In our long-running series, "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion industry about how they broke in and found success.
But when it comes to traditional, quality, Swiss-made wristwatches, it's all about super-luxury (read: insanely expensive) European brands like Rolex and Omega, with a few fashion labels — like Tory Burch, Burberry and Michael Kors, who license their watch businesses to companies like Fossil — mixed in.
As any follower of Warby Parker knows, that's an industry waiting to be #disrupted (and as the eyewear startup has proven, just because technology has rendered a once-purely-functional item less necessary, that doesn't mean there isn't a demand for affordable, stylish options). So in 2012, Andrew Jennings — a young Brit working in finance — along with his co-founder, the Swedish Joakim Larsson, thought he'd be the one to do it, despite having zero experience in watchmaking. And by hustling, maxing out credit cards and even a bit of lying, he did.
The men's and women's watches have a classic-British-meets-Swedish-minimalist aesthetic and an affordable price point relative to the quality, with most styles falling within the $360-$550 range. One exception is the $1,595 Saxon automatic, which Jennings says has the mechanics of a watch that would traditionally cost five times that amount. The majority of the brand's business is direct-to-consumer, allowing it to take a hit on margins.
Swiss watches are not an easy business to be in right now even for the established power players, but Larsson & Jennings is trucking right along, with a store in London and two in New York: a brand new flagship on Bleecker Street in the West Village and a temporary concept shop/headquarters on Prince Street that's been open since November (and will likely close next January). That's in addition to a strong but strategically small list of stockists that includes Harvey Nichols, Matchesfashion.com, Net-a-Porter and Nordstrom.
At a recent dinner in New York to celebrate the brand's new flagship (and a new, square-faced style called the "Norse"), we were charmed by Jennings's story and entrepreneurial spirit, so we sat down with him a few days later to learn more about how he's making it and why he chose watches in the first place. Read on for our interview
What inspired you to launch a watch brand?
I inherited a vintage Rolex when I was about 10 years old. I was never allowed to wear it, my dad had a construction company and he used to wear it on building sites; it's obviously not the sort of place you'd normally wear a Rolex, but he'd wear it every day. Then when I was 17, I saw a full-page article on the same watch and it was valued at over $30,000. It was such a rare watch, so I phoned him up and he put it in a safe.
Not just because of that, I'd always loved mechanical design and vintage watches especially. I met Larsson on a ski season in Austria in 2007 and we had this idea. At the time, and still, a lot of fashion brand watches are made by the same company, by Fossil. Fossil does the design for the likes of Michael Kors or Armani and puts their logo on a Fossil watch, so the idea was to create an independent watch brand that was a high-quality watch, made in Switzerland at an affordable price, and take a classic-looking design watch and put a contemporary twist on it.
It was very much a small project; I borrowed some money on credit cards.
Did you think about selling the Rolex?
I was that close. I had a conversation with my mom where my bank account was minus because I had all these credit cards from buying all the stock from Switzerland and I did speak to Sotheby's about selling it. I've got the e-mail still. My mom said, 'How much do you like the watch?' And I said, 'Well I'd want to buy it back one day because obviously it's sentimental; it's my favorite watch.' And she was like, we'll just figure it out — we decided not to sell it.
So how did you start selling your watches?
I bought 100 or so watches from Switzerland and sold them to friends. It proved the concept was popular because my friends were all really into it, and then I used that money to build a website. That was in April of 2012; I was still working in finance, cycling to work every day with watches in my backpack, doing customer service at my desk on a secret little laptop that my boss couldn't see, pretending to be 'Sophie Johansson' [so that people at his finance job wouldn't find out he was working on the watch business simultaneously].
I was working until December that year. I knew I had to have a shoulder operation in the end of November because I used to play a lot of rugby and my shoulders were bad, so I timed it around the end of November when I was hoping we'd be busy. I came out of the operation and in December, we sold a thousand watches. I was still packaging them [myself], going to the post office with a bag on one shoulder. I was putting all the straps onto the watches myself in my flat. I went into work in early January and quit on the spot.
Backing up a bit, how did you figure out how to do this, like where to go in Switzerland to get watches made?
About a year before [we launched], I started contacting suppliers in China and that was very difficult, then I got some samples made there and the quality was awful. I then found a couple of suppliers in Switzerland, one of which was the one we still use to this day.
It did take some time — a lot of phone calls, a lot of pretending to be other people. I e-mailed another [watch] brand; I pretended that I was a student doing a dissertation on factory work in the Swiss watch industry and [asked] could I speak to your factory. They would send me the factory details. So it was being a bit sneaky here and there. You can find a lot of factories on Google as well.
Why do you think the brand took off so quickly?
Now, there's an awful lot of watch brands copying what we're doing, like our Lugano classic watches, whereas at the time, we were kind of the first to do it. I think a combination of the price point being under $400; the fact that they're made in Switzerland; the design; the classic, clean look and the fact that there wasn't really anyone that was targeting my demographic — mid-to-late 20s, people who are interested in fashion, who are interested in design, who are creative, so I think we got everything right at the right time.
Do you worry about the proliferation of smartwatches? Or plan to tackle that category?
It's something we keep an eye on, something I am speaking to our product design team about. All our watches are Swiss made, I think it will affect more the Chinese-made, the cheaper watches, a lot more than it will affect us. It's definitely going to impact us eventually, but at the moment we're not kind of big enough for it, we're targeting a demographic that's slightly different.
How do you approach retail? Most of your sales are direct-to-consumer to keep margins down, but you do some wholesale.
We're very selective, so we'll only work with partners who fit our aesthetic, who have brands that we like to sit next to and that can help us reach a new audience. For instance, in the UK, we're working with Harrod's, Selfridges and Harvey Nichols. They're the top tier. We've turned down a lot of very commercial deals because the retailer just wasn't on brand for us.
How did you get the word out about the brand in the beginning and how has that changed?
We started the same day as Instagram in 2012 and that was a really big driver for us — back when bloggers didn't need to be paid to feature us on their Instagram or on their blog. That landscape's changed an awful lot now, where bloggers are paid astronomical amounts. We're moving more into traditional marketing through print advertising. At the moment we're running a wild-posting campaign in New York. I feel like our target demographic notices those adverts. That, and obviously digital marketing is key.
What made you decide to start making a push into the U.S.?
The U.S. has always been our second-biggest market. In terms of sales, the UK is around 40 to 45 percent and U.S. has been 20 to 25 percent, and we saw the U.S. becoming a bigger and bigger part of that.
Are the majority of your customers men?
It's not, it's slightly more women. Traffic to our website is 70 percent women, but our sales are just over 50 percent women. My theory is men just go on and buy it, they know what they want, whereas women go back a few more times.
I'm still looking at Los Angeles, nothing confirmed. We’re looking at doing some events here in New York and in LA.
Where do you see the brand five to 10 years from now? If you think that far ahead...
I want us to have stores in all the key fashion cities around the world. I want to become known as the progressive, Swiss-made watch brand, the interesting, forward-thinking Swiss-made watch brand. I feel like the Swiss watch industry can be quite stale and quite old fashioned and I want us to come in and shake it up a little bit and show what we can do.