I had the exquisite pleasure to meet last week Arnaud Nicolas, the CEO and Artistic Director of L’Epée 1839. This is an iconic brand that has surprised its customers for 180 years, by creating one-of-a-kind mechanical clocks. Their creative inspiration and craftsmanship are nothing short of extraordinary. Arnaud Nicolas is a delightful person and talking to him was an honor and a privilege.
For my community, luxury means a multifaceted approach that combines perfumery, jewellery, and horology. Can you please tell us a few words about yourself and how you became the CEO of this extraordinary company that is now based in Delémont, in the Swiss Jura Mountains?
It is in fact a pretty unusual story, due to my background. First of all, I am not a watchmaker, but an engineer and a scientist. My first job was in the space industry, I like technology and I am fond of technology, but I also love art. So I started to look for a way of mixing both. I have always been passionate about watches and so it happened that in 2009 the Swiza Group needed some new inspirations on the technology and design side as well as financially. So, with the help of some friends, we acquired the company.
We knew that the company was getting close to its 175th anniversary and that it would be a perfect time to launch something major, which is why we launched the Creative Art Line. Before that, between 2009 and 2014, we wanted to incorporate more technology in the company, which would allow us to master the design, since we are doing something very different from others. For instance, when building cars, most people build up the design, i.e. the body, around the engine. And this is understandable, as the engine is the most expensive part of the object. Now this is also true for watchmaking. What we do in order to allow this huge creativity is to start from a blank page; we thus design a new movement, a new housing according to the story that we are telling. This allows us to have the freedom and creativity that you can see. So what we do is to build a completely new product from scratch. We design a new movement and a new housing for every single piece, which is something crazy because it costs a lot more and it takes longer to prepare the product. So, when building a product, we have all those constraints, yet at the same time we have no limits. This is how I’ve seen the company and this is the reason where we are right now.
And if we are talking about innovative solutions regarding the design, what would these be?
What we do is to start from a story, which is the innovative part of it all. Each time there is a different story, and the story has to bring joy, it has to take you back to your childhood. We somehow challenge the false idea that a clock is simply a useful object that keeps the time. Nowadays, you can see clocks everywhere: inside your TV, your oven, your computer, etc. So what defines us is the making of kinetic objects, kinetic pieces of art, kinetic sculptures, which actually give time. Giving the time is just an excuse to own for those that need such an excuse… it is not the primary function of our object. Getting an exceptional piece of art is the primary motivation for us. We also consider inside all of our creations that a piece of art should shock, evoke or inspire people! It should express something. And this is what we are trying to do. We do not toe the line but drive on our own path. And to do that we manufacture only a small quantity of products, since manufacturing small quantities helps us limit the risks. If you manufacture a large quantity of the same object, then it has to please everybody… and by doing so, you kill the intrinsic essence of an artistic piece. Remember it should shock, evoke or inspire people! So it should polarize. And that which polarizes cannot please everyone…
I know that L’Epée has won a number of gold awards at International Exhibitions for major improvements in the watchmaking field, for example at the World Fairs held in Paris in 1889 and 1900, in Vienna in 1892, in Hanoi in 1902, and in America and the United Kingdom. What is, in your opinion, the secret of this international success?
Those successes, I think, are only related to prosperous innovation and craftsmanship. You get those international awards for major improvements within the field, so it is not something you can gather. It is a thing that people, scientists, are rewarded for their achievements. Is it possible to get awards for groundbreaking innovations nowadays? I don’t know and I don’t think so… someone would have to make a new improvement. It is like the vaccine (Covid-19 vaccine) that Pfizer created. They can have an international award for it because of the innovative technique that they used in order to create a vaccine and stop the pandemic. In short, because they are pioneers. In my opinion, this is the kind of achievement that would win an international gold award nowadays. During this last decade, what we have pioneered at L’Epée is the concept itself, not its technical side.
Your company was involved in a very original way in the Royal Wedding of Lady Diana and Prince Charles, in 1981. 100 L'Epée clocks in fitted Hermès leather cases were gifted to important guests who attended the wedding. Can you elaborate a little on how you perceive this contribution to a very glamorous event?
It is quite difficult to prepare a gift for a couple, especially when it is a wedding gift and when it also might be meant for men. For a man, you have a limited number of options regarding the choice of gifts: a wallet, a watch, cufflinks, and that’s about it. So with our gift, we tried something different: if you create a piece of art for a couple to enjoy, then you take both the lady and the man into account. The products of L’Epée have been used as official gifts for a very long time. For example, they have been offered as gifts to elite guests by the French government for over 20 years, or by the Royal Court of England, and, of course, Swiss officials offer them as well. So due to this L’Epée 1839 has been nicknamed “the Brand of the Powerful”, as the majority of the most powerful people on Earth have a l’Epée clock at home or at office. Consequently, I feel it was a very nice opportunity for L’Epée to have become part of history in such a way. I have to admit that this makes us feel very proud of what we do, and it feels very nice to know that the most important people in the world use our products in their houses or in their offices.
