Tuesday, August 27, 2013

A Few Minutes with Oliver Ike

From Ikepod, to design, and back to watches with A.Manzoni & Fils SA! And now, a few minutes with Oliver Ike -

Tempus Fugit - What was your first watch?  Was it a gift?  Is there a story behind it? 

Oliver Ike - It was a Junghans Meister classic from my grandfather.  I got it after he died as a memorial. I'm sorry, but there is no further story.  But I have just always loved classical watches and I remember it was a flat mechanical watch with a simple dial with hours minutes and a small second, appliques in Roman numbers and a brown leather strap……

TF - When you were a boy, what did you want to be when you "grew-up"? 

OI - I wanted to be some sort of craftsman.  I have always adored local craftsmanship with good German quality (I am German as you know, I come from Lower Saxony).

TF - Where did you go to school?  What did you study? 

OI - I went to school first in North Rhein Westfalia and then to the elite Gymnasium Rämibühl in Zurich after my parents moved to Switzerland. Later I studied chemical engineering at the ETH and then another two years of national economics at the university in Zurich. I came to quickly understand that I was interested in entrepreneurship and perhaps not destined for an academic career, but I also didn't want to end up in a Swiss bank.

TF - My understanding is that you did not start out in your professional life with the idea of working in the watch industry? 

OI - That is correct.  I sold furniture during my student days to make some money and we had a contract for a big hotel in La chaux-de-fonds…. and then I was invited by Ebel to stay in the Villa Turque!  And somehow I got addicted to the watch business.  It must have come from my liking of precise craftsmanship as a boy ; )

TF - How did you become involved in the watch industry in the first place?

OI - I met Marc Newson in Frankfort Germany, and somehow we became friends and decided to make watches….we just did not have any idea at the time how much money that would require…..and somehow there was only one move forward at the time, so we private labeled Ikepod's first pieces with a Swiss assembler who provided quality that was so inferior it created a real disaster.  The enterprise had saddled me with so many debts that I could not go back, only forward.  At the time Paperon di Paperone helped me out, the nickname for Franz Carl Weber was the "Toy King" as he also owned FO Schwarz at one time.

TF - I first discovered Ikepod when I was living in Finland back in the mid to late 90s.  I will never forget some of those watches.  How did Ikepod come into being? 

OI - Ikepod came into the world after Marc Newson survived a nearly deadly walk with me during the winter on the sidewalks of La Chaux-de Fonds and one of those icicles fell from a melting roof and landed two centimeters from his head….you know up there in the Jura it snows a lot and when the temperature rises the melting ice blocks fall from the roofs…..we somehow decided that we were both crazy enough to start producing watches…. It was always his boyhood dream and I loved the idea of working with craftsmanship.

TF - Many people are desperate to ask the question - what was Marc Newson really like to work with? 

OI - Well it must be like playing in a band with Jim Morrison.  He always felt and behaved like the Jim Morrison of design.  Not easy…impossible…but he is still a good designer, I love his stuff, he would just sell a thousand times more if he was not so stubborn.  If Ikepod watches would have had leather straps we would have sold a shitload of them.  But "Downunder Jim" wanted to have rubber on his delicate wrist ; ) 

Other people said the strap must be made of plastic and owing to this they never bought a watch.

TF - So in the end, what became of Ikepod? 

OI - Investor speculation of the worst kind!  Everyone wanted to triple their money!  The investors got so greedy that in the end the company was destroyed.  It was very sad.  We could have become the Franck Mueller of the 90’s.  Some people did not want Marc and I to come back to work together and as Marc was not very interested in working on/helping with a common cause he just went where the money was.

TF - And A.Manzoni & Figli SA - not exactly a household name.  Who were they? 

OI - Well they were another crazy brand back in 1888.  After going through the archives in the watch museum in La Chaux De Fonds I found those guys and did some further research.  To make a long story short, they were producers of mechanical movements, a factory that originated from Alle and was moved near Lugano as electricity was still produced by water and they have a strong river up there.  I wanted to reawaken a brand from the Italian area as I have been living in this part of Switzerland for many years now.  I even found a patent for a quarter repeater from 1892.  They mainly produced movements for the brands in the French part of Switzerland, they were something like ETA before it joined Ebauches Réunis.

TF - And now that you're involved, who will they be? 

OI - Well it will all depend on how fast I can get a hand on smart investment capital or a partner that makes sense.  Now we are launching a Kickstarter campaign to kick off the first production of watches, but the capital needed to build up the brand is at least 10 Million US dollars.  There are lots of parties interested in investing, but now I only believe in partners when I really see the money in our account!  Maybe I am a little cautious in terms of  business partners due to my experience with Ikepod.  The plan is to build up a high end brand that will be a jewel for the whole region.  Given the passion for watches that the Italian people have, and as they are true trendsetters it seems like a natural opportunity.

