The conversation took place in mid-January – before the coronavirus shifted all our priorities.
Georges Kern is not only one of Switzerland’s most successful watch company managers. He also demon- strates considerable talent as a feature-film producer. For his first movie, Mon Chien Stupide, he achieved the virtually impossible and secured the film rights to John Fante’s novel of the same name. He recruited Yvan Attal as director: the Frenchman also plays the role of the frustrated dad who adopts a badly behaved stray dog. At his side is su- perstar Charlotte Gainsbourg, Attal’s partner in real life. The result is a touching, thorough- ly French tragi-comedy. “And the best thing about it,” Georges Kern reveals, “is that we have so much fabulous material, we can make a really good series out of it.” There’s not enough time at the private
screening for the whole film, but Georges Kern and René Beyer are able to enjoy a few excerpts at the Zurich Filmpodium. The cinema, not far from Beyer Chronometrie, is the oldest in the city in its original state and one of Zurich’s few remaining embodiments of the Bauhaus era. René Beyer remembers soaking up the scent of the big wide film world in this theatre as a teenager. “Over the years I somehow forgot all about this beautiful cinema. I prefer watching movies in the peace and quiet of my home – a pity, really.” Georges Kern, a passionate cinema-goer, is here for the first time – and enthusiastic about the architecture. No straight façades, no corners, everything is floating; a blurry boundary between reality and cinematic fiction.
In the foyer, countless small mirrors break up the space and seem to reject the humdrum of everyday life by throwing it back onto the street. As such it is a symbol for the world of the luxury industry, which is once again undergoing a transformation. Over a cup of coffee, this soon becomes the topic of conversation between the two men, who could hardly be more different. Georges Kern, the disciplined manager with the ambition to be better than others in everything he does, and a keen cyclist, but not least a strategist who doesn’t rest until his wildest dreams come true. And sitting opposite him, René Beyer, the eighth generation of the Beyer family to successfully continue the history of the traditional family business; a sensitive ‘gut person’, devoted to the finer things in life and the nostalgia of old trams, but above all to the welfare of the wide world of fantastical clocks and watches that he pre- serves for posterity in the Beyer Museum. “I don’t like too much structure and certainly can’t stand any kind of protocol,” he says. “I want to be able to make decisions spontaneously.”
The quest for meaning in Luxury
The two watch aficionados, both in their mid-fifties, view things from different perspectives. While Georg- es Kern puts the image of a watch first (“A watch always reflects the character of its wearer”), René Beyer sees its true value in its technical sophistication. The almost unbelievable interaction of wheels and oscillations to create a poetic kind of perpetual mobile in the small- est of spaces, is at least as important to the trained watchmaker as look and image.
Where the two agree, is that the world of luxury is currently experiencing a sea change. “Over the past 40 years we have gone through three phases,” Georg- es Kern sums up. “Phase one was the traditional luxu- ry we associate with the 80s, with mink coats and lots of pomp. You were happy if you could afford the hip brands and were allowed to wear them.” Then luxury became democratic; brands began to interact with the customers to secure their loyalty. “Today we are at the beginning of the third phase,” Kern explains. “Consumers are looking for meaning in luxury products. You have to be able to offer them more than just a nice wrapping. The dominant theme of the future is sustainability.”
Their Feet in the Sand
Georges Kern is a master storyteller. He completely overhauled Breitling’s brand image and communica- tions and introduced the ‘Squad’ concept, on which the campaign is based. Each Squad consists of three personalities who are among the best in the world in their fields. In the Surfers’ Squad, these are Kelly Slater, Sally Fitzgibbons and Stephanie Gilmore. The Triathlon Squad comprises Daniela Ryf, Chris McCor- mack and Jan Frodeno. The Explorers’ Squad is made up of the pioneers and adventurers Bertrand Piccard, David de Rothschild and Inge Solheim. All are leading lights in their respective field and masters of their craft, as are the members of the Cinema Squad, including the newly crowned Oscar winner Brad Pitt, the incom- parable Charlize Theron and Adam Driver.
Georges Kern focuses on credibility rather than appearances and invites good customers not to gala dinners but to the Surf Ranch of eleven-time world champion Kelly Slater. The take-up proves him right: within just a few months, he has helped Breitling drop its pure aviator image and positioned it as a brand that is historically at home in the water, on land and in the air. And appears pretty relaxed at the same time. “Luxury becomes accessible, it loses its formal touch,” Georges Kern stresses as he takes a sip of water and leans forward in his armchair. “People who can afford luxury have been to enough candlelight dinners for a lifetime. They’d rather leave their dinner jacket in the wardrobe and, with their feet in the sand, be part of shaping a future that gives a sense of purpose.”
As much as René Beyer appreciated the ‘old’ Breitling of his friend Teddy Schneider, his appreciation for Georges Kern’s reforms is no less strong. “Breitling was no longer up-to-date. Even Schneider would have had to make some changes if it hadn’t been sold.” The independent manufactory in Grenchen was taken over in 2017 by the investment firm CVC, a company known for getting brands fit and reselling them. Georges Kern is not only CEO of Breitling, but also a co-investor. “Without such an option it wouldn’t have been interesting for me,” he says firmly. If Breitling were sold, he would finally have the time it would take to immerse himself in the world of film and direct a movie or two. With his instinct for good stories, stylish aesthetics and the right moves on the chessboard, it wouldn’t be surprising if Georg- es Kern, after stints in Germany, France and Switzerland, would at some point consider moving to Hollywood.
But at the moment Kern is still one of the most influ- ential figures in the watch industry and is pleased to have a strong partner in Zurich. “Beyer Chronometrie is the top dog. The clientele that shops here remains loyal to the company, which has defied the many changes in the industry and preserved its values. Every brand can be proud to be part of this extraordinary cosmos.”
Georges A. Kern (1965) is considered one of the most successful watch company managers out there. For the luxury goods group Richemont, he integrated the brands A. Lange & Söhne, Jaeger-LeCoultre and IWC Schaffhausen. At just 36 years of age, he became CEO of IWC Schaffhausen, which he established with great success. In 2017, he became watch boss of Richemont. After a few months, he astounded the watchmaking world by joining Breitling as CEO and co-investor. Kern is married, the father of two almost grown-up children and lives in Zurich. breitling.com
The Filmpodium at Nüschel- erstrasse 11 shows around 350 auteur films annually – more than all commercial cinemas in Zurich put together.
With its listed Bauhaus-style interior, it is considered the oldest preserved cinema in the city – and in the eyes of many, its most beautiful.
Text: Matthias Mächler
Fotos: Gian Marco Castelberg