuzzi, the brand name is synonymous with a product - in the case of Victorinox, the Swiss Army knife that no respecting adventurer from boy scout to professional explorer would be without. Consistently in the top ten of travel writers' favourites are Victorinox's luggage and clothing ranges with their clever and stylish use of innovative materials. And now with the 2012 collection the watches are also making waves and putting themselves forward as authentic, down to earth, understated, innovative and Swiss. But can Victorinox Swiss Army ever be a serious player in the watch world when it is traditionally seen as a lifestyle brand?
The 2012 relaunch of the Dive Master 500 has revealed a sleeker and more graphic collection with softer colourways of black, burgundy, brown, grey, khaki and white.
The communication story
"Whatever your roots, you can only become a serious player by doing things seriously," says Nuñez. "And one thing I believe is that we are serious about what we are doing - with a production just short of half a million pieces a year, how can anyone doubt that. The Victorinox philosophy has always been to deliver on its promises. People have said that in 2012 it seems like the focus is back on watches and I'm happy if consumers are paying more attention. It means that what we are doing makes sense and that things are falling into place. It's simply about refocusing, from product design to communication."
And with a new emphasis on communication, Victorinox has taken a more lateral approach, with tools such as the 'Companion for Life' cross-division advertising campaign that is about to be introduced. The US market was the launchpad for its timepieces and is still the number one market, but for the past 10 years there has been an active push to make it a global watch brand, with a constant and healthy growth in many different territories. So, what does the notion of 'Swiss' actually mean to Victorinox? Nuñez is quick to answer: "The Swiss Army knife is a Swiss icon! To the extent that we could almost ask the question the other way around: what does Victorinox mean for Switzerland!"
Named after the alpine helicopter base of the Swiss Air Force and directly inspired by the famous twin-rotor Cougar AS 532 helicopter, the 44mm, self-winding Alpnach Mechanical Chronograph is Victorinox Swiss Army's boldest and most 'macho' chronograph to date.
Nuñez describes Victorinox Swiss Army's USP as producing timepieces that resist the wear and tear of time, in many different ways, whether in its mechanical or quartz watches. Currently around 20 per cent (100,000 pieces) contain mechanical movements supplied by ETA - a good working relationship that Nuñez thinks is unlikely to suffer through Swatch's pairing back of supply. According to Nuñez: "We have no particular plan to increase this proportion. Our objective remains to keep offering democratic products with an interesting price/quality ratio. Quartz movements do also belong to that league."
So what is next for Victorinox? "By answering this question, I would further increase expectations and add pressure to my shoulders," says Nuñez. "But it is exciting… Our ambition is to produce the classics of tomorrow by offering timeless products."
Further information: www.victorinox.com