Speidel Drops Hirsch, Adds Di-Modell; Hirsch Names Roma as U.S. Distributor

Two of the world’s major watchband suppliers—Speidel and Hirsch—have ended their years-long U.S. distribution agreement. Speidel Inc., headquartered in East Providence, R.I., is the leading North American supplier of watchbands, with more than 10,000 retail accounts. Hirsch Armbänder GmbH, of Klagenfurt, Austria, sells its watchbands in watch and jewelry stores in 62 countries and to watch manufacturers.

Speidel distributed Hirsch’s premium watchbands for fine watches from 1999 until Dec. 31, 2004. About 20 percent of its accounts carried Hirsch.

Speidel says it stopped because many of Hirsch’s watch straps are now made in China. The U.S. retailers that carried Hirsch “demand and expect a high-quality, European-made watch strap,” Speidel president and chief executive officer Jeffrey R. Massotti told JCK. “They do not want China products.”

Hirsch, which has wholly owned factories in Austria and India and a joint venture in Hong Kong, announced March 1 that “after many discussions and meetings,” it had an agreement with Roma Industries, “a company that has gained the confidence of retailers throughout America,” to be its exclusive U.S. distributor. The company, located in Largo, Fla., makes Hadley-Roma watchbands.

The Hirsch announcement made no mention of Speidel or the change, or that Hirsch has stopped distributing Speidel watchbands in Europe. In written statements to the trade, Robert Hirsch, president and CEO, said his company wants “to restore to the Hirsch brand in America the luster that comes with top-flight service and experienced management,” and had sought “an organization that would represent our products and company in the best possible manner.”

Hirsch told JCK his company produces Hirsch-brand watchbands for the haute gamme, or high-range, watch industry at its Klagenfurt factory, where all of its products are “designed and developed”; branded watchbands for Indian retailers and Indian watch manufacturers at its two factories in India; and watchbands for “the lower-end retail and wholesale market and the more price-sensitive OEM [original-equipment-manufacturer] market” at its joint-venture operation in Hong Kong.

In place of Hirsch, Speidel has inked an exclusive North American distribution agreement with Di-Modell of Königheim, Germany, which produces upscale leather watch straps. Massotti told JCK that jewelers’ response to the Di-Modell brand since January “has been tremendous.”

Speidel informed clients of the changes in a March 11 letter. In it, Massotti said the decision to stop representing Hirsch in North America followed “years of philosophical and marketing differences with the Hirsch organization” and the realization “we can no longer market the Hirsch brand as an exclusive European brand.” It is “simply … another China- manufactured product with European pricing,” he wrote, and Speidel could not “position the Hirsch brand as the premier alternative to Speidel” any more.

He also cited “ever-changing price increases” and “continually rising display costs and unavailability” as reasons for dropping Hirsch.

Paul Horowitz, Roma Industries’s CEO, noted the relationship between his firm and Hirsch is totally complementary, with minimal overlap in their U.S. customer bases. “It’s difficult to replace a brand as well-respected as Hirsch, and far more beneficial to enhance its presence by virtue of the level of service and integrity our company has become well known for,” he said.

Robert Hirsch also cited the companies’ compatibility and said leaders of both share similar points of view. He noted, though, that Hirsch and Roma Industries will continue to compete with each other in the OEM market to supply watch manufacturers.