Five Deaths Leave Watch Industry Reeling

William Furhmann was the charming and humorous head of Chopard USA, whose infectious enthusiasm inspired good times and spontaneous million-dollar deals. Patrick Bell was an ambitious go-getter who shot up Tourneau’s corporate ladder in record time. Pierre-Andre Aellen was an entrepreneur with respected ties to many watch companies. Jacques Munari was a 30-year-plus watch veteran with family ties to the industry.

Each was among the finest in his craft. A watch company executive. A retailer. A watch designer. A dial manufacturer. Unfortunately, the promising lives of all four were cut short on Sept. 2.

The haunting crash of Swissair Flight 111 near Halifax, Nova Scotia, hit too close to home for those in the watch industry. A common trip for watch executives, the tragic New York-to-Geneva flight claimed the lives of 229 people, including these four members of the watch fraternity. In an eerie coincidence, that same day, Breitling lost Christian Schweizer, an acrobatic pilot from the Breitling Academy, and his son, in a still-unexplained plane crash over the Swiss Alps. These tragedies were met with chilled spines and heavy hearts industrywide.

William Fuhrmann’s handshake was worth a million dollars, friends say. In recent years, the 40-year-old had boosted Chopard’s business and consumer presence significantly with innovative products like Happy Sport and Mille Miglia, and with high-profile sponsorships such as the New York Marathon and the Miss Universe, Miss USA, and Miss Teen USA pageants.

Fuhrmann joined Chopard in 1989. He gained much of his experience in his family’s Curaçao-based upscale jewelry store, Spritzer & Fuhrmann. Fuhrmann also had a stint as an independent stone dealer, which sparked his passion for fine jewels.

Under Fuhrmann, Chopard sponsored upscale events such as the Monterrey Historic Racing Event, the National Horse Show, and the Donald J. Trump Fifth Avenue Mile, a race of elite runners, which Fuhrmann sealed with his celebrated informal handshake.

Fascinated with the tiniest details of watchmaking and stones, Fuhrmann would go into great detail when teaching about these crafts, sometimes perhaps a little more than you need to know, a colleague fondly remembers. “When he looked at a good stone, you could see his eyes burst with excitement,” says Joseph Pugliese, manager of the Chopard Boutique.

Fuhrmann enjoyed the finer things in life, friends say, even things no one else would notice. Pugliese recalled meeting Fuhrmann for the first time in 1994, prior to the opening of the Chopard boutique.

“I thought I’d meet this stodgy old man who was no fun,” Pugliese says. “I was wrong. He was the complete opposite. The boutique was a mess at the time. The first thing he wanted to show me was the icemaker. Here we were in a luxury boutique with gems and watches, and he showed me the icemaker. He said, ‘Look, it’s a Scotsman, the best there is. You’ve got to have good ice.’ He liked those little quirky things.”

Furhmann’s love of life spread beyond the jewelry industry. He formed close bonds, even if those bonds originated from business. Pugliese says Fuhrmann would sit on his New York City terrace in awe and say, “It doesn’t get any better than this.”

“Bill Furhmann was a terrific guy and a good friend,” Donald Trump, chairman and CEO of the Trump Organization, tells JCK. “We will miss him.”

Patrick Bell, who celebrated a birthday only days before the flight, was en route to Greece for vacation. Well-liked by his colleagues, he was known for his sense of humor and calm demeanor under stressful circumstances, an important trait as the director of the world’s largest watch destination, the Tourneau Time Machine in New York.

Only 34 years old, Bell quickly worked his way through the Tourneau ranks as a salesman and manager, culiminating in his coveted store director position, in which he was responsible for personnel, sales, maintenance and operations, and events, among other duties. Bell spearheaded all programs of the groundbreaking store, which is designed to get watches more mainstream acceptance. Tourneau held a memorial service for Bell the day after the tragedy.

“To rise to such a high level in a relatively short time, and to hold such an important position at such a young age, we could only imagine what else he would have achieved in life,” says Anthony J. D’Ambrosio, executive vice president of Tourneau, the United States’ largest watch retailer.

Keith Rosen, formerly general manager of Tourneau’s original New York location, will succeed Bell as director of the Time Machine.

Pierre-Andre Aellen, 51, was a former product manager at Omega in Switzerland until the early 1990s. An accomplished watch designer, Aellen reportedly contributed to the design of the Omega Constellation watch. Aellen, a resident of Le Landeron, Switzerland, was owner of Aellen Création et Development SA. Aellen’s colleague Jacques Munari also died in the crash. Munari, the brother of Chagal president Carlo Munari, was executive director of La Chaux de Fonds, Switzerland-based Siam Diffusion, a dial manufacturer.

Aellen and Munari, who was also in his early 50s, visited with Wittnauer International during their trip to the United States.

Sadly and ironically, Breitling’s Christian Schweizer was the chief pilot for the Swiss air rescue organization. He had logged more than 10,500 flight hours before the World War II fighter aircraft he was piloting crashed in the Swiss Alps. Says Breitling’s Theodore Schneider, “With this tragedy, Breitling not only loses a first-rate ambassador, but also a true friend.”

