TimeZone Interview with Roamer Watch Company


Interviewer: Richard Paige

June, 1999

 TimeZone Interview with Ralph Furter, Head of Product Development for Roamer Watch Company. The interview took place on June 1, 1999 in San Francisco, California.

I met Ralph many years ago when he was hired as a watchmaker in my friend’s retail store, and we’ve stayed in touch over the years after he moved back to Switzerland. We all met for dinner a few nights back and we had an animated conversation about the internet and the Swiss watch industry. He told me some fascinating “insider “stories about the modern day Swiss watch industry, but when I actually sat him down in front of me for the interview, he was very protective of the industry and he did not want to go on record saying anything negative about the business. A true gentleman.

RP:  Richard Paige – TimeZone.com
RF:  Ralph Furter

RP:   Ralph, can you give us some background info on the Roamer Watch company?

RF:   I’ll give you a brief background about the last 100 years. Since we’re celebrating our anniversary in 1999 of 111 years since the company was founded. It was founded in 1888, and back in the beginning years we only made movements. We manufactured the famous MST movements, which translates to Mayer-Studeli movements. As things developed further we started to make our own watches around 1940. Then we started to market Roamer watches. The interesting thing is that the company made everything themselves: movements, bracelets, crystals, parts, dials, crowns. Everything was manufactured at the Roamer factory in Solothurn, Switzerland where the company is still today. At our peak time, in the late 1960’s, we had 1400 employees.

RP:   Where was the biggest market for your watches in the mid century?

RF:   In the states, the far east and the eastern countries: Russia , Germany. Up to this day the brand awareness is still there in these countries, but mostly with the older people.

RP:   What kind of watches did you make back then?

RF:   They were basically a working mans watch , and a minor part was gold watches, also a big part was ladies dress watches.

RP:   And today, where does Roamer fit into the market?

RF:   Lower mid price quartz segment, trying to be a player in this segment, offering true value for your money.We want people to see value, so that when they hold it in their hands they’re surprised at the quality for the money. We’re trying to have a unique mechanical line which is a continuation of the old Roamer “Amphibio system” which was our patented water proof system.. This was introduced in 1940 and was still made up until 1990.

RP:   Ralph, you and I have known each other for about 15 years. How did you get started in the watch industry?

RF:   I was born in Switzerland, and out of High school I went to a watchmaker’s school in Solothurn ( near the Roamer factory). After I graduated watch school I went to work as a watchmaker in retail at Gubelin in St. Moritz, the famous ski resort, and then they transferred me to New York to work in Gubelin 5th Avenue. From NY I moved to California, to get away from the city and to a place where there’s a lot of sunshine. I started to work in your old store in San Anselmo fixing watches. After 5 years in the states, I went back to Switzerland and started working for Rado Watch Company, where I was a service manager for the Middle East, and North and South America. After 7 years I left Rado and started working with Roamer.

RP:   What do you think of Rado?

RF:   Rado is a very future oriented company. very good products and a very good organization, very innovative and streamlined. They have a big market share in Switzerland.

RP:   A regular here on TZ, whom I won’t mention, always pokes fun at Rado designs. What’s their design strategy?

RF:   They want to be leaders, trend setters, not copiers. Their new “Zerix” is fantastic. When you look at the designs of today, Rado has combined technology with new materials to make a future oriented watch. They’ve done extremely well, and come up with some fascinating ideas.

RP:   What do you actually do at Roamer?

RF:   I develop new product, I take care of the collection, I look for new manufacturers to produce our products. I buy the components, and try to have them at the right time at the right place. I also take care of the sales side of the Italian market and China and India.

RP:   What do you mean components, you don’t produce the components?

RF:   No, the component s are bought mostly in the far east, except the movements of course, where we use ISA movements, these are Swiss made movements. We are a group of factories and ISA belongs to us. We try to use synergies and buy within our own group. For instance the Swatch group uses their own movements ETA, we also try to utilize our own subsidiaries. But all movements are made in Switzerland, and certain components we still buy in Europe.

RP:   So the cases are made in the Far East?

RF:   The Cases are made in China as well as the bracelets. We’re actually owned by a Hong Kong company, Chung Nam Company. We were bought in 1994 by Chung Nam. The ISA movement factory also belongs to the same group.

RP:   Do many Swiss companies produce components in China?

RF:   Yes, many, at least in the mid price range. There’s quite a substantial number of companies which do their sourcing in Hong Kong.

RP:   What well known companies produce in China?

