Sunday, September 9, 2012

A Few Minutes with Eric Loth

The folks at Graham were nice enough to set-up a bit of time to speak with Eric Loth during his recent visit to Los Angeles. A veteran of the Swiss watch industry, Mr. Loth has been involved in some pivotal projects that are still influencing some of the big brands today. And now, a few minutes with Eric Loth.

James Henderson:  What was your first watch? 

Eric Loth:  My first watch was a Tissot P100.  It was a gift from my father from my high school graduation.  It was an automatic movement with a green tinted crystal – it was really cool!

JH : Where did you grow up?

EL : I grew up on the heart of watch making in Le Locle. 

JH:  Where did you go to school?  What did you study?

EL:  I studied engineering in Neuchatel.  My father was a professor of Engineering – a great deal of his work was in actively training engineers.  It is probably safe to say that I grew up “swimming in technology”.

JH:  And after your studies?

EL:  I did my mandatory service in the army, serving for  a little less than a year.

JH:  And what was your first job after school, once you found yourself in the “real world”?

EL:  Well,  as it happens, Rado was looking for an engineer – but in the Design department!  And even though I was an engineer, I was hired by the Chief Designer.  My role became that of a sort of “technical lawyer” – there to help the design department fight against the technicians!  It wasn’t quite as stark as that, but the main problem that they were having was that the design team would come up with ideas, and the technical team would shoot them down.  As a trained engineer, I could speak their language. 

JH:  So what were some of the high points?  Was there a product that stands out?

EL:  Well, one thing that you have to remember is that the Quartz Crisis had come very close to destroying the entire watch making industry in Switzerland.  And Rado, would become a full-fledged member of what would become the SWATCH group.  But SWATCH as we know it today did not exist.  I got to work on some pretty great things – and the two that stand out in particular – the Ceramica and the Integral.  This was really something that stands out – the Ceramica took us four years to develop but what a feeling!  The world’s first ceramic watch!  Sure, lots of people try to say that they are innovative with their use of ceramics today, but at Rado – we were really the ones who did it!  And I am proud to say that I was part of it!

JH:  So you were with Rado right about the time of the birth of the SWATCH of today?

EL:  Yes I was.  And that was really a turning point for the industry as everyone now knows.  The design and manufacture of the Delirium for what would become SWATCH was a very, very big deal.  Of course, a lot of the ideas and technology already existed, but the SWATCH, with it’s plastic case really created some challenges, and opportunities.  The SWATCH is something that cannot be opened to be re-assembled or polished up.  The movement had to be, to some extent, “injected” into the watch case.  Therefore it was almost more of a modular concept.  Despite what some people might say, this was a watch with more than one “father”. 

JH:  For example, the Tissot plastic watch of the 70s? 

EL:  Sure, that was a contribution – but what people forget too quickly is the way that SWATCH distilled the movement down to its barest essential pieces, and instead of adding parts, it utilized the plastic case itself to act as the movement’s mainplate.  And the other thing that people forget is that this was before there was even a SWATCH.  But that’s the way it is with a lot of things – you work on them, you develop them, and then you have to wait and see.

JH:  And now you are in charge of Graham.  How did that come about?

EL:  I knew that I wanted to have my own company and be in charge of it.  This was not an ego thing – I didn’t want or need to see my name on the side of the building.  It has more to do with being an entrepreneur. 

I did not feel that an Eric Loth watch was the answer.  I didn’t feel that I had the watch making legitimacy.  But as you know, there were a multitude of “dormant” brands at that time.  And Graham seemed to hit all of the right notes.  George Graham was the inventor of the Graham dead-beat escapement, and as such is often considered the father of the chronograph.

And with Graham, I feel a very strong responsibility to honor George Graham – to respect and pay tribute to that heritage.  This is what drives us every day.

So with a few partners, we revived the Graham brand.  We went to England to sort out all of the ownership rights, and my adventure with Graham began.

JH:  So what’s the story with the “Trigger” lever for your chronographs?   It seems to have become a bit of a Graham trademark.

