Franck Muller Speaks

Industry gossip swirls around this maker of unconventional luxury time pieces

Some call him a watchmaking genius, others an enigma.

Franck Muller himself is a man of few words. He expresses himself mainly through fashionable, complicated luxury timepieces priced from $6,000 to more than $1 million.

Muller thinks off center, which is why retailers and affluent consumers such as Sir Elton John crave his unconventional creations. Among them are a watch that tracks three time zones with a single crown and another designed for left-handers.

He is more than a hotshot whiz kid. That label might have been appropriate years ago when he added a perpetual calendar to a Rolex he received upon graduating No. 1 in his Geneva watchmaking school. But now, at 38, Franck Muller has honed his craft and shows a level of creativity the industry has rarely seen.

“I had and still have only one motivation,” says Muller: “To carry on the work of the many master watchmakers who created history in the past – by creating new mechanisms which have often been firsts in a particular function.”

However, Muller’s meteoric rise has caused some skeptics to wonder what’s really behind his success. In a recent interview with JCK, Franck Muller responded to his critics.

“[These people] never bothered to analyze my track record,” Muller says of his critics. “From a very young age, I took part in the restoration of more than 80 of the most complicated pocket watches belonging to the Patek Philippe Private Collection…

“Jealousy is part of human nature, and there is some. From a purely financial point of view, because of the market shares which I have taken, the established markets are obviously not letting me off lightly.”

His success makes Muller the subject of constant rumor and question. Will the Franck Muller watch brand be sold to the Vendôme Luxury Group? Is Franck Muller really an owner of the company bearing his name? Is the financial free-fall in Asian markets hurting this luxury brand? And how did Gianni Versace’s death affect Franck Muller?

The watchmaker denies his company is being sold to Vendôme; his recent withdrawal from Geneva’s SIHH fair, run by Vendôme, supports that. The company also denies rumors that Muller is simply a salaried employee at the company, rather than an owner. A Franck Muller-Versace private label deal was scheduled for November launch. It stalled, but recently was reborn.

The impact of Asian financial problems is hard to pinpoint, but obviously exists since a significant portion of the firm’s business is done in Asia. However, its investment in Watch Land, a permanent contemporary museum of watches which Franck Muller is opening in Geneva this month, suggests the company is healthy.

Says Muller, “There’s more than one key to my success: the credibility of my past and present work, particularly the world firsts; the overall mastery of complications; creativity and innovation which are expressed in the design; the numerous Franck Muller patents pending; and the many manufacturing licenses that I have granted to several makes against royalty payments.”

In many parts of the world, Franck Muller watches are drawing cards for retailers and aspiration timepieces for young people on the rise. But they’re not for every store or wallet. Rumor says Muller, like other upscale brands, will introduce a lower-priced watch line to attract a younger, less affluent consumer.

“I was asked this question in Japan, where many young people get into debt, sometimes for several years, in order to buy a Franck Muller watch,” says Muller. “The Casablanca model in steel, which now is also available as a ladies’ watch in steel, is an example of a bid to bring the prices down a bit. But you have to face the fact that it remains a very exclusive and elitist watch.” (Muller does plan to offer a less expensive line under the name Karbon. It will sell for about $1,500-$2,500 retail in different outlets than the Franck Muller brand.)

Exclusivity is a specialty for Franck Muller, which manufactures only 7,000 watches per year. But how limited are its limited editions? Some sources say they’ve heard of repeat numbers in some Franck Muller “limited edition” series.

Not true, says Muller. “With the exception of the Casablanca models in steel, very few models have been produced in a series of more than 100. I think there are very few, if any other, watchmakers at our level who could say the same – especially when you see that some advertise limited series of 2,000.”

Much has been made of Franck Muller’s watch movements and whether he really makes his own. “Not one watch name can claim to make, in its own workshops, all the components of the movements it uses,” he says.

Meanwhile, the main movement Franck Muller is concerned with is that of his watches out of retail shops. He’s not much for politics; he considers himself an artist. And he’s banking on the fact that he’ll be remembered for his art long after the rumors fade.