Raymond Weil, Whose Swiss Watches Told More Than Time, Dies at 87
Swiss watch companies had dominated the world of precision timekeeping for two centuries by the 1970s, when a technological marvel known as the quartz watch — a cheaper, more accurate work of horology mass-produced in Asia — threatened them with extinction.
Between 1970 and 1983, as watch buyers abandoned windup mechanical timepieces for digital ones, the Swiss lost half their watch companies, two-thirds of their watchmaking jobs and their unrivaled authority as the world’s most reliable timekeepers. Industry analysts called it the “quartz crisis.”
Raymond Weil, who died at 87 on Jan. 26 in Geneva, started a watch company that bore his name in the midst of all that, joining a watchmaking vanguard that saved the nation’s signature product by redefining it.
Swiss watches had been marketed as symbols of intellectual rigor and personal integrity. Beginning in the late 1970s, Mr. Weil and major Swiss watchmakers like Nicolas G. Hayek, founder of the Swatch Group, sought to reposition them as paragons of haute fashion — “an emotional product, carrying a message about the authenticity, uniqueness and excellence of the wearer,” said Ryan L. Raffaelli, an assistant professor at the Harvard Business School who has studied the Swiss watchmaking industry.
By the late 1980s, Professor Raffaelli said, the Swiss companies still standing had followed suit.
Mr. Weil started his company in 1976, when he was 50. He began modestly, selling his first designs from a foldout bridge table in a stall in Geneva, he said in a 2011 company promotional video interview. Most people in the industry considered it a mad scheme, Professor Raffaelli said; about 800 Swiss watchmaking companies died in the 1970s.
Mr. Weil, who led the company for about 20 years, combined high-quality mechanisms produced in his own and other Swiss factories with original designs and features. He then marketed them internationally to appeal to so-called entry-level luxury buyers. In today’s dollars, entry-level luxury watches sell for $500 to $4,000. High-end luxury models cost $20,000 or more.
Mr. Weil’s line included both mechanical Swiss watches of the spring-powered, cog-and-gear type and others powered by quartz crystals, known as Swiss quartz watches. What they all had in common were their “Swiss-made” bona fides; design values that conveyed understated grace (what The Times of London characterized as a “watch with lovely manners”); and the benefit of Mr. Weil’s marketing.
Mr. Weil was also considered a pioneer in celebrity endorsement advertising. Paul McCartney, Lady Gaga, Ozzy Osbourne and Andrea Bocelli are among the stars who have been contracted to wear Raymond Weil watches exclusively for defined periods.
The company, now run by Mr. Weil’s son-in-law, Olivier Bernheim, and two grandsons, Elie and Pierre Bernheim, has become one of the most familiar of the Swiss watch brands. And in a Swiss industry with genealogies, in most cases, dating back a century or more, Raymond Weil is both the youngest and one of the few independent, family-run watchmaking concerns in the country.
Since the 1980s, Swiss watchmakers have re-established their pre-eminence, at least in terms of sales: in a 2010 study, they accounted for just over half the dollar value of all watches sold worldwide. The most expensive are Swiss mechanical watches.
Raymond Louis Weil was born in Geneva on Oct. 10, 1926. After graduating from a technical high school, he went to work for the Société Générale de Surveillance (SGS), a Swiss company that inspects and verifies the quantity, weight and quality of various goods traded around the world.
In 1949 he joined Camy Watch in Geneva and rose to general manager. He worked there for 27 years before deciding to strike out on his own, partly in frustration at his employer’s passivity in response to the quartz crisis. Camy was later bought by a Hong Kong watchmaking company.
Mr. Weil is survived by his wife, Eliane Bloch Weil, and two daughters, Diana and Anita Weil.
Professor Raffaelli said the threat posed by the 1970s crisis was existential as well as economic. “This was an industry that traced its roots to the early 1500s,” he said. “People employed in watchmaking in the 1970s had fathers, grandfathers, great-grandfathers and beyond, who had done the same work.
“Watchmaking was tied up in what it meant to be Swiss, the national sense of competence,” he said.
Mr. Weil, though not the son of a watchmaker, sensed the importance of the craft to the national identity. “He was a kind of visionary,” Professor Raffaelli said.