A Swiss watchmaker favored by a number of mid-20th century American presidents is looking to take advantage of that heritage to return to the United States. Recently, Elite Traveler Editor-in-Chief Douglas Gollan drove up the hillside of Le Locle in Switzerland’s watchmaking wonderland—neighbors include Ulysse Nardin, Zenith and Christophe Claret—to meet with Vulcain CEO Bernard Fleury and talk about his plans for the company.
ET: The story of Vulcain is quite a long one.
Bernard Fleury: It is 152 years long, and it includes significant accomplishments. Vulcain is the God of Fire in Roman mythology and was founded by an Alsace family. They started with pocket and pendant watches and won a prize for their Minute Repeater Pocket Chronometer at the Paris World Exhibition in 1889, celebrating the inauguration of the Eiffel Tower. In 1893 they won a prize for complicated watches at the Chicago World Expo. While today we get on a plane and can be halfway around the world in 12 hours, it must have really been something to make the trip all the way from here in the Swiss mountains across the Atlantic and then all the way to Chicago, but they did it and they won. I think that shows that they had an amazing amount of confidence in what they were doing. Today it is popular for watches to have associations with sports teams. In 1934, Vulcain was named the “official watch” of the Real Madrid football team, which won the Spanish championship that year. Again, I think it shows the innovation that has always been part of the company.
ET: The innovation that many associate with Vulcain is the alarm function.
Bernard Fleury: Yes. It goes back to 1947 when we launched the Vulcain Cricket, the first alarm wristwatch. It sounds like a cricket and it was launched at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City. It is a sophisticated complication.
ET: And was that the start of your history with American presidents?
Bernard Fleury: Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Johnson and Nixon all became customers. President Johnson bought over 200 for his personal collection and he also gave Vulcain watches to important visitors to the White House with his initials on the dials. We recently presented a Vulcain watch to President Obama and received a very nice thank you, so we continue the bond with presidents of the United States. From the late ‘40s to the mid-‘70s Vulcain was a significant player, especially in the U.S., and we now want to be known again in your country.
ET: Tell us about the company’s more recent history.
Bernard Fleury: I relaunched the company in 2001 and today we produce about 5,000 pieces per year, so we have some scale but are still a niche player. At the end of 2009 we merged with Excellence Holding. We were making our own movements and calibers in-house, and we do everything locally because you go out the door here and there are people who know what they are doing when it comes to anything and everything to do with watches. However we didn’t have enough money to expand the brand, so Excellence provides that opportunity. They own Les Ambassadeurs [a leading Swiss retailer with locations in Geneva, Lugano, St. Moritz and Zurich] and already we are seeing benefits from being sold there. It’s good to have heritage and history. You can develop and create the most beautiful timepieces in the world, but you also need to be able to communicate what you are doing, and now we have the backing to do that.
ET: And is there any other news?
Bernard Fleury: This spring we launched the Anniversary Heart Automatic with or without a date display, the new Golden Heart with a remarkable anthracite-coated Cricket caliber featuring meticulous finishing, and an extreme model, aptly named Cricket X-Treme Automatic Air Force 1 “All Black,” which plays the stealth watch while reveling in the attention it attracts.