Independent Swiss watchmaker NORQAIN was founded as recently as 2018. But don’t mistake its youth for inexperience or a lack of direction.
This independent Bienne-based family-owned brand, after all, has watch industry veterans backing it. From founder and CEO Ben Küffer who previously worked with Breitling as a sales director for some of its key markets of Greater China, Japan and Switzerland to his father Marc who has over 45 years of experience with watchmaking companies, NORQAIN is well aware of its potential within the multi-billion-dollar Swiss watch industry.
NORQAIN recently entered the Middle East with local partners Ahmed Seddiqi & Sons.
With a collection for men and women, the brand also announced a long-term partnership with mechanical movement manufacturer Kenissi which is owned by Tudor (a sibling of Rolex), further cementing NORQAIN’s intention to produce watches with high-quality movements at relatively affordable prices.
Here, NORQAIN founder and CEO Ben Küffer speaks to Gulf Business about his long-term vision for the brand within the Middle East and beyond.
Give us a background into NORQAIN and the concept behind it?
I was born into the industry. My grandfather and my father were in the watch industry. I’ve spent 11 years working with Breitling. And together with Ted Schneider, also the son of Teddy, and after the company sale, we discussed the future not only of us, but the industry. We noticed there were brands like Ulysse Nardin and other beautiful companies that were sold to bigger groups. I believe that it can be a key strength to be an independent brand. So, this was the motivation we had to go into the market.
What were the key elements that made its way into your first collection?
In the beginning, we always looked at existing watch brands. But, we realised that that is not our story. Our story is about young guys in the industry, believing in our watch industry and wanting to stay in it for the long term. So, when we had the brand NORQAIN a key objective was to offer our customers a great watch at an affordable price. We did the Adventure Collection, the classic Freedom Collection and then the Independence Collection. Independence will only be limited editions. We also launched our two calibres.
We partnered with 70 retailers including Seddiqi, and we couldn’t tell them what was coming next. I was extremely happy on February 5 when we let out the news to all these retailers that believed in us.
What are some of the digital-distribution channels that you are considering?
We started in markets like the US with an e-shop and even have a local office in Miami. On the other hand, we have markets where we don’t have an e-shop like in Japan. I think the key reason is you want to touch the product and our watches. We talk about competitive pricing, but it’s 1500 Swiss francs and above which is still a fair amount of money. The general impression in Switzerland is that we still have not found a full solution to sell watches on e-commerce without having the discount advantage of a product that everybody knows. [Recently] we were at the Mall of the Emirates [in Dubai]. We talked to the team and they said that they liked our story. Today selling watches is about emotions. And when a customer comes into a store, he needs a story. And for us, it’s very difficult to tell that story through a picture on a website.
How did Japan become such a big market for NORQAIN?
Japan is our number one market. I think Japan is very well known for quality and analyses everything in detail. We always say that every shipment to Japan has to be checked at least three times. We had a meeting in January with a contact we had in the Japanese market, who instantly believed in our products. He managed to open 35 doors within a month and sell numbers that exceeded anything that I could expect. In Japan, they don’t care so much about a brand as much as they do about quality.
And tell us about your North American market?
We’re on the east and west coast. We started in LA with Westime, who is a very good partner. We have had to find solutions to get through [that market]. They are quite big in ice hockey. One of our board members was a superstar captain of New York Islanders. We actually just signed the deal with the National Hockey League Players Association in January for two years. We will be even launching a watch with them.
We expect the US to become our number one market. We’re in Canada too. And you know, Canada is a small market. I did it for Breitling, and so I know what the size [of that market], but we’re doing well. We have five-six stores in Canada. This connection to hockey has a really big effect in Canada too. The CEO from Toronto said to us that he has seen so many brands come to the US and try but he just thinks that what gives us this extra boost is, of course, a little bit of the knowhow we have. Roman Yossi who plays for Nashville is on our board of directors and he’s invested into our company as well.
Who will be your core ideal clients?
We mapped our customers and realised that at first it will be watch aficionados. So we started with customers who are I would say collectors and fans of the watch industry. The second kind of customer that we are now focusing on are those who are buying their first watch, of our price range starts from 1500 Swiss francs. It would be my dream to get more people on board to buy Swiss mechanical watches, because I think when we see that 28 million Apple watches are sold, there is potential to get more Swiss watches on more wrists.
What is NORQAIN’s strategy for trade fairs?
You know, the romantic side of me loves Basel. We all grew up going to Basel and it was really for me always the fair and important to be there in many ways. At the moment, this is definitely a challenge. They came to see us and I think their ideas of pre-designed booths to reduce the cost of going to Basel is good. It’s true that today, we can come to Dubai or New York and can locally launch with much less money. And with the digital [platforms], everything is global. So Basel has to continue to find solutions with regards to the costs, but they’ve taken the first steps and I would love to be at Basel 2021.
What are your plans to communicate about your brand going forward?
We’re very lucky to have a fantastic distribution network. In the UAE we are with Seddiqi who know this market and are giving us great instructions on what to do and, of course, they’re also supporting us in all our marketing initiatives.
Our strategy focusses on social media. We are very active in terms of postings and advertisements. Our cost per click is getting lower because we have started to learn how to target customers.
Do you have plans to expand in the Middle East beyond the UAE?
That will be part of the second step. The first step is to now build the Dubai market together with Seddiqi. We have a partnership based really on trust. I am sure we can align the next strategy in terms of distribution based on a few strategic partnerships in markets where we can trust our partners to do the best for the brand and build the brand along with us.