With Porsche Design watches now fully under the control of the carmaker of the same name, it is looking to bring a whole new mindset to its watchmaking. We spoke to chief technical officer Rolf Bergmann to find out more.
By Chris Hall
Porsche Design watches have had a bumpy ride in the last few years. From 1998 until 2014 they were manufactured by Eterna, who had the rights to produce watches under the Porsche Design name. Confusingly enough Eterna was actually owned by the Porsche family, who sold it to China Haidian (now CityChamp) in 2011, letting the Porsche Design license go with it.
Under China Haidian it felt like little attention was paid to the brand, and while the products were not by any means terrible – they continued to adhere to a look we would all associate with the Porsche Design name, housing modified ETA movements – the message wasn’t really getting across. In hindsight, it was standing still while others pushed ahead.
Eterna divested itself of the Porsche Design rights in 2014, and after a few more years of the wider world generally wondering what’s going on, we now have arrived at a situation that is, at least, simple. Porsche Design is wholly owned by Porsche SE (as it has been since 2007), and Porsche Design watches are being produced “in-house” (not in the manufacture sense) at a factory in Solothurn.
What this means to you, the consumer, is that the watches and the cars are – ultimately – under the same roof, and sharing more than just a brand name. Under the guidance of chief technical officer Rolf Bergmann, we are seeing a crossover of personnel, experience, materials, techniques and marketing like never before. Indeed, Bergmann himself has worked for Porsche A.G (that’s the carmaker) for more than a decade. We went to Porsche HQ in Stuttgart to find out what he has got planned.
He opens boldly, with the matter-of-fact statement that “To sum it up, we are focussed on putting the Porsche mindset into the watch world.”
That translates as an increase in both overall quality and attention to detail – exemplified so far by the in-house chronograph which surfaced without warning a few weeks ago. You can read the full details here but suffice to say, on the wrist it’s a cut above recent efforts. Plenty of detail and texture to the dial construction; water-cut leather straps that match the cars’ seat leather, and of course a flyback calibre underneath.
If that’s piqued your interest, you’ll have to open your chequebook a bit further than you might imagine. The 500 flyback chronographs are only on offer to customers of the Porsche 911 Turbo S exclusive edition – and in typically practical fashion, they will only make as many as they need to. “They may not all choose to buy the watch”, admits Bergmann [it’s a €9,950 option when you buy the car], “so we will see how many we end up making.”
This model brings its own difficulties. “We are doing each one to order, which makes it difficult when, for example, we are talking about ordering dials from our supplier. We’re not like other companies where you order hundreds of dials and can afford to throw a few away if they’re not good enough. We’re ordering what we need. Part of the Porsche mindset is educating suppliers so we get the quality we want.” Bringing the Porsche mindset seems to also entail a certain degree of bloody-mindedness, it seems.
So what does the existence of this chrono mean for the brand? Is Porsche Design having a tilt at the next level up – the ultra-competitive £5,000 – £10,000 market? Not necessarily, says Bergmann. “The aim is not to be 100% in-house. The watch industry can do many things perfectly well – if we need a three-hand movement, we can buy that from elsewhere.”
But he confirms they are working on other in-house calibers, and says that we could see a full-production chronograph using this movement at Baselworld 2018.
“We will focus on doing things that aren’t being done at the moment – like this in-house flyback chrono in titanium, for example. And we will only do things that make sense for Porsche customers – we won’t spend time making something complicated like an annual calendar, for example, because that’s not the kind of thing our customers want from us.”
“I don’t think we have a specific direct competitor – yes, there are lots of watches between £2,000 and £5,000, but we are not out to be copying Rolex or Omega. Look at a watch like the Monobloc Actuator; it’s very different from what they’re doing.”
Precise details on who is doing the heavy lifting for Porsche Design are still unclear – the brand hasn’t invested in an entire production line.
“The factory in Solothurn is small – we have about 20 employees”, says Bergmann. “It’s primarily assembly and quality control, and we put a lot of thought into that side of things. Quality control is really important for us; we actually have more engineers than watchmakers.”
When pressed, he says they are making “five figures” a year. My hunch is it’s towards the low end of that range. “More interesting than the number of watches we are making is the quantity of variables that we can provide for people. There’s a nearly unlimited range.”
I try to clarify what’s on offer in terms of customisation – does it extend right down to the simple three-hand models? There’s never been much indication these watches could be given a personal touch. Bergmann is slightly vague on this point – “It depends on what’s possible, and the costs.”
It also depends where you buy the watch. “The work we can do with retailers is different [more limited] from what we can do with Porsche car dealerships.” The latter are seen by Porsche Design as holding great potential for sales, but Bergmann doesn’t close the door to working with more high street retailers, although seems more enthused about limited runs.
“Something else we can do is limited run special editions – we’re very open to that. Say with the Porsche owners club in a particular market, we can do it from 10 pieces upwards. We’ve done something similar recently with a Mexican partnership.”
One thing is clear: Bergmann feels there is plenty the Swiss watch industry can learn from a giant like Porsche.
“I don’t want to be negative about other watch brands in particular, but yes, I was a bit shocked when I came into the industry. We have a lot of colleagues now from other watch brands and the systems are very different. When you ask me what the watch industry could learn from the car industry, I could talk for hours!”
“In terms of processes, the watch industry is quite a few years behind. The car industry today can fulfil things in vastly different ways – it’s something the watch industry can really learn from.”
“For example, the way we work with our suppliers, the processes of thinking, in terms of logistics, planning etc.
“Also we have copied our development process from car making. We pursue a philosophy of simultaneous engineering: a car takes maybe 45-50 months to make from scratch. We start, and all branches work in parallel – production, engineering, everyone. Over a 30 month engineering timetable we have 9 separate milestones in the process, and at each one we have a checklist for what needs to have been achieved. We make sure all are fulfilled before we move on; it’s all about having these checks.
“We do a lot more work at the beginning of the process – it’s really loaded towards the front of the timetable. We choose our suppliers during the design stage, rather than designing something and then saying ‘right, who can make this for us?’ That way we know we can get what we want; it avoids trouble.”
Another aspect of the Porsche mindset is to allocate a huge amount of time for testing. A mantra I hear several times is that they like to under-promise and over-deliver [indeed, this seems to be an unofficial Porsche motto]. Certainly this is Porsche’s reputation with cars – performance statistics tend to be on the conservative side.
“For instance, we made nine changes to the design of the Monobloc Actuator due to problems revealed in testing. A chronograph pusher, people say, should be tested for 3,000 uses. Well, if you boil an egg every day for a year and a half, you’ll have done that. We tested it 10,000 times, and then carried on going beyond that.”
“We set up our production line in conjunction with car experts as well – taking the setup from Porsche AG. It’s what’s called a fishbone set-up, where elements feed in from both sides towards the central spine of production.”
In terms of how Porsche Design’s other product range fits into the picture, he says that the watches should “serve as a spotlight onto the other products. It’s important for us to have this for ourselves.”
Speaking to others at PD the impression is clear that they will be working on projects that align with Porsche Motorsport before long – something which, on the face of it, would call into question the existing relationship with Chopard. It’s clear now that Porsche Design’s ambitions are to draw heavily from the car brand on a technological front, not just an aesthetic one, developing watches that reflect Porsche AG’s expertise in material design and engineering. But asking Rolf, he won’t be drawn on the idea that Porsche’s in-house watch brand could edge out its more glamorous rival. “Chopard’s partnership is a very different approach. It’s a simple normal motorsport sponsorship, a very straightforward deal.”