The creative director of Swatch Ltd on mixing Swiss technology with Italian Style
The creative director of Swatch Ltd has an Italian heart and a Swiss mind. Beneath a cool, clean design aesthetic, Carlo Giordanetti’s effervescence runs riot as the recounts a recent milestone from Baselword 2013, when Swatch bowed a highly-anticipated collection to the press, buyers and collectors.
“Last year we went to Baselworld for the first time to do something special and different for our 30th anniversary,” he says. “Everyone’s so intrigued with the idea that the world is becoming more digital, interactive and socially connected, so they were expecting us to present a smart watch in collaboration with some big technology company. And do you know what we presented?” Wait for it. “A mechanical watch!” Giordanetti’s punch line sparkles in anecdotic measure. The highly-anticipated roll-out of the Sistem51 collection elicited breathless billets-doux from Swatch fetishists who’d grown up with the brand. The inaugural four models – underpinned by an automated mechanical movement of 51 anti-magnetic components bound by a central screw and a 90-hour power reserve – played to the strengths of Swatch’s bold design aesthetic and the innovative DNA.
By tapping its storied mechanical (and quartz) watch heritage, Swatch flaunted what many brands have prophesied for the mediated future, scored to beeps and pings. Sleek, button-free objects may trumpet a paperless era, but consumers are still tethered and tangled by power cords and rapidlydraining battery life. As watches are injected with wireless, LCD and Bluetooth brains, the path to simplicity has never been more complicate, but this was austerity unplugged. What could be more modern than that?
“It’s the core concept of the brand,” Giordanetti elaborates. “Nobody else would have had the courage to do something so innovative, especially when everyone was expecting us to play along in the interactive smart watch game. Swatch has the bravery and vision to take people by surprise through changing-up the product – à contrepied. We reinvested in the brand by creating a revolutionary mechanical range that’s built on the framework of a complete revolution. It’s a provocation that says you can buy a mechanical watch with a ridiculously-high power reserve, held together with one screw, for an average price of 150 Swiss francs.”
“Mr. Hayek did for watches what Ford did for the automobile,” eulogized Milan’s daily newspaper, Corriere della Sera, when Hayek passed away in 2010. Twenty-seven years earlier, Nicolas G. Hayek had founded the Biel-based Swatch Ltd and rolled out the inaugural twelve Swatch models from the country famous for its storied, impervious precision. At the time, a cheap & chic massmarketed Swiss watch was frankly scandalous. Playful, plastic and low-priced, the cornerstone of Hayek’s quartz-based Swiss watch was a light-as-air timepiece heavy with Swiss-made strengths.
In its first decade, the brand orchestrated a meteoric rise that positioned the prêt-à-porter watch from novelty to trend to cult. In the nineties, glossy editorial spreads read like aspirational wish lists – jacket by Giorgio Armani, silk shirt by Gianni Versace, sunglasses by Calvin Klein and watch by Swatch – but the delicious in-joke was that Swatch turned Swiss-made aspiration into affordable luxury.
Swatch Ltd is just one of the twenty brands in the Swatch Group Ltd portfolio. Its umbrella swings from prestige to basic timepieces and branded jewelry with price points astride every budget. Based on vertical implementation from alpha to omega, Swatch Ltd flexes independent control along every stage of design, production and distribution, mastered by in-house factory, workshop and laboratory employees.
Currently helming his second tenure with Swatch Ltd, Giordanetti’s witnessed the smartest ticks and tocks of its Swiss-made movements through the decades – he first joined the brand from Milan in 1987, which coincided with an explosive Italy expansion. In his first year with Swatch Ltd, he was part of the team selected by Hayek to run the thriving Milan Design Studio where he oversaw all aspects of design, briefed collections and recruited worldwide designers and artists. A move to Switzerland shifted his role towards marketing.
“It was a great time,” he says. “We were approaching our tenth anniversary and expanding incredibly in terms of the number of countries that we were approaching. In less than ten years, Swatch had sold over 100 million units, which we celebrated in 1992 in Zermatt with a three-day ‘Swatch the World’ extravaganza. We launched the Scuba and the Chrono stopwatch collections and started working actively with artists on limited editions. I thought it was it was quite an impressive provocation to ask these artists – who normally present in museums and worldwide gallery collections – to work on a relatively-inexpensive plastic watch.”
In 1999, Giordanetti witnessed the group’s first crack at the digital game with the Internet Time Swatch Beat Watch that streamlined seconds, minutes and hours into a standardized, timezone- equalizing time unit powered by Massachusetts Institute of Technology brains. Although Swatch’s time-hack was widely sidelined, Giordanetti found its merit. “Through this technology, we were pioneering and testing the digital waters very early.”
