Interview with CEO Robert Punkenhofer & Investor Peter Brabeck-Letmathe
This article is a revised abstract from the original publication on Horology and Luxury Discussion Community Forum Luxe178.com
Carl Suchy (1796 – 1866) was a Bohemian-Austrian watchmaker and entrepreneur of high repute, born and mostly active, in Prague. He established his own firm in 1822, being eventually appointed as official purveyor to the Imperial Court in Vienna. Suchy created watches not only for the Austrian bourgeoisie and nobility, but also for members of Austria’s intellectual elite such as Sigmund Freud, neurologist and founder of psychoanalysis, or as special honour, for Emperor Franz Joseph I himself.
The image shows Carl Suchy’s watch store in Prague. Note the sign at the corner which already refers to their own manufacture in Switzerland.
From early on, Suchy relied on the highly specialised expertise of Swiss watchmaking workshops, with his son establishing a watch manufacture in 1853 in La Chaux-de-Fonds to ensure the supply of high-quality watches.
Since the eve of the First World War, the brand vanished for over a century.
In 2016, Carl Suchy & Söhne it was rediscovered and revived by Austrian art and design expert Robert Punkenhofer. Punkenhofer started where Suchy stopped – creating luxurious and elegant watches, with an Austrian identify but a Swiss heart. Punkenhofer put a quite capable team together to start his project:
- Design: Miloš Ristin and Reinhard Steger
- Movements: Manufacture Vaucher
- Watchmaking: Independent watchmaker Marc Jenni
The team secured the financial backing of Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, retired Chairman of the Board of Swiss food & drinks multinational Nestlé, having been responsible for establishing global food brands such as Nespresso or Buitoni.
Carl Suchy & Söhne’s first modern watch is the Waltz No. 1, a decidedly elegant, thin watch driven by a Vaucher ultra-flat microrotor movement.
I recently had the chance to sit together with Robert Punkenhofer (RP) and Peter Brabeck-Letmathe (PBL) to talk about their ideas, experiences as neophytes in the watch industry, and where they see their greatest challenges ahead.
From left: Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, the Author, Robert Punkenhofer.
1.) Mr Punkenhofer, how did you discover Carl Suchy, and what attracted you?
RP: As you know, I am an international art and design expert, having curated, amongst others, the Vienna Design Week. When researching potential exhibits for the Austrian Design Explosion at the Triennale Design Museum in 2015, I researched not only contemporary Austrian design, but also historical brands, and discovered a number of purveyors to the imperial court. A few of them are still existing and enjoy international repute, like the Hotel Sacher or the furniture maker Thonet.
But a great number are now defunct and forgotten, such as the watch maker Carl Suchy, the official watchmaker to the Austrian Court for over three generations, who was invited to the 25th wedding anniversary of Emperor Franz Joseph I and Empress Elisabeth ‘Sissi’ of Austria. I am not a watch collector by heart, but I liked the story, felt a creatively a bit stale from curating exhibitions, and since this was around my 50th birthday, I thought to turn this into a creative adventure and design a watch for myself.
Historical paraphernalia from Carl Suchy: noteworthy are the Imperial Austrian Order of Franz Joseph [top left], a number of Carl Suchy pocket watches including the calendar/moonphase watch that belonged to Sigmund Freud [bottom centre right], as well as a few 3D prints from different case design iterations [bottom left].
I also liked the challenge of a watch as an object where technology, handcraft and design unite. The history involved was the icing on the cake, as we discovered when we searched the Imperial archives.
2.) What are the typically Austrian elements with Carl Suchy watches?
RP: Well, just look at the seconds disk – the ‘Waltz Disk’ – as we call it: this is Viennese elegance, different from, for example the Parisienne elegance. In Vienna, we do not count every single second. We take our time, enjoy another coffee, a Sacher cake, and so on. Entirely different to fast-pace cities like Tokyo or Hong Kong. The seconds disk on our Waltz No. 1 symbolises this in that it aligns with the dial pattern only once a minute. Our customers appreciate that.
The watch face has no rehaut or inner bezel, instead the dial is inversely domed and transitions directly over to the crystal
Then there is the smooth transition of elements and materials, which 100% the design approach of Austrian architect Adolf Loos, who built the very bank building we are currently in: with blending jointlessly to mahogany and then to brass.
The Looshaus in Vienna was designed by Adolf Loos as a bank building, it is the prime representative building that symbolises what Loos, pacemaker for the modern architecture like Le Corbusier, stood for: smooth and clear surfaces in contrast to the lavish decorations of the fin de siècle)
3.) How do you recall your first steps into the watch industry?
