New organization aims to promote, preserve, and protect luxury watchmaking

Three leaders in Swiss luxury watchmaking—the top brands Audemars Piguet and Girard Perregaux, and the Richemont luxury goods group—have formed an organization to boost worldwide awareness and sales of luxury timepieces, unify the fine watch business and fight counterfeits.

The Fondation de la Haute Horlogerie, officially launched Nov. 3 in Geneva, Switzerland, will also take over running the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie (SIHH), one of the world’s leading luxury watch trade fairs, starting with the 2006 edition (Apr. 3- 9).

The foundation wants to “preserve and develop the future and spirit of haute horlogerie,” said Franco Cologni, its president. Its “primary and essential objective,” he noted, is to “contribute actively on a worldwide basis to the propagation and development” of fine watchmaking, primarily through “information and training projects,” many aimed initially at retailers and the public.

He added that the foundation wants to be “a unifying force … of everyone who works in this field—watchmakers, manufacturers, craftsmen—but also retailers, collectors, connoisseurs, journalists, customers, and ultimately, the general public. Its modi operandi will encompass training, information, education and promotion of fine watchmaking.”

Cologni is one of luxury watchmaking’s leading figures. The former executive chairman of Cartier International and Richemont Haute Horlogerie, he is now a senior executive director on Richemont’s board; a member of its strategic product committee; chairman of Richemont’s luxury brands Vacheron Constantin and Officine Panerai, and former chairman of the Association Internationale de la Haute Horlogerie. He also chaired the Comité International de la Haute Horlogerie (CIHH), which the foundation replaces, which ran the SIHH.

Overseeing the foundation is a council, which defines its strategy, priorities and activities. It’s composed of the three founding members (with Cologni as chairman) and yet-to-be-chosen “professionals and personalities in the field of fine watchmaking,” say foundation documents. Those will probably include some bosses of Richemont’s many luxury watch brands. Council members will serve one-year terms.

Details about the foundation’s operating budget and funding, which would indicate how much it can do, weren’t released.

The foundation has two areas of focus. One is the non-profit Cultural Center of Fine Watchmaking (Centre culturel de la Haute Horlogerie), a sort of “think-tank and hotbed of ideas,” say its documents. Its brief is to develop projects which promote luxury watchmaking, and are open to any luxury watchmaker’s participation. The projects are still in development, but a “top priority” of the Culutral Center, say organization documents, is implementing “specific projects for retailers” who sell luxury watches and are the “ambassadors and partners of fine watchmaking” around the world. These will include training programs (lessons, workshops, seminars) for retailers, managers and sales staffs, “especially new generations of retailers.”

Another project already underway is the Center for Study and Research, which will analyse and develop new trades, markets, innovations and business developments in haute horlogerie.

A longer term project is developing and promoting “a genuine label of quality” for an international network of qualifying retailers (and later, others in luxury watch field, such as collectors, experts and service providers). “In addition to shared values and ethics, the label will be a guarantee of knowledge and expertise in fine watches,” say foundation documents. Specific details will come later.

The foundation’s other focus of activity is on organizing international trade fairs, exhibitions and other activities to promote luxury watchmaking. Revenues from these will fund the organization’s non-profit activities.

The main one is the annual SIHH, the prestigious luxury watch trade show founded by Cartier (later Richemont) and held in Geneva, traditional center of luxury watchmaking, since 1991. It takes over its organization and operation from the CIHH. Other international events will be designed to “give awareness and understanding” of watchmaking to the trade and public, and be similar to Richemont’s 2004 Watches & Wonders exhibition in Beijing.

Also planned is a Web site to provide information (to the trade and public) about the luxury watch business, fine watchmaking in general and “facilitate contact” between fine watch brands, retailers, collectors, connoisseurs and end customers.

The foundation, say its documents, also intends to “battle counterfeiters and slavish imitations” which threaten fine watches everywhere, because they “pirate” the values and authenticity of luxury timepieces and “create dangerous and damaging confusion in the public mind.

“To safeguard the future of fine watchmaking is to ensure in no small way its continued prosperity and growth,” says the new foundation.