Bernard R Fleury, CEO of Edouard Koehn, arrives slightly behind schedule. Earlier, we were informed that he was engaged in a training session for the Sincere Fine Watches (SFW) staff in Pavilion Kuala Lumpur. His visit is brief, a whirlwind stop. Thirty minutes later, he enters, expressing sincere apologies.
“I am so sorry for keeping you waiting,” he acknowledges. “I got caught up with a customer at the boutique. The retail staff introduced me and we had a great chat. In the end, he decided to purchase one of our watches,” he says, his face lighting up with satisfaction.
The watch in question was the latest World Heritage II with an ice blue guilloché dial. “From what I gathered, the customer is a regular at the boutique and was fascinated by the alarm function. He was more than happy to add a worldtimer to his collection.”
The Edouard Koehn brand, now owned by the Fleury family, has experienced favourable sales with the World Heritage model. It serves as the ideal traveller’s companion, providing two market-unique complications: the universal time display and alarm function.
“A world time reference is particularly useful for those traversing different time zones. Moreover, it makes practical sense to know the destination’s clock in advance and adjust to it while in-flight so as to avoid or minimise the dreaded effects of jet lag. This classic timepiece with a 1960s retro design has a contemporary edge as it is housed in a 42mm round titanium case that is water-resistant to 50m,” says Fleury.
The grade 5 titanium case, renowned for its hypoallergenic properties and lightweight design, not only contributes to the overall comfort for extended wear but also plays a crucial role in enhancing the acoustic performance of the alarm. This characteristic aligns seamlessly with Edouard Koehn’s reputation for delivering exceptional sound quality in its timepieces.
The revival of Edouard Koehn
“He had a distinctive personality as a master watchmaker,” says Fleury when discussing the brand’s history and heritage, including aspects of the founder that particularly appeal to him. “He rose through the ranks, transitioning from a clockmaker to a shareholder and partner at Patek Philippe in 1876 before parting ways in 1891. That same year, he became the co-owner of his eponymous brand after acquiring, with his son, the renowned establishment of Danish watchmaker H R Ekegren in Geneva. The same journey is unfolding for me too. It’s truly amazing, I must say.”
Koehn, displaying talent in crafting complications, began his journey with these intricate timepieces rather than opting for time-only watches. Undaunted by the competition, he fearlessly diversified the business. Alongside producing chronometers, he ventured into the design and manufacture of extra-thin watches and master complications.
Following Koehn’s passing, his son took the helm and continued making watches of quality until the 1930s. Fleury acquired the brand in 2015. The relaunch in 2020 was unexpectedly forced into low gear due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Against this backdrop, in the revival of a relatively unknown brand was the challenge of winning the hearts and minds of watch enthusiasts, from young collectors to connoisseurs. Right from the start, my priority for creativity and design centred on the need to flesh out Koehn’s achievements and the timepieces that showcased his craftsmanship. We are often asked why the Tempus and World Heritage collections are polar opposites, with one more contemporary in looks and the other more classical,” he says.
The modern case architecture of the Tempus I and Tempus II chronograph collections was warmly welcomed by his children, who are representatives of Generation Z, with aesthetics that even millennials find appealing. The chronograph function rather than the case design is the lynchpin as it exemplifies Koehn’s fascination with this complication, bearing in mind his signature movement is the more complicated split-second chronograph.
“The more conservative and classical round case of the World Heritage series features the worldtimer and alarm complications, a rare combination that is generally appreciated more by watch connoisseurs. The worldtimer is symbolic of Koehn’s business travels to different time zones, notably North America. The alarm, one of the earliest horological complications, represents his passion for striking mechanisms, the split-second chronograph minute repeater pocket watches in particular.
“Our upcoming third collection inspired by Koehn’s watchmaking mastery will allow watch collectors to better understand the brand’s legacy and its place in horological history,” he says with a twinkle in his eye, indicating it will be an exciting reinterpretation of the brand’s DNA.
A reliable distribution partner holds immense importance, and Fleury expresses deep gratitude to veteran watch journalist and Timewerke managing editor Timmy Tan for facilitating a connection with SFW during his visit to Singapore in 2022. The timepieces were immediately recognised for their uniqueness, market appeal and relevance to today’s watch collectors and accepted into the portfolio of Singapore’s oldest and most established luxury watch retail brand.
How does he see the future of the Edouard Koehn brand evolving under his leadership and in partnership with SFW? “The rebirth of the brand is a tribute to the exceptional watchmaking skills of its founder and highlights the importance of safeguarding and perpetuating the leading role of the Swiss watch industry in fine watchmaking,” he says.
“This philosophy, as expressed in our timepieces, resonates well with the role SFW plays as a conduit in transmitting the brand’s values. Our partnership spearheaded our entry into Southeast Asia and allowed us to gain an immediate presence in the important markets of Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand.
