Swatch president Arlette-Elsa Emch has been climbing the corporate ladder at the group since she switched track from a career in journalism 20 years ago. She tells Kathryn Bishop about her journey to the top and how she went about launching the CK brand from scratch.
Arlette-Elsa Emch, president of CK Watches & Jewelry, sits in a white-walled gallery space in Zurich, surrounded by guests; perhaps the perfect setting for the boss of the watch offshoot of a brand famed for its minimalist design aesthetic.
The guests in question are here to preview the brand’s new collection of watches and jewellery; a celebration of 15 years of contemporary design and a personal milestone for Emch, who has overseen the CK brand development from its very beginnings back in 1997.
The new products on display in Zurich are the latest output from a brand that Emch says has defied the odds in recent years; a statement that is backed up by Swatch’s latest full-year report. In recent months it has opened its first standalone spaces, selecting the UK for this honour, and continues to boast good sell-through in the market for affordable watches from a trusted brand name.
Emch has presided over the CK watch brand from day one, overseeing the growth of its customer base and pushing it into new markets. But Emch not only made a new brand successful, she actually built up CK brick by brick from a completely blank canvas relatively early in her career in the watch industry.
Emch has not always worked in the watch business; instead she started out as a journalist reporting for newspapers, magazines and radio stations. But a career in the media soon lost its appeal for Emch, and it would just so happen that as she was looking around for her next move fate dealt her a timely hand when she was asked to interview a senior member of the Swatch Group team.
Emch was so impressed by what she learned in the interview that she decided she wanted to work for the group and so set about looking for a way in. At this point it was the early 1990s and methods of job hunting were somewhat different to today’s so Emch decided to use the connection she had made during her media interview. “I wrote him a letter and said what I wanted to do,” she recalls. That Swatch executive offered Emch a role and in 1992 she joined Swatch Group as communications manager, where she made an immediate impact. “I started out responsible for the communications,” she explains. “I made and created an annual report and was then asked to make a newspaper and so I made the Swatch World Journal.”
But soon Emch wanted more responsibility, and so approached the directors at Swatch about a new route within the company – that of taking over a brand. At first, Emch’s request was denied but a year later she received a call to say that Swatch had found a brand that she could take over. The only problem was that it wasn’t quite a brand yet.
“They called me and said ‘OK, now we have a brand, we have signed with Calvin Klein, we have to start from scratch and you know fashion, you like fashion’,” she remembers.
Swatch placed everything in Emch’s hands and told her to begin. “They said ‘OK start, go, but if you want to be successful, we want to have the watches on the market for the Christmas season’,” Emch recalls. “They meant at the end of October, beginning of November, and it was February.”
Once Emch recovered from the realistation that the group was serious about the timeline, she accepted the challenge and in 1997 became president of CK watches. Today she is still responsible for the brand as well as plastic watch brand Swatch, and is also responsible for Swatch Group’s operations in Japan and South Korea.
Upon accepting the president role, while Emch was pleased with her promotion, she suddenly realised the scale of challenge that was before her and began to marvel at where to start. “I said what to do? Where can I start? What can I do? Nothing existed then, nothing at all, not the people, not the brand, nothing. So I created a team.”
Emch travelled to New York where she met fashion designer Calvin Klein, then head of the eponymous fashion brand that had lent its name to Swatch’s newest venture, and had what she calls a “fabulous meeting”, leading to the very first watch collection that was created back in Switzerland.
Working with such a well-regarded global fashion brand does throw up a number of questions, however, such as was Emch expected to design in collaboration with the styles seen on Calvin Klein runways, or did she have free reign over the design of the watches?
“When I went to New York I spent a whole day with Calvin,” she recalls. “I said to him, explain to me your world through the accessories and the details of the belts, for example, which give you ideas.”
During their time together, Klein told Emch that she needed to be modern with her interpretation of the brand into timepieces. “Modern for him was the most important part. He said ‘I want you to be modern, contemporary and minimalistic’.”
Luckily for Emch, who herself dresses in a minimal style – on the day we meet, she has matched a shift dress with a classic jacket, both in muted colours – it wasn’t too much of a problem for her to understand Klein’s vision for the watch brand. “You can’t do [minimal] if you don’t believe in it,” she says. “You need to like it also.”
