ThePuristS Interview Thierry Nataf
President & CEO of Zenith International S.A.


by Jaw
February 2003

 


(Mr. Thierry Nataf, at LVMH office in Singapore)



Mr. Thierry Nataf was appointed Chief Executive Office of ZENITH INTERNATIONAL SA, the luxury Watch Manufacture founded in 1865, based in Switzerland, as of June 11th 2001, and President of ZENITH INTERNATIONAL SA as of January 1st 2002, a company which is part of the Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy (LVMH) Group.

Mr. Nataf graduated from French and American universities as an engineer and holds several degrees in Corporate Management and Business Administration.  He has held top international executive positions for North America, Europe and other markets for Consumer Electronic Goods, Luggage, Retail and Luxury Industry. Prior to joining ZENITH INTERNATIONAL SA, he was the international Vice President of the Champagne company VEUVE CLICQUOT PONSARDIN (LVMH Group).

ZENITH, Swiss watchmakers since 1865 has shown its quality and expertise through their mythical movements, one of them being the famous “El Primero” or the “Chronomaster”, models that are among some of the most recognised Automatic Chronograph movements.


(Chronomaster Squelette, a fine Skeleton chronograph done by Schaffo, El Primero Yellow Gold, Skeleton Dial)


The Interview

TP: Since Zenith is one of the rare manufacturers of an in-house Chronograph movement, I have always considered Zenith as possessing potential. However, other than supplying movements to other manufacturers, the product range of Zenith was generally considered being unexciting in the “Pre-Nataf” days. What went wrong?

TN: The Manufacture ZENITH was established in 1865 and lived through more than a glorious century-long period of impressive success.  Then, for a certain number of years, we devoted our efforts to the service of the most prestigious watch companies by making mechanical movements for other brands.  Entirely focused on this activity, we tended to forget ourselves...

From Basel 2002 onwards, we felt the desire to reassert our identity and thus began our Renaissance, by seeking to express the spirit of the brand, by combining tradition and modernity in our designs and our movements, and by making our proprietary Manufacture watches, a blend of craftsmanship and know-how, into unique watches that have their own style and are unlike any others.

TP: Why do you think LVMH bought Zenith? How does Zenith fit into the broader picture, strategically speaking?

TN: LVMH was attracted by this fabulous Manufacture, its know-how, its equipment and its watchmakers. LVMH, being the first luxury group in the world  has always been drawn to  the unique  beauty of luxury goods companies and has developed a talent in revealing and helping the world discover "sleeping beauties”.  Several Brands of our group such as Veuve Cliquot are vibrant proof of this capacity. Applying the luxury codes that the group handles so well to the century-old tradition of a Manufacture such as ZENITH was an appealing challenge.  Finally, ZENITH, as a brand specializing in mechanical Haute Horlogerie, was a perfect addition to the portfolio of watch brands held by LVMH.

TP: I heard you were born in North Africa? And I have been told that you are Italian, French or Swiss by different people at different times. What is the real story? Can you elaborate on your background and how it has moulded you as a person and a good corporate leader?

TN: The story is a very simple one. I was born in North Africa, and I am coming from a very international family and I have lived and worked in different part of the world. That naturally means I feel like a citizen of the world.  Thanks to this international context, I now speak several languages.  I soon developed an entrepreneurial spirit running a fashion business and soon after I finished my engineering studies, and armed with a doctorate in marketing and corporate management, I began working for Thomson Multimedia, which had just acquired the TV, video-camera and VCR  business of the General Electric group.  I worked in this field between the United States, Canada, Italy, UK and France.  This activity drew the attention of some people and I found myself vice-president of Delsey, the Luggage Company and then King Fischer, a leading name in the retail trade, entrusted me with its multimedia division.  I then took the helm at Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin, number two in the champagne business. And now, ZENITH, the  mythical Swiss Watch Manufacture!


(Class Elite Dual Time, Dual Time with Date)

TP: You have acquired vast experience in the luxury industry prior to Zenith, but none dealing in technical watches. Is it a serious handicap for you?

TN: I am fortunate to have been trained as an engineer, which helps me considerably in the area of production and the construction of mechanical watch movements.  Above all, on a personal level, I have always been a devotee of watchmaking and a collector, well before becoming President of ZENITH.  I am therefore well acquainted with this very special world of mechanical watches.  What's more, I have an extremely efficient team of specialists.

Professional life is somewhat like a movement from a fine Manufacture; it is built step by step and each part, each experience from the past helps in building the future.