“Backed by Cortina Holdings, SFW’s recognised expertise in luxury watch retail, coupled with its SHH (formerly known as Sincere Haute Horlogerie) concept as a strong advocate of independent brands, will create further opportunities for our partnership to flourish. We hope to strengthen our long-term presence in this part of the world by developing exclusive SHH timepieces with SFW.”
V for Vulcain
No stranger to brand renaissance, Fleury, the former CEO of Vulcain, elevated the brand to new heights with a focus on watchmaking expertise. When asked what the key to success is, he credits his industry connections and access to mechanical movement production. “Without this, it would be impossible to achieve great success. With the watchmaking expertise in producing high-end mechanical movements, I could prepare the brand for the lengthy process of revival.”
Fleury revived Vulcain’s connection to former US presidents Harry Truman, Dwight D Eisenhower, Lyndon B Johnson and Richard Nixon — who were all presented with a Vulcain to commemorate their leaving office — by gifting a watch to Barack Obama when he was in office. “It’s all because I’m very interested in history. It almost always leads us all the way to the future.”
The Vulcain Cricket, launched in 1947, holds a unique place in horological history as the world’s first mass-market alarm wristwatch. It is the acoustics that makes this watch truly special. Reflecting on his tenure at Vulcain, Fleury coyly highlights a significant achievement — the successful launch of an anniversary model in 2008, including the presentation of a Vulcain Anniversary Heart Cricket watch to Obama. It garnered the brand attention it had never seen before.
Despite economic challenges and the 2008 global financial crisis triggered by the Lehman Brothers collapse, Vulcain marked its best year yet. The limited-edition watch became a sensation, selling out immediately. Customer demand persisted (even reaching China, we were told), leading to inquiries about a second production, highlighting the global appeal of Fleury’s strategic leadership in the industry.
Fleury has been involved in the watch industry for almost four decades. “Understandably, my son Axel (age 25) and daughter Allissia (28) have been immersed in the world of horology since young,” he says. Allissia graduated with a master’s degree in law from the University of Neuchâtel in Switzerland while Axel has a master’s degree in finance. He is currently pursuing a doctorate in finance because that is where his passion lies.
“Our diverse skill sets complement each other’s as an independent, family-owned watchmaking business. Furthermore, our location in ‘Watch Valley’, nestled in the Swiss Jura mountains, specifically the town of La Chaux-de-Fonds in the canton of Neuchâtel, holds significance. In 2009, Unesco awarded the town World Heritage status, acknowledging its watchmaking culture that dates back to the 17th century.
“La Chaux-de-Fonds is where some well-known watch brands are located. Similarly, the Manufacture where Edouard Koehn timepieces are produced is based here. My children are well acquainted with my watchmaking partners and contacts. It is important that my passion is shared in addition to my knowledge and experience. My family has embarked on this Edouard Koehn watchmaking journey like a fish in water.”
Being a family-owned company, personal relationships, trust and confidence are highly valued. The road to the successful rebirth of the brand required the mastery of several key elements of the entire process. “We have had to cultivate strong teamwork with our partners because harnessing their skills productively will help us realise our goals effectively. Above all, we need passion and vision. It’s nice to be working with family. I always say we are lucky to be able to work together, but it’s never easy and we still have to draw some lines. Overall, it is extremely rewarding.”
Fleury has been married to Ahadiah, a Singaporean, for 30 years and they live in La Chaux-de-Fonds. He considers himself a history buff who also appreciates art. As a matter of fact, his interest was piqued when he first discovered Edouard Koehn at an auction for vintage watches. This led him to conduct further research on the watchmaker, and which brought him to where he is currently.
“It is also through auctions and private collectors that we have gained access to and knowledge of even more vintage Edouard Koehn-related timepieces. Through these, a better understanding of Koehn and his works was obtained and this is where we will continually draw inspiration for our future collections. I have even reached out to his descendants who now live in various parts of the world. Though they are not involved in watchmaking, they discovered the revived Edouard Koehn brand and even acquired the modern-day watches we offer.”
When not immersed in timekeeping matters, Fleury enjoys gastronomy. Sharing a good meal with others is often the perfect way to better understand each other, he says. “On a positive note, a recent lunch with a watch connoisseur led to his pre-order of a future milestone timepiece under development. Great things can happen when you are sharing a meal!”
Fleury also has a great love for hiking in the Swiss mountains. Not only does it allow him to test the watches in the wild, it is also great exercise. Hiking, for him, extends well beyond the physical benefits. In the serenity of nature, he is afforded a space for meditation and it feeds his never-ending quest for a well-balanced life.
In the delicate balance between work and family, Fleury has consistently found a unique rhythm, one that resonates with the essence of time well spent.
This article first appeared on Jan 22, 2024 in The Edge Malaysia.