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Omega’s boss on how India sees luxury brands

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Stephen Urquhart: President, Omega SA.

Omega president Stephen Urquhart finishes a 17-year career at the watchmaker.

Stephen Urquhart led luxury brands Audemars Piguet, Jaeger-LeCoultre, and Blancpain before joining Omega Watches. In September, he will finish his near-two-decade career at the $2.3 billion (Rs 14,529 crore) company that contributes almost a third of parent Swatch Group’s revenues. At this year’s Baselworld watch fair, he spoke exclusively to Fortune India on global trends and the Indian market. Edited excerpts. 

How was 2015 for Omega?
We gained market share and sold more watches without reducing prices. But it was not an easy year with the fluctuation in the Swiss Franc, the terrorist attack in Paris, and the slowdown in China. When China slows, everyone feels it. 

And India?
Well, India is different. The potential is enormous, but it has not embraced luxury like the other developing markets. That’s not a criticism. India has its own idea of luxury—it’s not a handbag with an ‘X’ on it. Indians like traditional luxury, which works well 
for us.

Historically, your watches have been slim, compact. Why the chunkier, heavier models in recent years?
It’s a good point. I don’t take it as a compliment but it’s true. The reason is more technical than aesthetic. We were looking to improve quality. Models like the Planet Ocean and the Globemaster are [rooted in] the past, but they have to meet modern requirements like being shockproof and waterproof. What I take from your remark is that we shouldn’t go too far in trying to be technically perfect and lose the original appeal. 

What in your view is Omega’s greatest technological achievement?
It would have to be the Moonwatch from the 1950s. Meeting the requirements that NASA had would have to go down as the biggest achievement for Omega. Since then there has been the coaxial escapement that George Daniels built and Nicolas Hayek introduced in the watches in the ’90s or the certification from METAS [the Swiss Federal Institute of Metrology], but those weren’t life changers. 

Is there a risk of overkill with the Moonwatch? You launched the Dark Side of the Moon, the Grey Side of the Moon, and so on...
The Moonwatch has become an icon. Many who buy it weren’t born when it was first launched. I think half the people who bought the Dark Side of the Moon have no idea about its history. Honestly, I don’t really care because it’s a different customer. To answer your question, I don’t think we jumped on the ‘Moonwagon’. The basic design was a good one, and we added tech features on top of it. 

What’s your take on e-commerce for luxury watches?
E-commerce can’t offer the luxury environment our products need. It can offer reference checks. We have several thousand visitors on our site, so it’s a sales tool. [On a separate note,] in India, mono-brand boutiques have potential. We are relatively happy with what we have today. Remember, eight years ago we had 8,000 points of sale worldwide. That has been scaled back to 3,000.

Where can you do better? 
In ladies’ watches. When we think watches, we think men all the time.