He left Switzerland for New York to open the second Swatch Design Studio and eventually departed Swatch Ltd in 2000, filling the 12-year gap with creative directorships at various brands, but those invaluable years under Hayek during the peak of the Swatch empire seeded a steadfast legacy. How time files. A couple years ago, he was contacted by Nick Hayek, CEO of the Swatch Group, the son of its founder, who poached him as the new creative director of Swatch Ltd in fall 2012.
Today Giordanetti supervises product design, development and brand expression, which includes marketing, store design, press events and the Swatch Club. Every six months, he bows a new collection paced with the fashion industry calendar – he’s just started conceptualizing the Fall/Winter 2015-16 collection.
“It’s never, ever boring,” he says on the merits of his directorship. “You have to come up with new ideas all the time, so it pushes me to interact with a lot of different people, to constantly look towards new partnerships and to delve into the art and design world. It’s one thing that makes Swatch so amazing – it’s a brand that has so many facets, that in a way, it can shape you very differently by season, by year and by edition.”
As a creative director, he’s a tastemaker and a cypher of trends. Sustenance is found in color palettes, embroideries and textiles that parade fashion runways in New York, London, Paris and Milan. Tactile over ephemeral, he’s a ravenous consumer of print, which he prefers over internet-based media. His most reliable muse is far-flung travel – he pounds pavement as an enthusiastic window-shopper. His personal style is true litmus of his design DNA – luscious Italian fabrics mixed with an aloof Swiss sensibility and sober Milanese elegance hedged with Pitti Uomo eclecticism.
In addition to last year’s Sistem51 launch, Swatch inked a new collection with songwriter Mika, a young, transcontinental anti-pop star who pens uplifting, inspiration dance tracks that pulse with his earnest falsetto. Mika entered the Swatch limited edition partnership annals with the Mika 4 Swatch collection of two custom designs in bold primary colors that were loosely based on the Native American totem poles and traditional African tribal masks.
It’s through these kinds of successful artist collaborations that the Swatch brand’s creative director garners the highest validation. “Rightfully so, artists are extremely sensitive personalities. But I strongly believe in the power of artists as people who can make the world a better place and it’s a humbling experience to work with them. The high point of my Swatch life is when I can achieve the results that make them happy, and we can place it firmly in the market and transmit that energy.”
This January they launched the Chinese New Year watch to celebrate one of the 2014 Chinese zodiac animal signs under the Year of the Horse. ‘Neigh’ to stereotypical red and gold dragons – the design team interpreted eastern sensibility in smoky calligraphy inks inspired by traditional Chinese drawings.
“The annual Chinese New Year tribute watch is an interesting exercise,” Giordanetti says. “I think in the end, one of the elements that differentiates us from many other brands is that we tell a story – straight-forward, elaborate, based on cultural references, or historical – and storytelling based on myths and legends is such a big part of Asian culture. By taking the time and care to tell a story and by creating a completely true and transparent product, we can connect with the consumer in the right way, which will keep them connected to us for a long time.”
You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink. Amid mixed forecasts on the vicissitude of Asian luxury spending, hope rides on the Chinese New Year watch to entice the Asian customer. Last year, the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry reported a slowdown of Swiss watch exports in China and Hong Kong, accredited to government crackdowns of extravagant gift giving.
Never fear. China, including Hong Kong, which buys more than a quarter of Swiss watches, is predicted to rebound this year, and overall, forecasts remain strong for Swatch Group, which rode in 2013 on a 20.2 percent net profit increase to 1.93 billion Swiss francs (compared with 1.61 billion Swiss francs the previous year) while net sales jumped 8.5 percent to 8.5 billion Swiss francs. In the watch industry, it all comes down to good timing. Now that Giordanetti’s deep into his second Swatch Ltd tenure, he’s gleaned a deep appreciation of Switzerland’s domestic watch culture, which he boils-down to two basic principles.
“When you talk to Swiss people about watchmaking, I’d say that there are two things that make their timepiece legacy so enchanting,” he says. “The first element is passion and knowledge. Even people who don’t work in the timepiece industry know all about its merits. There’s an expansive pride that’s part of the country’s DNA. They’re proud of mastering a centuries-old craft that’s still active and has become a reference point for the entire world.”
“The second element is cultural heritage, which is part of the country and regarded in a very personal way. When people talk about a watch, they’re talking about a part of their own history, which makes it extremely emotional for a country that’s not normally identified with emotion. The life force of the Swiss people is worn on their wrists.”
“For the Swiss, Swatch is an atypical watch brand, because in a way, we’re more of an art and design object and a lifestyle accessory than a watch. But at the same time, Swatch belongs firmly to the Swiss watch heritage, so people are really proud that our roots are Swiss made.”
With such a deep appreciation of the Swiss watch industry, Giordanetti’s return to Swatch Ltd was just a matter of time.
Article by Courtney Smith
Photos by Swatch Ltd