TF - So tell us about this new watch – 

OI - The Canopus Weekplanner!  It has a super elliptic shape, and I have the feeling we will sell thousands of them over the next years.  The shape is the most important thing of a watchcase and the super elliptic shape cannot be matched in terms of both its beauty and symmetry.  Right now we have a moonphase, a weekday indication, week number indication and a date calendar on the dial but we certainly will turn that watch shape   into a smart chrono in the future.

TF -   It seems in some ways that you have been "away" for a bit.  But in looking at the images of your new creation - it seems that you've been (to quote some of my favorite jazz musicians like Coltrane and Rollins), woodshedding.  In other words, going deeper into your "vocabulary" to create something special.  Can you tell us about the "in-between time"? 

OI - I have been travelling a lot with my wife as I still have another company where I manage her and we produce productions about houses for magazines like AD or Elle Décor all over the world.  That synergy will give me a lead for the applied art items that A.Manzoni & Fils will produce.  That, as well as working and sharing ideas with leading architects.  I already know who to pick in Japan, in New Zealand, in Chile, In Brazil in Norway or wherever to seek designs for those objects.  The traveling  has also introduced me to lots of local craftsmanship that we will use for our brand.  It could be a woodcarver in Japan or India, or a marble craftsman in Carrara etc…. so there are some great plans in the pipeline for grandfather clocks and table clocks that the market never has seen.

TF - It seems you are in many ways a dedicated fan of industrial/modern design (as I am), what motivates you in design?  Why is (at least in my opinion) the Ikepod, and now the A. Manzoni if not better, certainly different than some of the other "design driven" brands out there? 

OI - Because Design watches are always cheap watches and modern design with perhaps the exception of what Gerald Genta did has never come in touch with traditional watchmaking.  And so now we have patented the slogan contemporary craftsmanship so whoever wants to copy us will never be able to come to our level.  It takes lots of years of experience in both the watch industry and the design industry as well as the culture of design and architecture.  And not many people have all of that, I guess this is the reason we do not see it more often.

TF - The A. Manzoni & Figli Factory seems in many ways to offer an almost "Willy Wonka" potential for recreating a much needed employer in that area of Switzerland.  Any plans to re-open the factory? 

OI - Of course we have but without proper funding it will remain a dream. A Kickstarter campaign does not finance that unless a miracle happens and we get a Spike Lee like fever of followers who all buy watches ; )

TF - What is your current collaborator (Ilkka Suppanen) like to work with?  How did you two meet? 

OI -We have a common friend - a design guru in Malmö, Sweden and he invited both of us to speak at a conference for students.  After that we became friends and I sounded him out and invited him to come with me in mid February to visit a craftsman in Vladikavkaz.  A book could be written about that trip, and somehow  I decided he is the guy to start with as first designer. Besides that, he will also become the art director of A.Manzoni & Fils as he is a very reliable and hardworking person with lots of common sense and an incredible understanding of design culture.  You asked me before how the collaboration with "downunder" Jim was, well in comparison Ilkka showed me how a serious industrial designer who knows material properties works – no BS!

TF - You've been through some good times, and some difficult times.  Any point when you asked yourself - "what the hell am I doing?" 

OI - Well I have asked myself that questions so many times that I think its better to live now, enjoy and create. If you work hard and with the right people in the long run you can have but success.

TF -  You could have picked other brands to try and resuscitate, why A. Manzoni & Figli? 

OI - I live in Lugano, that is the California of Switzerland, and when I discovered that empty factory and the documents in the museum of La Chaux–de-Fonds I said now or never!

TF -  If you weren't doing this, what do you think you might be doing? 

OI - Opening a beach bar in Salvador de Bahia. Actually I went there to the carnival and celebrated the death and burial of Ikepod after I tried in vain for two years to buy back the assets with a Mexican billionaire.

TF - What is RIGHT with the Swiss watch industry? 

OI - Absolutely fascinating tradition and craftsmanship that should be maintained and supported  more by the Swiss government as it’s the culture of that Helvetic Alp Republic that Napoleon gave the constitution.

TF -  What is WRONG with the Swiss watch industry?  

OI - Sometimes too much emphasis and attention given to the big groups.  There should be more protection and support for small independent manufacturers.

TF - What do you like to do in your spare time? 

OI - Sports, swim long distances, surf on the lake run up-hill. 

TF -  What advice do you have for other non-traditional entrepreneurs hoping to break into the watch industry? 

OI - Be crazy, develop a coherent brand concept, implement it no matter what other people from the industry tell you, insist to realize your ideas and do not try to copy others.


The Kickstarter campaign will begin today - 8/27/13 so show your support!

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