A Watch Revival Becomes a Labor of Love

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A Watch Revival Becomes a Labor of Love

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Joost Vreeswijk isn’t your usual watch company owner.

In his day job, he is a managing partner at Ernst & Young, advising multinational companies on operating models and business restructuring.

But since 2007, Mr. Vreeswijk also has been creating a new Lonville, the Swiss watch brand established in 1873 that had stopped operations in the early 1950s.

“I didn’t start Lonville to make it my only work,” said Mr. Vreeswijk, 46, adding that he did it “to create something I really loved.”

In late 2015, Mr. Vreeswijk introduced two new Lonville models, Virage and G24, and is presenting six variations of those models this week at the Salon QP watch event in London. (Each variation is a limited edition of 18 or 24 pieces, which will be personalized with names and numbered; prices are 23,900 to 9,100 Swiss francs, or $24,535 to $9,340.)

Virage’s four variations have the brand’s LV1 caliber, a movement made in the watchmaking heartland of La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland, and quirky names like Kind of Blue (for the jazz album by Miles Davis, a favorite of Mr. Vreeswijk’s) and Fuel Tank (its power reserve indicator looks like a car’s fuel gauge).

There are two variations of G24, which has the LV2 caliber made in Les Brenets, Switzerland, was designed by Matthew Humphries, the creator of the Morgan Aeromax sports car. It was named for a Lonville prototype worn by Gabriele Gardel when he won his class at the 24 Hours of Le Mans race in 2011 (“The G is for Gabriele and 24 is for the 24 hours of the race,” Mr. Vreeswijk said).

The cases are manufactured and both models are assembled in Lugano, Switzerland, near Lonville’s headquarters.

“I didn’t want to recreate or reissue something Lonville did in the past because there are lots of reissues,” Mr. Vreeswijk said. “I thought it would be better to be original and create something fresh.”

A watch collector since his university graduation in the Netherlands, Mr. Vreeswijk stumbled across the Lonville brand during an online auction, where he bought a gold-plated Lonville pocket watch from the early 1900s.

Interactive Feature | JOOST VREESWIJK

“I loved the fact that the last watch was in the ’50s,” he said, “as I love the ’50s and ’60s because of the glamour, the music and some of the most beautiful watches were made then.” (His collection includes Jaeger-LeCoultre Memovoxes, a gold-plated IWC dress watch and others from the era.)

“My dream for a while was to start my own watch company,” Mr. Vreeswijk said. And the timing was right, too, as he had his own business consulting company so “no one could tell me what to do.” (He sold it to Ernst & Young in 2010, when he became a company partner.)

The transition from watch collector to company owner was difficult. “Most doors in the first two years were slammed in my face,” he said. “What is interesting is that you show up with a half-decent job in your day-to-day life and the supplier of cases is looking at you thinking, ‘I’m not going to waste my time with this guy.’ So they are very contradictory worlds.”

Among his friends and acquaintances, he found seven investors — from backgrounds such as retailing, yachting and video production — to take 1 percent each of the company. They bring, Mr. Vreeswijk said, “experience, expertise and networks” to the effort. And one is the company’s full-time general manager, Matt Faoro.

Mr. Vreeswijk acknowledges that he will need more money to develop the company, so he is selling more shares to the current investors and looking for new ones. “I don’t like the idea that someone else has a say in the brand, so I am trying to delay as long as possible,” he said. “ And I don’t want to go below 51 percent as it is my baby. And I don’t want anyone to tell me what to do with my baby.”

Adapting business know-how from other industries has helped the company, Mr. Vreeswijk said. For example, he reduced costs by having some components made in volume and by “getting the customer to pay me before I’ve even made the watch,” he said, “I can use my cash to keep the boat floating.

“What I’ve done is different from what you see happening in the watch world right now,” he continued. “You have the Kickstarter model, which is a flurry of start-ups which makes one model that is a cheap version of classics, and the classic large watchmakers. I am trying to make a niche business that deals directly with the customer, cuts out working capital and develops a group of like-minded people.”

Lonville watches are sold online, but Mr. Vreeswijk also holds events for about 50 guests each in cities such as London and Amsterdam. And his preference for such personal interaction with potential buyers is what prompted him to bring “what we have so far,” as he described the selection, to the independents’ room at Salon QP.

“I don’t want to be in a big market square shouting louder than the person next to me because this isn’t the right feeling of buying a beautiful watch,” he said.

Lots of watch companies are working to create communities of owners these days but few have Lonville’s flair.

Two days after Mr. Vreeswijk met with a reporter in the art-filled Ernst & Young London overlooking the Tower of London, he headed to Inverness, Scotland, and the seventh annual Lonville Classic car rally. He and his blue 1969 Jaguar E-Type sports car were joined by 22 watch owners and car enthusiasts in their 14 vintage cars for a four-day run through the city and the Highlands: “Whiskey, Wheels and Watches,” as the poster promised. And the 2018 event, from St. Moritz to the Italian coast of Liguria, already is planned.

“It started as a thing I liked as I couldn’t find anything like this, and it’s created a real experience of having fun with friends, even though we might not know each other beforehand,” Mr. Vreeswijk said.

(Coincidentally, on this particular day he was wearing the Fuel Tank watch. It’s the Lonville he wears most often, he said, because “it’s car related, the first one I made — and coming from an engineering as well as business background, I love the mechanical idea that you can see how far the watch is wound.”

For Lonville’s next models, Mr. Vreeswijk is planning to collaborate with designers from other industries, like speedboat designers, “as they come to it a little bit differently, like me,” he said.

For his own future, “Will I ever live on Lonville or retire on it? I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe I have an unfair advantage in that I am genuinely into this, to make a cool watch, and that’s harder if you are corporate and have shareholders breathing down your neck.”

So for now, he said, “I think it’s fun and interesting to do something where I feel there’s a real appeal to it and see what happens.”

By | 2017-11-02T15:45:00+00:00 November 2nd, 2017|0 Comments

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