Behind the Scenes

By: Jonathan Bues   March 7, 2012

Last November Hamilton CEO Sylvain Dolla traveled from Switzerland to Los Angeles to preside over what has become, in a short five-year period, one of his company’s biggest media events, the Hamilton Behind the Camera Awards. Unlike other sporting, entertainment, and cultural events whose title sponsorships brands bid on, the idea for the Behind the Camera Awards germinated within the walls of the Swiss watch manufacturer Hamilton.

Over the years, through a close relationship supplying watches to Hollywood, the management of Hamilton noticed that there is a whole category of brilliant behind-the-scenes artists whose achievements are seldom recognized in a public way.
International Watch was on-hand for the awards, hosted by Isaiah Mustafa, and featuring a number of Holywood A-List presenters, among them Jon Hamm, Robert Pattinson, Antonio Banderas, and Hamilton brand ambassador Harrison Ford. But before the ceremony we sat down to talk with Mr. Dolla about the Awards, his brand, and the landscape of today’s watch market.

Can you please talk about Hamilton’s involvement with the Behind the Camera Awards?
Hamilton has been appearing in films since the 1950s, so we have a long-standing relationship with Hollywood. But we’ve always felt a special connection to the talents working behind the scenes such as costume designers and prop masters who have selected Hamilton watches for their films and have recognized the beauty and distinct style of our watches. Then five years ago, we came up with the idea for the Behind the Camera Awards. We felt that when you watch a movie, it’s really the people who work behind the camera that make us dream. They create the special effects that make the impossible, possible; they choose the props that are used in each scene that bring the story to life; and they are the costume designers who select the wardrobes that transform the actors into the characters that we love so much. But these people don’t often receive the recognition they deserve. And we thought that in a way it was quite unfair that these gifted people were not rewarded for their hard work. So we started the Hamilton Behind the Camera Awards to honor their talent and commitment. The awards are given by actors, film producers and directors who work with them. It started out small, but year after year, it has grown. Although it is quite a bit larger than it used to be, we have still managed to keep it quite intimate, offering a “family feel” so that both the honorees and the presenters feel very comfortable and personally involved with the event.

On the one hand, Hamilton is very much an aviation watch brand, but there is also the Hollywood connection. How does each of these roles complement the Hamilton watch brand?
Well, I think we are lucky because we have a very rich history linked to America that has touched various aspects of life and culture. And although they are quite different, both the Hollywood and the aviation parts of our history are part of our identity. They have both served us very well because we are so passionate about our connection to them and our timepieces have continued to evolve as a result of our involvement with them. Our work with aviation started back in the 1920s, when we started equipping planes with timing components and making watches for TWA. The aviation history is very real and very important for us. We have continued this story with aerobatic planes. We have 8 pilots who are racing with the colors of Hamilton all around the world. We have just signed a partnership with Air Zermatt, a famous and highly skilled helicopter rescue and transport company. They are the pilots who rescue skiers and alpinists when there are problems in the mountains in the Alps. We have developed a watch with them, called the Flight Timer, that gives all the functions a pilot’s watch—including a log book that will register the details of their flights. This is the only pilot’s watch on the market with an integrated log book on the dial.

Hollywood is also important for us. First there was Elvis wearing the Ventura in “Blue Hawaii.” Then we produced a futuristic wristwatch and a wall clock for “2001: A Space Odyssey.” This year we have a nice product placement on “Abduction.” We have appeared in more than 400 movies, and it’s nice, because the costume designers come to us. They know that they can rely on Hamilton.

Who is the Hamilton Watch customer?
Hamilton watches are the perfect choice for sophisticated and strong individuals who are connoisseurs and who understand and value what we put under the dial, as well as the finishing of the watch. They know the value of a Valjoux chronograph movement, for example, with nice finishing, cased up in a nice polished case of ours. Hamilton has a tradition of producing men’s watches, but also women buy our watches merely to make a statement in a man’s world.

What is most important when marketing a new watch: design, value, functions?
You answered the question! All three are critical in marketing a new watch. When we launch a new product, we first look at the design. We want it to fit into the line and be consistent with the look and feel of the rest of our line. Then we focus on the innovation. We look to create watches that not only look good, but also offer unique functionality. For example, this year we will announce the Flight Timer movement allowing multiple functionalites. We have also launched a new chronograph based on the Valjoux, which is exclusive to Hamilton. We wanted to have more than a weekend of power reserve, so we extended the power reserve to 60 hours. That brings us to the third important feature, which is value. Hamilton became in the last years the worldwide market leader for mechanical watches in the price range of $500-$1500. Our huge success during the past years is based on our unique offer for automatic, strong character watches at an unmatched “democratic” price. A few years ago, a lot of brands went up in price, but we stayed in the $500 to $1,500 price point, a great value for a Swiss-made automatic watch.

What is the top market for Hamilton?
We are very big in Japan. China is going very well. We have invested in our own shop in shops in China. Interestingly, we have decided to use the exact same communications strategy in China as we have in Europe and North America. Other companies have tried to tailor specialized Chinese-style communications strategies, but we believed that the Chinese consumer would get it if we stuck with our Elvis and Harrison Ford communications in their market. It has worked very well, because the Chinese customer appreciates the international and American touch that our brand brings. Italy is also a very big market for us. Spain continues to do well. The U.S. is obviously very important. We have focused on the best performing doors in our U.S. network and streamlined the distribution. Now we are ready to grow the right way in America, with an emphasis on shop in shops.

With which brands is Hamilton in competition?
Actually, in automatic Swiss made, $500 to $1,500, there are very few brands left. We could have made the same mistake of raising our prices that some other brands did when things were booming. But we would have run into the price range of Longines had we done so. So we kept our value and now we are growing.

What are some of the challenges facing the watch industry at the moment?
Just as it was in 2008 when the industry was booming, the challenge really is investing—investing not just in marketing but in innovations. When an industry is booming, it’s tempting to just relax and enjoy the growth. Or you can make the necessary investments to make sure that you are in a strong position when the economy is not as good. The other challenge is that we should not focus on just one region; we must remain very balanced and very global. We are strong in China, but we have our roots in the United States and we are growing, and we are going to continue growing with the investments we are making in America. But we are also strong in Europe. Our portfolio is quite balanced.

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