RP: Well, we had no experience in the industry, and literally reeled from milestone to milestone. What greatly helped was that we had the great luck of finding the right partners from start: On the technical side, Vaucher for the movements and Marc Jenni, independent master watchmaker and former member for the AHCI, as well as Miloš Ristin and Reinhard Steger, two young designers who gave me sufficient confidence to take the creative risk as well.
Miloš Ristin, who never had designed a watch before, but I knew him from my exhibition projects. Then, we sat together and thought about partners who would help us to realise the project. We shortlisted a number of candidates, and settled for Marc Jenni, who ticks along the same lines as us, and also appreciated the challenge of working for a young and small brand – outside of Switzerland. The great thing about our team is that we work and communicate on equal footing.
In retrospect, organising and curating a large international design or art exhibition is much less of a challenge and a lot more distant from my heart than this analogue start-up aimed at reviving a 200-year old Austrian watchmaker.
4.) Once the basics (to revive Carl Suchy) were defined – how did you continue – and how did you finance it?
RP: Only then we felt we were at a stage to seriously enter the development phase – however, at this stage I had already invested all my savings. I then simply sent an email to Mr Brabeck – only a week later I got a reply, and we finally sat together here in Vienna to discuss the details.
5.) Mr Brabeck – was Carl Suchy your first encounter with the watch industry?
PBL: No, my first engagement was with HYT. And from there it really matched: we discussed the past and the prospective future of Mr Punkenhofer’s project, the history of Carl Suchy, the emotional value of the brand, and I liked when the team had in mind. At the same time, I was open for such an investment, as it brought a firm link to my home country Austria. For over 20 years I was part of the consulting team to various Austrian chancellors, so there is a vivid connection to Austria for me.
I spent my entire career at Nestlé, where I developed brands like Buitoni or Nespresso, and thus the challenges of developing and establishing a brand are a natural thing for me. And I always believed in supporting good ideas!
6.) You mentioned developing global food brands like Buitoni or Nespresso. What, in your perspective as investor and corporate manager, different to building up a small watch company?
PBL: Well, Carl Suchy is also a global brand – with collectors in 12 countries already (laughs). But seriously, in essence there is nothing particularly different: the challenges to create a brand, tell their story in a way that it resonates with the intended audience in a way that an emotional connection is established to the brand, and then there is finally the price effect which basically has to link the emotional content with the function. Looking from this perspective, there is no fundamental difference between selling a bouillon cube and a watch. The basic elements of a brand are the same, it just has to be adapter to your specific product (e.g., niche or mass product) and market.
7.) If I recall my own experience (with MING Watches), I can attest that it is quite bumpy road from an idea of a watch to the actual market-ready pieces. And this despite my knowledge acquired through many years of collecting watches and writing about them, after so many factory visits, discussions with watchmakers, and also after having made my own watch together with Paul Gerber. Did that surprise you as well?
RP: Quite honestly, the design process and getting the production up and running was not the real challenge. I might have been simply lucky, although there was a point in the design process (at round 2 of 3), where I suggested to the designer to go to Vienna for a ‘total immersion week’, including Schnitzel, experiencing the Museum of Applied Arts, to get a feeling of ‘Vienna’.
Then a real tough nut to crack – technically – is the seconds disk – is looks simple but rotating disks are anything but tricky to realise in series.
What really was difficult was to convey the message to collectors and get the right retailers interested in the small niche brand called Carl Suchy, particularly on the small budget we have. That was a real surprise for me, but then again we were neophytes and had no idea on how conservative most retailers are. We now work with Hübner in Vienna, Chronopassion in Paris, which are all very important and active partners to us.
We have lots of ideas for watches to come, but first we need to be able to convince retailers and collectors.
8.) How many watches did you sell so far?
RP: We sell currently about 50 pieces per year, our goal is about a steady turnover of 200 watches.
Our last novelty is the Waltz No.1 Skeleton, we sold 5 of them last year. If you look at them against the light, you get a hint of what ticks inside – the skeletonised Vaucher 5401/180 movement. Unique design language, not the usual ‘fuzzy’ open-worked watches you see so often, but elegance and clarity with a ‘wild’ twist!
But in general, everybody asks up about our next and upcoming model(s). But you have to be realistic: we have a pipeline and a product plan for the next years, but as a start-up you have to live within your means. We have thrilling projects with designers Luca Nichetto from Sweden and Rainer Mutsch from Vienna, as well as with Therese Wibmer, a renowned third-generation clock maker in Vienna.
9.) What are the specific challenges of a small watch brand? Particularly suppliers do usually not like such small quantities.
