The number of high net worth individuals entering the rolls of India’s super rich is rising. One of the first pieces of luxury they want to invest in is a timepiece—preferably a Swiss mechanical watch that can make an unambiguous power statement.

Ulysse Nardin, an haute horlogerie founded in 1846, is one such Swiss luxury watch brand that has adorned the wrists of several important people in India. With its designs inspired by the sea, Ulysse Nardin entered the Indian market 18 years ago and still sees significant growth potential in one of the fastest growing economies in the world, says Patrick Pruniaux, 47, CEO of Ulysse Nardin, which is a part of Kering Group.

In an interview with Fortune India, Pruniaux says the luxury watch market in India is passing through a challenging phase after demonetisation and the introduction of the goods and services tax (GST). But with a section of Indians getting wealthier and travelling far and wide, he expects the market to grow. Pruniaux—who was part of the team at Apple that launched the first Apple Watch in 2014, and was the Cupertino-based company’s managing director for the U.K. and Ireland—admits that high-end smartwatches are becoming increasingly popular. But he argues that a Swiss watch with its complicated movement will never go out of fashion and will coexist with the smartwatch. Edited excerpts:

Image : Ulysse Nardin
“The Marine Torpilleur is the bestselling timepiece globally as well as in India.”

How do you see the market for luxury watches in India evolving?

Demonetisation followed by tax norms in 2017 [GST] weighed heavily on the luxury watch market, as a large number of purchases used to be in cash. Wealthy shoppers, who are cautious of the curb on black money, had the option either to shop abroad or shop with their credit cards. Thus, the Indian watch market is evolving and also going through challenging times. Considering the growing Indian economy, I am positive about the potential of growth of luxury watches here. Also, the fact that wealthy, well-travelled Indians are increasingly appreciative of mechanical and in-house manufactured movements only facilitates growth for Ulysse Nardin.

What are your plans for deepening your presence?

First, our idea is to upgrade our current presence in multi-brand stores through corners and shopin-shops. It is important to be physically present among other brands. We have also developed a new retail concept which is younger and more dynamic than before and follows the brand rejuvenation strategy that started over two years ago. It features subtle marine nuances, which has been the characteristic of Ulysse Nardin since its beginnings, and will be rolled out in all retail locations, including India. The second point would be to strengthen our presence in the press and social media by finding suitable and genuine Friends of the Brand—who we call our team of explorers or “Ulysses”. All of them have a strong and organic passion for the ocean: free divers, waves photographers, surfers, and sailors.

A lot of the clientele in India is moving towards high-end smartwatches being made by companies like Apple. What does this mean for Swiss luxury timepieces and its market in India?

I do not think that [high-end] smartwatches are a question of nationality, but of generation. We are talking about millennials here. It is true that today, people—especially millennials—tend to be very much interested in electronic watches. However, I do not see it as a threat to Swiss luxury timepieces. Actually... they are two very different items, that are used for different purposes. You can own an Apple electronic watch as well as a Ulysse Nardin timepiece. Both are not incompatible. A mechanical watch is never going to let you read the last text message you received, just as a smartwatch will never be able to bring you the amazement that you can get when observing your last complicated timepiece.

Does Ulysse Nardin have any plans of entering the luxury smartwatch segment?

What we bring to the end-consumer is its savoir-faire—be it from a mechanical standpoint or from an artisanal standpoint. It would not be the case for a smartwatch. The name of the brand is not enough to add value to the product if it is only an empty marketing story. And this is the opposite of what Ulysse Nardin stands for. I don’t think there is any value in Ulysse Nardin making a smartwatch: I don’t see what more we can bring to the end-consumer.

Ulysse Nardin traces back its legacy to the sea and marine chronometers. Leisure activities revolving around the sea—like sailing—haven’t been as popular in India as they have been in other countries. Do you see this trend changing in India?

It is true that Ulysse Nardin’s ties with the sea are strong. This is even the reason why the manufacturer first acquired its reputation of being a first-class watchmaker and its timepieces of being high-precision tools. But our brand does not limit itself to that. Over the past 20 years, we have introduced many technical breakthroughs. The last one goes back to March 2019 with the FREAK neXt and its 3D flying oscillator made of silicium. People who are interested in Ulysse Nardin are not necessarily all sailors or divers. They usually are watch-lovers, who value the technical savoir-faire.

How are the demographic trends of Ulysse Nardin’s customers changing in India?

We are managing to keep the traditional Ulysse Nardin customer—a watch connoisseur who knows how to appreciate the beauty of a movement—while at the same time reaching a younger segment, the millennials, thanks to our new modern-looking products and our new communication campaign.

The government has increased the surcharge on tax to be paid by the super-rich in India. How do you see this impacting demand for luxury timepieces?

I think there will be no or negligible impact for luxury watches.

Which is the bestselling Ulysse Nardin watch In India?

The Marine Torpilleur is the bestselling timepiece globally as well as in India. We are actually working on bi-colour versions of these models, especially for the Indian clientele.

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