RF:   Well I don’t want to mention names. But a big part of the mid range watches are produced in the far east. The industry really hasn’t changed much over the years, it’s still an old fashioned industry. That’s why I appreciate the new way of distribution through the internet like what you’re doing. As far as producing outside of the Switzerland, this is not an important issue. What does it really mean “made in American”, does it mean that all of the product has to be made in the states? Look at American bicycles, the components are all made in Asia. You have to utilize the technology or possibilities from everywhere to produce a high quality product, not just by one country. It’s more important to find manufacturers all over the world who can produce something good, it doesn’t matter where it’s made.

RP:   Most Watch aficionados would have a heart attack if they realized that their Expensive Swiss watches were made up of parts from everywhere, we have this image of the little old watchmaker making watches like the old days. Is labor price the reason for seeking new manufacturing markets?

RF:   The cost of living in Swiitzerland is so high that it’s not possible to produce at adequate price levels. But for Roamer, since we’re tied up with the Hong Kong company, we have this great opportunity , and we can produce higher quality goods by using the advantages that China offers today in production techniques.

RP:   Well, how do you think the watch audience would react if they found out that high end watch companies were producing in the far east, a company like Rolex or Patek?

RF:   I think they would react very negatively, they would be shocked. But this is something that these companies would never do. They don’t need to do this, they can still produce 100% of their watches in Europe and still get their price, they’re a unique product.

RP:   What’s your favorite luxury watch?

RF:   Patek Philippe. It’s an old company and having worked as a watchmaker for a long time, I appreciate the way they produce a watch. For me, it is personally the best.

RP:   Do you like Rolex?

RF:   I appreciate the history, but it’s not my personal taste.

RP:   Is Rolex really big in Switzerland?

RF:   In Switzerland itself, the name is big, but I think most of the watches are sold to tourists who visit Switzerland. I don’t know too many people in Switzerland who wear one. And I think the actual market for Rolex is not very big to Swiss people.

RP:   Why do you think they’re so popular everywhere else?

RF:   I really don’t know. Maybe Rolex is too high price or the design doesn’t appeal to Swiss people, I really don’t know. In Asia it’s a status symbol, but in Switzerland it’s not a status symbol. Maybe the design is too bulky. When we sit around with friends they always say Rolex is too big and bulky, and none of my watch friends wear a Rolex.

RP:   What’s hot in Switzerland right now?

RF:   I would say designer oriented watches and multi-functional watches. Every brand has it’s place, but design is important to the Swiss as is quality and durability. You have to have a history behind it. The watch has to be surrounded by a history, you need more than just a great design, you need to create an atmosphere around the product. Who is the company behind it, why are they using this material? People need to be able to identify the watch with themselves, it’s based on emotion.

RP:   How does the internet impact this old watch world?

RF:   As far as I know, I think it will change the minds of a lot of people in the watch industry, and make them look for new ways to distribute their products. It will allow the companies to use it as a source of information to go directly to the consumer, but also an information source from the distributors to the manufacturers. A communication tool.

RP:   Personally, I believe the Swiss watch industry is in denial about the impact that the internet will make on the industry. But recently, a watershed event happened when Tourneau put up a web site. Now, how can the watch companies ignore the biggest USA player, they’ll be forced to reevalute their position about the internet. Now they must be fair and allow any and all comers to put up a website and do business on the internet.

RF:   Tourneau put up a web site? and they sell directly? All their products? Do they have restrictions to only sell in the states? Can they sell internationally? I had no idea that they they were on the Internet.

RP:   Do you think Roamer will ever sell you products directly to the world from an internet site?

RF:   It’s a tough question to answer , I don’t know. We’re definitely not ready for this now. I suppose the old way of distribution will change some day, but how far down the road this will take place I don’t know. Maybe a few years, maybe longer.

RP:   What do you think about Roamer doing an internet watch?

RF:   The whole idea is definitely interesting. We will keep it mind, it’s worth thinking about.

RP:   What don’t you like about the Swiss watch industry?

RF:   The whole industry should be more aggressive when it comes to new ideas and tools. We should be more open, and more adapting to the existing possibilities. More courageous, as a whole.

RP:   What regulations are in place to assure the consumer that a watch is Swiss made?

RF:   Under Swiss law, the watch has to be assembled and checked out in Switzerland, and the movement has to be 100% Swiss made to use the terminology “Made In Switzerland”.

RP:   What do you think Of TimeZone?

RF:   I think it’s unique, a good combination of entertainment and information. When I go back and sit with important customers and I tell them to look at TZ, I’m sure that they will find it interesting, it will open up another door to the world.