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July 28, 2010updated Feb 10, 2014

Jerome DeWitt, Watchmaker

By Chris Boyle

Jerome DeWitt, Watchmaker

and Nathalie Veysset, CEODeWitt

How are a free-spirited investor-turned-watchmaker (and descendant of Napoleon) and a former lawyer, tax advisor and accountant taking an audacious approach to the often-staid Swiss watch industry? In eight years, Geneva-based watchmaker DeWitt has become known for its innovative design, attention to detail, and more recently, its drive for vertical integration. In other words, the company is striving to control quality and production by eliminating most of its subcontractors and making virtually all parts of its watches. Recently Elite Traveler Editor-in-Chief Douglas Gollan ventured to the DeWitt headquarters and manufacture in Geneva to see how founder and owner Jerome DeWitt and Chief Executive Officer Nathalie Veysset are taking the haute watchmaker to new levels while still maintaining a cool vibe around the office. Ping pong anyone?

ET: How did you get involved in the watch business?

Jerome DeWitt: It was an accident. I was a collector, but mainly I was an investor in different businesses in various industries. I invested in a watch company and as I started to look at the quality and ask questions, the founder left. He took all of the orders and the designs and left me with the debt [laughs]. That’s how I started, so not a particularly good investment.

ET: How did you come to DeWitt?

Nathalie Veysset: My father is a watchmaker, and I grew up in La Chaux-de-Fonds [an area whose watchmakers include Zenith, Ulysse Nardin, Corum, Cartier, Concord, Girard-Perregaux, Gruebel Forsey, Breitling and Jaquet Droz, among others]. When I was growing up, however, I wanted to be like Jacques Cousteau—but then I realized I would probably end up as a teacher with lots of kids yelling at me in a classroom. I studied to be a lawyer, and then after that, accounting and tax law [during which time] I was working at a bank with Mr. DeWitt as one of my clients. One day I told him I was leaving the bank. He asked me how much I made, and after I answered he asked me to come work for him. It was a bit too easy, so maybe I should have said a higher number [smiles].

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Jerome DeWitt: It took about two minutes, maybe less. But every time I dealt with Nathalie at the bank, and I had an idea, she would have an idea that was about two or three steps ahead—so I figured if she could do that for me at the bank, she could do it for me here.

ET: Sometimes it’s hard to come in and work for the founder, and sometimes its hard for the founder to let go.

Jerome DeWitt: Not for me. I wanted more time for creativity and so Nathalie runs everything and I try to give her the extra space. I give her the main ideas and stay away. I believe if you have somebody who is talented and you give them the space to grow, they will give you dividends. Nathalie is young, and in the Swiss watch industry most executives are old and very traditional, so she gives the company a new perspective. Everything is an evolution. One hundred years ago the car was new, it was a breakthrough. Today we have technology where you can find out anything from your phone. In 50 or 100 years, who knows what will be happening, so it is important to have new ideas and new perspectives. If you are not evolving, you are going to be left behind.

Nathalie Veysset: Mr. DeWitt is terrific. If I have an idea, as long as I can justify and explain it, he gives me the freedom. We exchange ideas and we have no established meetings, so it’s a very entrepreneurial environment.

ET: DeWitt timepieces have a unique style. Where do you get your inspiration?

Jerome DeWitt: My vision is to adapt things that I see to the watch industry. The design of my first watch came from the transmission of a car. Designing and dreaming are the same thing. I am very curious, particularly about all things mechanical. On the weekends I repair cars, sometimes by myself. I always try to find something from cars.

ET: Do you have a philosophy?

Jerome DeWitt: To always be positive. But if you have an idea, you must have a goal. You have to do the research, but it’s not always possible to look at ROI if you want to be creative. I want to produce first quality, and then the watch.

ET: The past couple of years have been challenging for the watch industry.

Jerome DeWitt: Business is coming back. There is a lot more interest. Two years ago we moved into the headquarters, and we have room for growth. We are 67 people now and we want to do everything ourselves. So in this time we are investing, but I’m not investing in machines, I’m investing in knowledge. When we do it ourselves—make the dials, the components, the movements—we can learn. We can control the quality. Sometimes with a subcontractor the part looks fine on the outside, but you can’t see inside. We used the hard period to go very deep into the production process with many controls to ensure the best quality. Someday we will even make our own cases.

ET: Recently DeWitt launched a new ad campaign that has been somewhat controversial.

Nathalie Veysset: We don’t have a budget like Cartier or Rolex, so we needed to be noticed. When I started to analyze what we had, there was the heritage of Mr. DeWitt [a descendant of Napoleon, his great uncle was the husband of Queen Victoria], however he wouldn’t be comfortable as an icon. When you see him, it is also clear he is an artist, so I told the agency that we needed to be different in terms of typical watch advertising and there should be some reference to art and history as an homage to Mr. DeWitt. In the watch industry, every brand is trying to build a story, but here we truly have a story, so we wanted to tell it in a fun and noticeable way. When we tested the word “audacious,” it really caught people’s attention. When Mrs. DeWitt first saw it, I think she was a bit skeptical, but a few weeks later as she was flipping through a magazine while we were chatting she stopped at the ad, and looked at it two or three times in about 15 seconds. She was happy because it made her stop and notice the ad before she knew it was DeWitt, so I was happy that it was working, and she was happy too.

ET: Anything new coming up?

Nathalie Veysset: We are opening our first boutiques in Beijing and Shanghai with official parties in July. China, in fact, has become our biggest market. In Dalian we are opening a shop-in-shop, as well as other parts of the world.

ET: And when you travel, any favorite places to stay or visit?

Jerome DeWitt: In Asia I very much like the level of service. It is just very natural and the Mandarin Oriental and Shangri-La groups are excellent hotels. My favorite place to go is a retreat called Murtoli in Corsica. It has seven farmhouses, all with full services on 3,000 hectares and eight kilometers. There is hunting, fishing, swimming and sailing. It is amazing.

ET: And tell us about the ping pong table.

Nathalie Veysset: We like to have fun and we like to be relaxed. We have an area for games outside so it is a nice environment. It is very informal.

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