Bertrand Meylan, CEO of Melb Asia Limited, which is the distributor of Hautlence, grew up in the watch industry.
Together with his brother Edouard, who manages another watch brand, they are the drivers behind a watch market that is bolder, more hip and more adventurous than their predecessors.
Which is where a brand like Hautlence, distributed in Malaysia by Cortina Watch, comes in.
The brand, founded in 2004, is known for its unique and dynamic designs, gaining respect among watch aficionados with its different approach to the art of watchmaking.
You couldn’t accuse any of its watches of being boring – there’s the Labyrinth maze watch that doesn’t even tell time, rather, it functions as more of a conversation piece or a game to pass the time – and then there’s the likes of the Vortex Gamma, which features a vibrant case material which can take on any colour, bespoke to the wishes of its customers.
“I’ve always had a passion about watches in general, the strength behind Hautlence is creating different ways of reading time, using different types of materials, trying different sorts of designs, to ‘renew’ what this traditional watchmaking industry has been for the last three centuries and to try to make things different,” said Meylan during an interview in Kuala Lumpur. “The past decade or so have been very exciting for small independents like us, becoming more known thanks to countries like Malaysia and Singapore that really have a culture of watches.”
“If you are a young brand you need to have a strong DNA, a strong story about your brand so people can relate to what your brand is about,” he said.
Having star power with football great Eric Cantona on board as a member of the brand’s “Gentlemen Rebels Club” is part of the brand’s attraction as well.
Cantona, who contributed to designing for the brand, has made appearances at events here in Malaysia, drawing watch and football fans alike to the occasion.
“The Gentlemen Rebels Club which is represented by Eric Cantona … he was important in creating the GRC, he’s a gentleman, very well educated, sophisticated but at the same time he has a very strong position in what he believes in, and is not afraid to speak his mind, and that makes him a rebel in his world,” said Meylan. “He decided when he finished with football, to go in a completely different direction and he’s been very successful. From an amazing football player, now he’s into art, cinema and theatre. It shows this aspect to his personality, he’s not just about the sports idol,”
Of course, the products speak for themselves, for example the Newton, launched this year at Baselworld.
Using a system based on gravitational force, the HL Newton indicates the time only when required – the watch enters mechanical standby mode whenever the passing minutes are of no interest to the wearer.
“It’s a different way of reading time, the time is only for you, when you decide to look at it. It’s something very special and unique, and personal, and at the end of the day your watch should be something personal.”
The aesthetically pleasing HL Vagabonde 01, the classic monochrome version, which showcases tones of grey, black and white, and the HL Vagabonde 02, a more sporty and dynamic version in black and vibrant orange, are two more exciting pieces.
More traditional watch fans may scoff at the flamboyance of some of the brand’s creations, but with a younger, bolder crowd, designs like these are gaining traction.
“Today, you want exclusiveness, craftsmanship, stories, it needs to be a 360 degree project, it’s not only about the product, it’s how you present it and explain it,” said Meylan.
The social media landscape and the internet, contrary to some beliefs, create exclusivity, according to Meylan.
“I don’t think it dilutes the exclusivity, it creates it by giving the client direct contact. In today’s world I don’t believe people buy a product for the product, they buy it for the story, a special experience,” he said. “For example, through social media, I contact the brand, from there I get to meet the owners when they travel to KL, and thanks to Instagram, I now can contact them anytime and talk about anything.
“It creates more exclusivity than before but of course you need to treat it the right way, we need to remember it’s not the same audience as 30 years ago. Before anyone buys a watch, they begin their research on their phones, then they might go find a magazine and after that they walk into a shop and look at the watches, but the research starts on the Internet in general,” he added.
In order to reach a younger market, the message has to be a different one from that targeted at our fathers and grandfathers, said Meylan.
The 35-year-old CEO and his brother are a driving force behind this idea, with the ability to reach out to their own generation and to relate to their wants and needs.
“A lot of groups are concerned that young people are not buying watches, but that is not the problem, but how we communicate to them. We need to evolve the way we are speaking … the younger crowd are buying luxury watches but they want the messages to be addressed to them.”
Part of the reason behind the brand’s strong presence in this part of South-East Asia is thanks to Cortina Watch.
“It’s an amazing opportunity to work with a brand like Cortina, one of the biggest groups in the region, it’s a family partnership. My father and Anthony Lim (founder and CEO of Cortina Watch) have known each other for many years, and now it’s the sons on their side and the sons on our side who have that relationship as well,” he said. “It’s all about family and they gave us an opportunity to have a very strong presence in two key markets.”
According to Meylan, the Hautlence customer could be anyone from the avid watch collector with a huge collection, to the watch enthusiast who only has a few watches but wants to add something different to complement the more traditional watches he owns.
“It’s a lot about your social circle in the end, how do you speak to your social circle,” said Meylan. “In countries like Malaysia and Singapore, events are something people like to participate in, they like to meet people, find out about the brands, discuss and understand the products. Here events are very important, compared to the social landscape in Europe … it’s more difficult to organise those sort of things, there’s less attraction.”
In his opinion, the culture of watches is much more evolved in Asia than in Europe.
“I think it’s more often that people really know about watches in Asia than someone in Switzerland who is not within the industry. It’s quite interesting. I have met people in Asia that know 10 times more about watches than me, which you will never meet in Switzerland, there is a real passion and maturity in the market here.”