FEATURE: Tales of the unexpected

What happens when a watch brand becomes far more successful, far more quickly than it ever planned on being?

This is the situation that oversized Dutch brand TW Steel found itself in during the years after it burst onto the scene and took the industry by storm back in 2005. It had found a niche – specifically in producing almost unfathomably large timepieces – and was the epitome of edgy and cool.

The problem with being different and loud and suddenly also ‘in vogue’ is that, almost unintentionally, you can become really rather popular. TW Steel found itself, in relative terms at least, to be flavour of the day and selling enormous volumes of watches.

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Formula One and MotoGP sponsorships followed, along with celebrity brand ambassadors being signed up, including popstar Kelly Rowland and motor racing legend David Coulthard. The signs of success were everywhere, so what could possibly have been the problem?

In a nutshell, the fickle world of fashion and trends moved on. Although sales figures (here in the UK at least) have always remained solid and stable, TW Steel found itself struggling to remember what had made it such a sensation in the first place. A ship that is rudderless and struggling to locate its destination will come a cropper sooner or later.

This is exactly why co-founder Jordy Cobelens has stepped in to reconnect the brand with its original DNA and to take things back to the basics of its original mission statement.

“When we launched TW Steel to the market we were very cool and urban and no-one had done this before in our price segment,” Cobelens explains. “And people thought we were the coolest thing around.

“But some people felt that we were going in too commercial a direction and they wanted us to bring things back to our core and do really cool things,” he continues. Note the first use from Cobelens of the word that he considers to be single most important thing about TW Steel’s ethos: ‘cool.’

Cobelens decided to take the brand back to its roots and focus on aspects that perhaps had been neglected during its meteoric rise.

“For the last couple of years we’ve done special limited edition watches with higher price points and more expensive 100-piece editions for that core group of TW steel followers that have been fans from the beginning, to offer them something exclusive.”

One such exclusive release blindsided pretty much everyone in the watch trade (and beyond) when they heard about it in April of this year. TW Steel, whose average price point is roughly £200 – £400, has produced a one-off automatic watch with a Swiss made tourbillon movement inside for 100,000 Euros. Yes, you really did read that correctly.

The watch is called Son of Time and is a fully automatic, bi-directional timepiece with 29 jewels and a three-day power reserve. Wanting to be cool and niche is one thing, but what on earth inspired Cobelens and his dad (co-founder and chief designer Jordy Cobelens) to go to this extreme?

“If you want to do something special and technical we thought that a tourbillon movement will appeal to the die-hard watch fans and watchmakers. This will make their hearts beat faster,” Cobelens enthuses. “We wanted to do something extreme on the watch level. So that was when me and my father sat down and looked at what we could do, and we thought: ‘If we’re going to do something special we have to do a tourbillon movement and we have to do a one-off limited edition.’”

No-one can argue that they’ve achieved something completely mesmeric. It flies in the face of convention and the status quo in this most staid of industries, which is surely exactly what Cobelens was hoping for. The brand seems to be more at home being loved and hated rather than being just another brick in the commercial wall.

The Son of Time watch has spawned a launch called the Maverick collection, which has been part of a wider collaboration with Numbnut Motorcycles, which custom-builds motorbikes.

Indeed, this collaborative spirit is also captured in the brand’s work with Yamaha Factory Racing, and is unmistakably an intentional route that Cobelens is taking TW Steel down. It’s not just the brand names or design expertise of these companies that he is attracted to, but the potential audience that he can reach as a result. To Cobelens, it represents a chance to shake-up TW Steel’s traditional retail strategy.

Using the Yamaha Factory Racing partnership as an example, he explains what the future might look like: “[The] Yamaha Factory Racing [collaboration] gave us access to Yamaha’s distribution platform, globally. So we sent out a briefing to our partners saying, ‘Get in touch with the local Yamaha distributor and try and sell our watches in all the Yamaha dealers.’ Because if someone comes in and is looking to buy a 10,000 Euro motorbike, he’s got his mind set on spending a lot of money. So if he then sees a watch that he likes for 400 or 500 Euros, it’s not a huge investment.

So TW Steel is not just collaborating with cool brands from other industries just to try and attract their customers into its current stockists. The hope is to also push the product to these consumers in the environments where they’re already comfortable.

“We’re constantly looking to increase our distribution without over-distributing in retail stores, so we try and create a situation where we would be the only watch brand that’s available [in a particular shop], because if you’re the only watch available in the store it means that if somebody looks at it and likes it then they have nothing to compare it with.” It may sound simplistic, but Cobelens could well be talking about a blueprint that other watch brands follow in the future.

One cannot help but doff one’s cap to Cobelens and TW Steel in general for being so proactive and progressive in their approach. The market for big, oversized watches isn’t what it was a couple of years ago and so the brand has had to rediscover itself to keep it relevant in the market.

It may seem counter-intuitive to many that a brand would deliberately go from a commercially-minded, mass-market approach to a far more niche strategy (like a rock band selling out Wembley stadium one week before performing in their local pub the next), but this is ultimately what Cobelens feels is essential for TW Steel’s longevity.

In an industry where ‘brand’ is everything, TW Steel has repositioned itself back to where it feels most at home – unpredictable, unique and occasionally bonkers.  

This interview feature is taken from June’s WatchPro.

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