EL:  The Trigger system is really rooted in trying to achieve the most accurate system possible.  If you were to look at video or images from the Mexico City Olympics, you’ll see a large group of people holding chronographs, trying to make sure that they hit the stop button “just in time”.  But if you look at the typical chronograph push buttons, they really aren’t set up for this function.  You have to look away from the action or event to stop the time.  With the buttons oriented the way that they are, you really get distracted in order to use the function.  So with the Graham Trigger, it is a more natural feeling and action for your thumb.  And this was another point.  Your fingers have a fairly limited range of motion, but your thumb on the other hand has true autonomy.  It really has become apparent that this is one of the most logical solutions. 

And our partnership with the Rugby 6 Nations tournament has proven to be a great proving ground for our concepts.  We supplied chronographs for the referees officiating all of the games.   And I am proud to say that these same referees continued to use our watches in other games outside of the tournament!  We had to make the watch light, so we made it out of titanium.  We needed to make it comfortable to wear – and safe, so we used a soft rubber strap.  We also used rubber for the bezel and the reset button.  Keep in mind, in rugby, the referee is sometimes quite involved in the action, caught between players in the heat of the moment, so the rubber will not cut or hurt the players or the referee.   And the referees who use the watch all comment on how practical and useful the trigger mechanism is.  They can keep their eyes on the action without looking away to stop the time.

JH:  I realize that it might be hard to choose, but if you had to, what is your favorite creation?

EL:  I can’t!  My feeling is that if I am not excited about a watch, then it will not be a Graham.  It’s like asking a parent which of their children is the favorite – you can’t choose one.

JH:  Okay, but maybe a watch that you are excited about right now?

EL:  If we are talking about recent models, I would have to say the Chronofighter 1695 is something I am quite proud of.  

Courtesy of Graham
I had been looking or something a bit more scaled back.  I love all of the Graham watches, but I was looking for something you might be able to wear with a tuxedo, for example.  And it was a fun challenge – how to take the Graham DNA and translate it in a more subdued, more classic form.  This is the result.

And I also wanted to use the case back to actually tell a story!  All too often, watch brands just throw a crystal onto the back of the case and make no effort to decorate or improve the movement...  what's the point?  So for this watch we really focused on making something special, really telling a story.

JH:  So if you had to do it all over again would you still strike out on your own?

EL:  Knowing what I know now, I don’t know if I would ever do it again!  The wall that I had to climb, 15 years of incredibly hard work to build Graham to what it is now.  And I am proud to say that we are still independent.

JH:  What has been your biggest challenge?

EL:  I would have to say learning to manage people.  I have learned that very often it is not clear what talents people might have.  I have been in the situation where I thought that I had hired the very best person – and they did no work out at all.  And then in other instances where I thought we had made a great mistake, and the “least likely” employee turns out to be one of the most invaluable members of their team.

And I think this is one of the greatest lessons that I have learned – you can have great products, but really it is the people that make your company.  They are far and away your most valuable resource. 

I also look at it this way, I have several designs and ideas in the “desk drawer”, but I know that because of the team that we have, things could go on without me if they had to.  Projects exist, but the value of the people is what makes all of the difference.

JH:  Who else out there is making watches that you admire?

EL:  Omega, without a doubt will be the most important watch company in the world.  They have so much in their favor.  They have the history, of course and they have a recognizable name.  But it is more than that.  They have invested heavily in technology, and they put their technology to the test!  They continue to be an active partner with the Olympics, acting as the official timekeeper.  I truly believe that in the next ten years they will be able to turn the world!  They will be far beyond Rolex.  Rolex is a wonderful brand, but there has been little innovation there.   Omega is different.  Unlike the “aircraft carrier” that is Rolex, Omega is far more nimble.  They can react and adapt.  Although they are part of the largest watch group in the world, they are able to move quickly within that group.

JH:  What do you like to do in your spare time?

EL:  I enjoy auto racing – I participate in the Porsche Cup Championship.  I also collect contemporary art.

JH:  So what advice do you have for the aspiring watch entrepreneur?

EL:  Make sure you have the passion!  That is the only thing that will truly drive you to keep going.

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