RP: Yes, there are the usual minimum order quantities. But with Vaucher for example, gained more visibility though us then by themselves, so there is certainly the goodwill originating from mutual benefits, the same holds true for Marc Jenni. Vaucher has a capacity utilisation of currently 60%, so I don’t see a danger that we get squeezed out.
But dials, for example, are a real problem, as dial makers definitely prefer working with large scale orders. And then, we come with an order of 5 skeleton dials… in the end Marc Jenni skeletonised them himself!
10.) Are you satisfied with where you stand now?
RP: Yes, we are quite happy with how the start-up phase went, the fact that we have 10 points of sale now and clients in 12 countries. The question is now how to proceed for the next phase, and turn the project into a sustainable business.
RBL: I see the greatest challenge now as I see it lies in developing the chemical bond between the brand and the collectors.
RP: In our experience so far, one of the best means is to go to the collectors, meet with them and present the Carl Suchy watches directly, hands-on, to the collectors. But this is a huge individual effort.
RBL: In terms of coverage, we were quite successful, with articles in Financial Times, Monocle or A Blog to Watch. But I have the feeling we are still not enough in the minds of the actually buying collectors. If 99.99% of collectors are not aware of us, does it make sense to present the next model already?
My question is where would be something like a turning point? How could we improve to ‘only’ 99.60% not knowing us? How can we get our emotional message across?
Magnus: I think this is when collectors themselves start talking about a certain brand, a certain model, and this not only when a new model is presented.
RP: Marc Jenni mentioned that it usually takes 5 years until people have enough confidence that you will be around in the future.
One aspect we need (and will) to focus a bit more on is the ‘Viennese experience’ around Carl Suchy. For this, we are planning a Carl Suchy salon in Vienna, where we will showcase the Viennese laissez-faire, the culture and – of course – the past and the presence of Carl Suchy.
As in many other cases, reviving a defunct, largely forgotten brand is a tough endeavour. It needs a good understanding of markets and niches less frequented, a close touch to the pulse of watch collectors, and an idea that sticks and has a future (e.g. a design that is recognisable and allows to be developed into a design language that is amenable to different types of watches, complications, etc.). And on top, boundless energy, stamina and commitment of the founding team.
Xavier de Rocquemaurel from Czapek can probably tell you a story about this, or better: two!
The Waltz No. 1 has these ingrediencies, a restrained design which combines effortlessly a number of lovely designs into a holistic watch. The technology behind gives it a serious watchmaking credibility, which is further strengthened with an accomplished master watchmaker like Marc Jenni doing the benchwork.
Like great a number of other ‘foreign’ brands (Panerai probably being the most prominent), Carl Suchy relies on the usual origin of competence: Switzerland. What seems like a consequence of necessity is in this case also a homage to the origins of the brand itself. Suchy is not ‘the other Austrian brand’ next to Habring2 – in my view, one cannot compare the two. The latter is a family business and a watch technology powerhouse as well. Suchy would complement the ‘Austrian’ flag on the watch globe with a design-focused, yet technologically very solid, colour.
Therefore, I welcome the Carl Suchy start-up, and hope it succeeds. Austria has gifted so many horological contributions (Joseph-Thaddeus Winnerl, anybody?) to the industry that its name should be heard better.
Author’s Biography: Dr. Magnus Bosse
Dr. Magnus Bosse is co-founder and Managing Director of Alphaluxe’s community portal Luxe178.com
Dr. Bosse is both a Molecular Biologist and Diplomat by training, and served many years in the United Nations system. Being more fond of substance than protocol, he left international relations eventually and now concentrates, professionally, on select topics in network biology of complex microbial communities in areas such as bio-mining and bio-remediation.
Having missed a train as a student and being forced to waste some time waiting for the next, he ventured out of the ordinary (train station building) and sampled a flea market right in front. He went back with a solid gold mechanical wristwatch purchased at the frivolous amount of 1€ (it lacked the crown, ok?), and the rest is history: Dr. Bosse is a noted writer on horological themes, with a clear focus on technologies and independent watchmakers. His work has been featured extensively on online watch collector’s fora such as PuristS.com, but also in print publications and newspapers globally. Most recently he published a book on the most complicated wristwatch in the world, a masterpiece known as the ‘Superbia Humanitatis’, created by Louis Élysée Piguet, Franck Muller and Paul Gerber.
All his in-depth knowledge about watchmaking and the namesake industry has not prevented him from exposing his masochistic soul, and thus he founded with a group of likeminded friends around noted theoretical physicist, business strategist and acclaimed photographer Ming Thein an independent watch brand MING, for which he serves as stakeholder and Director of Production (whatever ‘director’ means in a startup).