The watch designs have also been inspired by Emch’s love of art, and she says that as a teenager she would often visit the local modern art gallery for inspiration, where she was in awe of the artworks she saw. As a 20-something in her very first job she was trusted to buy a small collection of artwork for her boss, having encouraged him to invest in art. Today, she says, that very collection is worth a small fortune.
The CK watch brand has developed well over its first 15 years, and here in the UK it is an accessible fashion watch brand that retails from £95, offering a combination of Swiss-made quartz and automatic timepieces that can be found in retailers including Ernest Jones and Goldsmiths, as well as a network of independent retailers.
The first CK Watch & Jewelry boutique in the world opened on London’s South Molton Street in 2008 and in the final quarter of last year the brand opened two new standalone kiosks at Westfield Stratford and Brent Cross shopping malls in London.
“We opened the kiosk and shop-in-shop [spaces] because I am convinced that, especially in the UK where distribution of watches is one of the most difficult in the world, together with the US, we need to be in our own environment,” she explains. “You can only sell something well if you like it, so we have started to sell through our own shop-in-shops and our own kiosk, and this works very good.”
With a successful Christmas 2011 for CK watches, Emch says the secret to its success has, in the main, been due to its affordability and brand appeal. “We make it a point to offer great quality Swiss-made watches at affordable prices. Luxury and beauty should be reachable by anyone, not only by people with greater means.”
While the recession has been tough on some mid-level fashion watch brands that have had to adapt collections and trim SKUs to keep ranges streamlined, CK is one brand that claims to have continued to perform well.
“When people have fewer means or are on a budget they go for quality and we’re really perfect for this time,” says Emch. “We have been fortunate not to suffer since the crisis of 2009. We have been able to take market share because of our quality.”
For retailers, knowing that the globally recognised Calvin Klein name is backed by the experience and market hold of Swatch Group has added to its success. In China, for example, where branded goods are king, Emch says sales have been very good, appealing to consumers who want to “show off their looks” with branded items that are minimal and stylish.
As a way to celebrate the watch brand’s 15th anniversary it has created a special edition watch with an eye-catching design called the Cogent, which retails for £350 and is limited to 2,000 pieces. The timepiece, Emch says, pays homage to New York city and its towering buildings of glass and steel. Its design is also something not found in a typical fashion watch and while the dial and strap maintain the minimal look that a CK watch strives for, its towering glass case adds a new feel to the brand’s offer – something a little edgier and urban.
“We decided to create [the 15th anniversary watch] with Calvin and his team because it is an expression of the city and its transparency. Its buildings, its glass; it seems to be fragile but it’s not,” explains Emch. Indeed, the all-glass case does make it appear delicate but four chunky steel screws add strength and a look of cool modernity. “I think it’s a really beautiful watch,” Emch beams.
While Emch and her team worked directly with Calvin Klein on this watch, it is usually up to her team to extract inspiration from the fashion brand rather than to collaborate, and to do this they attend Calvin Klein catwalks to keep in sync with its current themes. “We go two or three times a year to New York to see the accessories and colours [of Calvin Klein clothing], and again it can be the detail of a belt or an eyeglass that gives you inspiration,” says Emch.
This year the brand has added touches of rose gold PVD to its watch and jewellery collections, teaming the rose hue typically associated with haute horology watches with brown leather straps and chronograph dials with a brushed finish. The brand also has a number of smart automatics in its range called the Calvin Klein Collection that retail for upwards of £1,000.
In the main, however, the new lines remain true to the brand’s roots. The watches appear to play on architectural structures – its Agile watch, for example, is reminiscent of suspension bridges, made using steel cable – while sweeping curves, clean lines and polished finishes maintain CK’s minimalist look. Even the Art Deco era is referenced with a sunburst-style dial adorning its Original timepieces.
“We try to go with tendencies and trends and try to style with them in our way,” explains Emch. “We have now done the minimal look for 15 years; we are a fashion brand and that’s a long time in fashion. [A CK watch] is really something that you can keep for a long time but it can also be your first watch.”
It is hard to fault Emch’s drive. She has created a global brand in the two decades she has worked with Swatch Group while simultaneously overseeing a number of its other brands and raising a family. But she waves a hand and dismisses the idea of her route to the top as an impressive rise. “Oh it’s life,” she says with a smile and flash of a smart white CK watch.
This article was taken from the April 2012 issue of WatchPro magazine, out now. To view a digital version of the magazine click here.