The traditional watchmaking industry has managed to maintain its allure largely due to the existence of a mature cognoscenti. Many have described it as falling into a rabbit hole, being fascinated by the historical evolution of timekeeping and entranced by the way humans have made it into an artform. It is often entwined with a reverence for tradition, which, in any case, mirrors an appreciation of the giants that have laid the groundwork.
When it comes to the accumulation of knowledge, especially one that has been perpetuated for decades, watchmakers today rarely see the bottom when they stand on the shoulders of their generation’s titans. The tall pyramid has evolved to become more intricate, especially with the accelerative touch of technology. Innovation and advancement are occurring at lightning speed and the future of watchmaking is really whatever the industry makes it. The question is, who will be its main players?
A new generation of consumers have entered the horological space, bringing their own values, beliefs and lifestyles, that may be at odds with traditionalists. Priorities are different and so are spending habits. Norqain CEO Ben Küffer believes there needs to be a shift in the narrative and how we talk about the watch industry for them to connect. “I realised the challenge in that and the impact we could have if we managed to launch a new, young and independent watch brand.”
And so he did in 2018, alongside a team of veterans no less. Küffer is known for his stint at Breitling before the CVC buyout, but his passion for watchmaking was cultivated when he was still a lad. He sat at the feet of his father Marc Küffer — the former CEO of Roventa-Henex, one of the biggest private label watch manufacturers in Switzerland — and would join his company during the summer holidays. “I was in the factory counting the hands for different purchase orders.
“I was not very efficient, to be honest with you,” he says jokingly. “Because I was always looking at things instead of just counting. But it was the first time I could really understand how the watch was built in detail.”
His father is now chairman of the board at Norqain. Küffer also brought on Ted Schneider (a member of the family that owned Breitling for nearly 40 years) and ice hockey legend and Stanley Cup-winner Mark Streit as co-founders and board members. “Norqain started off as a project between people who love the industry,” says Küffer. “We’re working in Switzerland, we’re working with great suppliers, we’re trying to make great watches for our customers. I think people saw we had good intentions.”
Their approach brought a new energy to the archaic industry. “We didn’t buy an existing brand with a long history we could not identify with. We built the brand according to who we are. We love nature, we love being outside and being adventurous. We got the CO₂ neutral certification because we needed to be sustainable. We’re totally animal cruelty-free; no more leather. We want to be a leader, at our small level, making our own decisions and going towards the way we believe the brand should go.”
The freedom in doing so, of course, stems from being independent. But considering the brand’s youth — its years can be counted on one hand — Norqain has surprisingly managed to rally the support of a number of highly respected and established names. In 2020, they announced news of a long-term partnership with movement manufacturer Kenissi, who also supplies Tudor and Chanel. The two exclusive calibres — NN20/1 (time-only with three hands) and NN20/2 (GMT) — power Norqain’s timepieces. Just last year, industry legend Jean-Claude Biver, whose Midas touch has blessed Blancpain, Omega, Hublot and Tag Heuer, signed on as adviser to the board.
“Giving back to the younger generation now at the forefront of the industry is always something I’ve wanted to do,” Biver said in an announcement. “From 20 to 40, I learnt. From 40 to 60, I capitalised on my knowledge. And now, I want to share my experiences and know-how with the young talents who are shaking up the watch world. I am happy to support Norqain because of its young, dynamic team and I share their passion for the Swiss watch industry.”
It would be surprising to know how young the team actually is. The average age is around 35. “At Norqain, everybody has a voice,” says the 35-year-old himself. “I think my generation is a little less hierarchical. And I hope it’s extremely motivating for everybody to know that they can talk and bring in ideas. Steve Jobs always said it — let the best ideas win.”
At heart, Norqain is all about nature and adventure, with an inspiring tagline: “My life, my way”. If you are wondering about the name, Küffer explains, “We were playing around with the word ‘nordic’ and I always had three words: quality, adventure and independence [in mind]. So it was Norqai, then it became Norqain. And we mirrored the ‘Ns’ to get the logo.”
Its collections are categorised under Adventure, Freedom and Independence. “We’re a brand that challenges, which I love.” Its durable and sporty watches were made to accompany explorers during their escapades. “When we look at partnerships and ambassadors, we look at how they reflect that.” They include wildlife ambassador Dean Schneider, who moved to South Africa to establish a wildlife sanctuary and rehabilitation centre, and The Butterfly Help Project, created by Norbu Sherpa and Andrea Sherpa-Zimmermann of Wild Yak Expeditions to help families and children of sherpas who lost their lives in the Himalayan mountains.
When discussing his favourite watches from the brand, Küffer says, “Emotionally, I’m very attached to the Freedom Chrono because it was the first watch we produced at Norqain. I wore it to my wedding without a movement. It was a beautiful watch but it wasn’t running!” He also mentions the Independence Skeleton and Wild One. The latter was added last year and features the brand’s Norteq material, which uses a ground-breaking process that creates different composite colours for carbon fibre. Küffer shares his experience working with Biver on the Wild One. “He challenged us a lot. I went to the suppliers with him, I saw and learnt how he never accepts no [for an answer]. I thought I was a hard-headed guy, but it’s impossible to say impossible to him. If the supplier says, ‘Jean-Claude, this is not possible’, he knows this is interesting. So in this way, the Wild One is extremely special.”
Norqain has some ambitious plans ahead. “We have a lot of very interesting novelties that we’re launching. And we plan to grow from 170 retailers to 270, adding 100 stores around the world. Sometimes I ask myself how we will do it.” But there has been talk about the new kid on the block and the brand wants to leverage this interest. In fact, Norqain will officially launch in Malaysia under Sincere Fine Watches in April. “I know that the Malaysian watch market is very knowledgeable. We’re talking to collectors and explaining to them what we’re doing. I think the market will be good for us because I know it respects quality and innovation very much.” Küffer, who has visited Kuala Lumpur a number of times as well as vacationed at Langkawi with his family, is looking forward to being back.
“People who love the industry like Jean-Claude and Kenissi, they support us because they know this could be an important moment for it,” he says. “Innovation is a big subject at our headquarters. Norqain’s good start in 2019 is allowing us to invest even more money in products. We want to surprise people and we want to show that we have an amazing network in the industry. So, the next few years will be very exciting. If in five years, you say to me, ‘Well, Ben, you surprised me’, then we did it right. If we didn’t surprise you, I would have to work even harder.”
This article first appeared on Mar 13, 2023 in The Edge Malaysia.