But as you already know, the world of mechanical watches is also the school of modesty and the world of humility, each day you discover something new that was discovered before your time and learn something you do not know !

TP: You are the CEO since 11th June 2001 and the President since 2002. How do you think the company has changed since?

TN: My work consists in restoring ZENITH to the splendour it enjoyed in the early 19th century, the time when it was called "La Grande Maison".

Capitalising on the know-how and craftsmanship of the Manufacture and the heads of its various teams, I have set  back up the passion of watch-making blending both faithful employees who pass on the ZENITH tradition, and newcomers who fall in love with “La Grande Maison”.

Like the Phoenix, ZENITH is in the midst of a spectacular rebirth in terms both of movements, watches and image.  Combining tradition & modernity, art and craftship, and luxury, we are creating  legendary models such as the ChronoMaster XT, the Grande Class Star Collection or the Grande Port Royal, equipped with mythical movements such as the fabulous El Primero or Elite movements.

A superb book, call  ZENITH, the Collection- a genuine art book dedicated to all our watches and our house- summarised that Re-Foundation and  is available on request on our new web site www.zenith-watches.com.

TP: How involved are you in the product development process?

TN: I am extremely and personally involved in developing new products, at the head of a small team, called the ZENITH design studio. It is essential for our Manufacture to research for perfect movements, to create and design watches that are unique, full of  beauty, emotion and that seduce watch lovers.

We try to reach perfection, but like the horizon, the more we progress, the more we realise, it is a very long way to reach perfection.

But we and our watchmakers are like artists, we try to make our dreams come true.


(Grande Class El Primero, Black Guilloche dial)

TP: I am impressed with the number of new models in such a short time; I believe Zenith designs and quality have improved since you took the helm. However, a technical break-through piece is still lacking.  Can we expect more in this aspect?

TN: In 2002, we launched no less than 14 new models, representing 52 different references.  These new ranges delighted our customers, particularly the large-size models such as the Chronomaster XT, the Grande Class or the Grande Port Royal El Primero.  The new versions of El Primero with complications, moon-phases, triple calendar, flyback (El Primero 4001 – El Primero 4009) or the new double-counter harmony of El Primero 4002, in tribute to the 1930s, or a new Elite Power Reserve automatic (Elite 685), have already surprised connoisseurs in terms of the technical feats they represent.

But you are right, and we are working on break-through pieces and several new launches are in the pipeline. You will have the opportunity to discover some of them at Basel 2003.  Be patient and you will not be disappointed.

TP: You raised your retail prices sharply this year; why? Do you think Zenith has priced itself out of the market?

TN: When one considers that it takes more than 10 people, almost a year to make an El Primero movement, and that such a product calls for 5,500 successive manual production phases, that each part of the watch, case, dial, hands…are tailored made, one realises that the current price is more than justified.  All work deserves its reward.  Moreover, the increase in price has been accompanied by considerable improvements to the product.  Just one example; our new folding clasps. Previously, a gold buckle weighed 3 grams. Today, our buckles weigh no less than 25 grams of gold... if I am not mistaken. All this means that the repositioning in ZENITH prices corresponds both to market reality and to the real beauty of our  watches.


(Grand Port Royal, El Primero)

TP: Your relentless effort has been very visible and you are certainly creative and bold, but has it been financially rewarding? Has it met your expectations?

TN: You know, there is something magical about ZENITH !

In the autumn 2002 collection, we devoted particular attention in the Chronomaster XT, the Grande Class Star Collection or the Grande Port Royal, all equipped with new versions of El Primero, to blending our known-how as a great traditional Manufacture with a new sense of style and spirit never yet seen in these kind of watches.

The success we are having drives us to continue.  Given the current economic climate, the end-of-year sell-out is extremely encouraging.

I must also take my hat off to our network of retailers, who are our best ambassadors, and who have been able to convey this passion intact to the final customers!

The Renaissance strategy of the Manufacture ZENITH is proving profitable, from New York to Paris and from Tokyo to Singapore.

And finally, thank you to all the watch lovers of the world, our clients that have appreciated all the hard work we have done.

We have now a important responsibility on our shoulders, and  will have again to surprise and seduce again with the new Collection 2003-2004 that we will present at Basel, in the spring 2003.


(Zenith In-house movements)

TP: How autonomous are Zenith and you? And how involved is LVMH in the running of Zenith?