The jewelry industry lost five respected friends. And by all accounts, they will not be forgotten.


Gray Strikes a Pose

This fall, gray days are very likely – in weather and in fashion. Gray is so prevalent on the fashion scene, it can be called the “gray hot” color of the moment. And if the pages of Vogue magazine’s monstrous fall fashion issue are any indication, gray will dominate in the United States – which naturally means gray-dial watches are also set to take off.

Retailers shouldn’t get caught off guard this holiday season by stocking bright summer colors that trickle into fall showcases. Test the waters with a little gray and see if consumers bite. Vogue devoted 17 pages to gray in its September issue. And the watch industry generally follows apparel trends.

Gray is a perfect complement to today’s popular steel watches. Boring no longer, it brightens up the chic black look of recent years. Plus, this neutral color is versatile enough to match a wide range of wardrobes. Gray also stands out from all the black-and-white dials in the showcase, which continue to sell without necessarily turning consumer heads. So consider changing up to excite your customers with gray.

“Gray is the new black,” says New York fashion designer Pilar.

Some watch companies have already jumped the gun by experimenting with gray dials. Breitling, a trend leader, offers gray in a variety of its collections, including in the Chronomat GT, Wings, Intruder, and Aerospace timepieces. Omega’s new GMT has a gray dial with a thick rubber deployant strap or Seamaster bracelet. Omega’s X-33 also has a grayish dial.

Alfex of Switzerland recently introduced a rectangular men’s steel watch with gray or black dial – a design by George Plum. Tag Heuer’s Kirium Ti5 features a gray carbon fiber dial that complements the lightweight titanium case and vulcanized rubber strap. Chaumet has also gotten into the gray game.

These are just a few watch companies giving new meaning to the term “gray market” – suggesting color, not illegitimacy. Will the gray trend last beyond the holidays? Its lasting power remains to be seen. However, Vogue wouldn’t devote 17 pages to a future fad. Regardless, retailers should keep an open eye to the style of the times – because America is primed for a love affair with gray.

Sector Is Alive and Kicking

Widespread rumors of Sector’s demise are false, says brand president Hal Wilensky. The death watch arose following the recent centralization of all Sector marketing at the company’s home base in Milan, Italy.

One casualty of the downsizing was Jonathan Nettelfield, the marketing guru who guided Sector’s “No Limits” extreme sports campaign in the United States. He is no longer with the company. Still, the cutback comes as a surprise because Sector is a watch brand centered on extreme sports marketing. In a letter seeking to reassure its retailers, Sector promised to continue a lasting partnership, which includes Sector’s in-store boutiques.

Rumors about Sector’s fate have circulated for years because the brand has gone through several product relaunches and price changes. The brand’s 1998 sales are running even with 1997’s, says Wilensky – although it terminated business with large chains such as Service Merchandise and J.C. Penney.

“We’re growing within the channels of distribution we’ve targeted, which are independents, chain jewelers, and some department stores,” Wilensky says. “I believe these are the correct channels of distribution for a Swiss brand in the medium price point. You can’t play both sides of the fence because then it means your brand is always available through an advertised discount.”

Sector is still in business, despite rumors sparked by marketing downsizing.

Taking Sides

Genender International is on the move again. The Wheeling, Ill., company signed an exclusive three-year agreement with Cherokee Inc. to design, manufacture, and sell watches bearing the latter company’s Side Out name. Cherokee, based in Van Nuys, Calif., has licensing agreements in several product categories, including family apparel, fashion accessories, home textiles, luggage, cosmetics, and footwear.

The affordable Side Out watches will hit major retailers this spring. Information on the styling, price point, and terms has not been disclosed.

These new Side Out watches are not to be confused with Side Watches, a new line designed by André Le Marquand and distributed by Beverly Hills, Calif.-based Sportime Watches. Side Watches are bold and colorful and rest on the side of the wrist so wearers don’t have to flip their wrists to read the time. Inspired by the futuristic design of scooter vehicles, these Swiss-made watches feature a carbon fiber design. Side Watches appeal to young followers of fashion, and lovers of extreme sports or fun leisure pursuits.

If Side Watches and Side Out watches cross paths at the same retailers, confusion is likely to occur. So get ready to choose sides.

Tennis, Anyone?

The U.S. Open Championships weren’t kind to boyhood chums Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi, as both lost before the finals. But both showed their appreciation to fans at separate events on behalf of watch companies. Sampras, the world’s No. 1 player, signed autographs for more than 400 fans at Macy’s Herald Square on behalf of Movado. Agassi cohosted Swiss Army’s unofficial player’s party for 500 people at the All Star Cafe. Earlier, Swiss Army hosted the Andre Agassi Foundation Adventure Tour’s clinic at the Central Park Tennis Center. Top, Sampras lends his name to Movado’s marketing efforts. Right, Agassi poses with children at the clinic.

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