The year 1994 was an important one in the history of L’Epée. It was the year that witnessed the unveiling of the largest clock in the world, known as “The Giant Regulator”, earning L’Epée a place in the Guinness Book of Records. This one-off creation measures 2.20 m tall and weighs 1.2tons. Its mechanical movement alone weighs 120 kg. This modern-day masterpiece required more than 2,800 hours of work and was unveiled at the Louvre in Paris. How was this idea born?
The idea was born out of the need for a wider recognition, since at that time, the clock making industry (and this I mean the mechanical clock industry) was slowing down because of the ascent of the electronic device industry. So the people at L’Epée considered that they should build something that will blow people’s minds and dismantle the claim that mechanical clocks have become old fashioned. In this way, our company was also hoping to revive the industry. After the unveiling at Louvre in Paris, we displayed the work of art across the world.
I know that L’Epée likes to create original pieces for people who “expect the unexpected”. Can you tell us a few words about the launching of the Creative Art Line in 2014 and about “The Starfleet Machine” made in collaboration with MB&F, marking the beginning of a successful partnership?
We knew we had to do something different from others. We wanted to launch something new: a new line is not only a new object. So, we launched the Creative Art Line in 2014, a collection inspired from various sci-fi movies from our childhood, but most importantly a collection of objects that will inoculate a sparkle of joy and happiness. So we became the first company to have a sci-fi movie inspired object that tells the time. Regarding our first collaboration with the creative and hardworking team from MB&F, we launched another line in order to mark the 175th anniversary of L’Epée. Here, we focused on getting the engineering needed to build this kind of objects, because you need to master the engineering of movement in order to build such an object and overcome the constraints which come along the way.
What are the values of your brand, the long-lasting principles that have been the foundation of such a long and successful trajectory in the business world?
When I design a product, I want to surprise others with it and I always keep in mind that the product should bring joy to the people who interact with it. So yes, I like to make the objects as interactive as possible, and I want to create things which can last forever as far as design and the quality of the materials are concerned. As you know, luxury products are not meant to be ephemeral, but when you pass them to future generations, they should look and feel the same as at the time when they were manufactured. This is why we have not embedded any electronic devices in our objects. We also try to treat everyone in the best way and be as fair as possible to all our partners. And I consider our customers are partners because they believe in us and what we do. Every time someone buys a clock he helps us continue our quest for perfection and reinforce our way of seeing and doing business.
If we were to have a look into the future, what are your plans and hopes for the future of this incredible brand?
We don’t intend to grow a lot, because we want our products to remain luxury products and for me, a luxury product means that you cannot find it everywhere. If a product is to be found at every corner of every street in the world, then for me, that is a commercial product, not a luxury one. We want to remain special, so that people are surprised and amazed by what we make. Because of this, we only make limited editions of our products. On the other hand, this allows us to experiment with new concepts at a more frequent rate. Although it limits the distribution of our products (since they are not to be found in every shop), we get to create value this way. Often, there are people who want to own a specific product; but because of the limited availability, they have to buy it second-hand, thus creating a second-hand market for our products.
When creating a new product, how are you deciding the number of pieces in that limited edition?
That is the most difficult decision. In fact, we establish it after we calculate the value of the product. We do it from an engineer’s point of view: how long it took to design it and how long it will take to manufacture it, so that we finally break even with the costs.
Last but not least please tell us how you get inspiration for the products that you build.
It is quite a long process. The inspiration comes mainly from childhood, be it from a movie I saw, special moments from my youth, an object I have seen somewhere – in short, everything that might provide me with a revelation. I can also be inspired by discussions with friends or even by ideas which come from a friend. We always take into consideration what people say, and if an idea is promising, then we implement it. This is how the idea of a new product comes into place. Then a long period follows from the idea until the final product: how to make it fun and how to interact with it in order to make it more attractive, key points etc. This is the gestation period. It is of capital importance that the product reaches the full potential of the idea underlying it before the release.
Thank you so much for your time, and for answering my questions. It has been a real pleasure talking to you, and I would like to suggest my readers not to miss any exhibition or presentation of your products. They are simply amazing. For the people that visit Bucharest, they can see L'Epée's creations at Maison Albini Prassa.