TN: The brands within the LVMH group enjoy tremendous autonomy, since we are convinced that this is one of the keys to success.  Each brand thus has the opportunity to be itself, to develop its own strategies, its product lines and its specific identity.  That is perfectly right to me: in the genuine luxury world, clients do not want a standard product, but a watch that has something unique. It is a great chance to belong to LVMH.

TP: Do you think you have met LVMH’s expectations thus far? Is there a lot of undue pressure to meet their financial objectives?

TN: When you have beautiful products, they sell. Customers are happy, and so are we. Since we are meeting our goals despite the international economic climate, there is no cause for concern.  The pressure I feel is that which I place on myself, since I always aim higher, larger and towards even greater beauty.

TP: Zenith movements are still in Panerai, LouisVuitton and Tag Heuer watches. Will Zenith continue to be a movement supplier?

TN: Our strategy consists of refocusing on our own brand, and we will gradually cease supplying other brands, based on agreements made with the latter and according to a schedule that has already been negotiated. In exceptional cases, such as the limited series "Tambour" line by Louis Vuitton, we may envisage providing movements. To take this specific example, we were chosen from among other suppliers, not because we are part of the same group, but because a sophisticated comparative study convinced Louis Vuitton that the El Primero movement is quite simply the finest integrated chronograph on the market.


(Chronomaster Baroque Skeleton done by Schaffo)

TP: Your watches could not be sold in the US in the past due to an alleged Trade-mark problem with the Zenith brand. What is the real story? How was it resolved?

TN: This was a problem with respect to the use of the ZENITH trademark, which had been registered in the United States by another company.  But the problem has now been completely resolved and we have a ZENITH subsidiary in New York since 2002.

TP: How are Zenith watches doing in US now?

TN: America is America !

From 5th avenue in New York, to Rodeo Drive in Los Angeles, ZENITH is back. The US market is one of the most prestigious markets for mechanical watches, with a strong base of ZENITH fans and supporters.

I do believe that in the years to come, the US market will be one of the most important markets in the world for us.

TP: We heard you will be launching the Chronomaster Perpetual Calendar at Basel 2003; can you confirm this? If so, any details you can share?

TN: You are well informed... We are indeed planning to launch an El Primero Perpetual Calendar model in 2003.
This new model will be outstanding; beauty of the mechanism, design of the case, perfection of the dial, unique hands…a new star icon!

You will be able to judge for yourself at Basel.

TP: Who do you think is a Zenith owner?

TN: We have various types of customer. The aficionados, whether famous or not, have always loved the brand. They encourage us and write to tell us of the pride they feel in returning to the brand of their first watchmaking love. Our new customers are particularly interested in the new lines, which offer such a subtle blend of modern styling and traditional watchmaking know-how. The typical ZENITH customer is indeed fascinated by the art of horology, but is above all a person of culture with a love of contemporary art and literature, capable of being stirred both at the wheel of an Aston Martin or when contemplating a sculpture by Brancusi. The exceptional appeals to him, not only in the objects he gives to others, but also for himself: he wants to be different. In our world based on appearances, he remains deeply attached to things that are genuine and authentic, while also capable of giving into snobbism when circumstances require. In a word, he is an aesthete that appreciates true beauty.

And, as you probably know, the sentence of the philosopher Plato drives my action at the Manufacture ZENITH: Beauty is the splendour of the true!

TP: What is your favourite Zenith and non-Zenith watch? Why?

TN: At ZENITH, I love them all. The Chronomaster, for its elegance and the tradition it represents; the Class, for its understated elegance and purity, and the Port Royal for its taut lines and resolutely dynamic look.  The other Haute Horlogerie brands each have at least one product that appeals to me, so I do not wish to choose between them...but my heart, beating at 36 000 alternances / hour belong to ZENITH !


(Chronomaster XT, El Primero 43mm Flyback Chrono, Guilloche Silver Dial, Red Gold)

TP: You are a busy man with many things on your hands; how do you cope with stress?

TN: I see time as a friend. For me, time as it passes is my ally, since it builds, enhances and improves both people and things. This idea helps me to stay "zen"; what could be more logical when one is President of ZENITH?

TP: What do you think about ThePuristS.com?

TN: It is an extremely interesting site, which is addressed specifically to the kind of aesthete I have just described.

TP: You just arrived yesterday, and I heard you are leaving for the airport now. Thank you for allocating these precious few hours despite your very tight schedule! On behalf of the Purists and all our readers, I thank you!

TN: Thank you!

Jaw


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