In Conversation with Raynald Aeschlimann, CEO Omega WatchesBy Wei Koh
He’s one of the most dynamic leaders in the watch industry and also one of the most genuine, sincere and kind individuals I know. On 5th October of the most challenging and imperiled year human history has ever known, Aeschlimann and his team at Omega created an act of horological magic.
Ostensibly, it was a Speedmaster watch meant to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Omega receiving the Silver Snoopy Award. This honor is bestowed by NASA on just a small percentage of their external suppliers for truly outstanding service. Omega, of course, received this award for helping to save the lives of the astronauts on Apollo 13. But the watch that Omega created was something more than a celebration of their history.
It was, in some ways, the healing balm and uplifting act that we all need, now more than ever. It was the watch that brought smiles to the faces of collectors around the world. Why? Because in an act of incredible imagination and creativity, Omega has designed a watch with an animation of Snoopy flying through space in his command module for exactly 14 seconds — the time for the critical engine burn in Apollo 13 — that suddenly made us forget everything else and revel in pure childlike joy. You see, the Speedmaster “Silver Snoopy Award” 50th anniversary is not just a watch, but also a message of hope and a reminder of human resilience and courage against all odds. I had the pleasure to catch up with Aeschlimann a few days after this launch to discuss the watch and all things Omega with him.
Well, Raynald, you’ve done it. You just blew the minds of all the Omega Speedmaster lovers out there with what has to be the coolest and most uplifting Speedy of all time. Can you tell me a bit about the creative process behind the “Silver Snoopy Award” 50th Anniversary?
Thank you, Wei. It is kind of you to say that. I was very clear from the start that to create this watch properly, we had to be incredibly respectful. First, we had to be very respectful to the Silver Snoopy Award because this is something that is bestowed to very few of NASA’s external suppliers, and only in the instance of achieving some true service to the astronauts and to the space program.
We received this award in 1970 for the Speedmaster’s service to NASA and in particular for the role we played in safely returning the astronauts onboard Apollo 13. As you know very well, after a major electronic failure, the astronauts had to calculate the exact angle of re-entry to Earth that would not cause them to burn up because the angle was too steep, nor bounce off the atmosphere because the angle was too shallow. The Speedmaster was used to time a precise 14-second engine burn to position the craft exactly. This is real history and a reminder of human resilience — which is, perhaps, in the context of 2020, more important than ever.
You know, less than one percent of NASA’s suppliers are ever awarded the Silver Snoopy, so it means a lot. So, while the Snoopy watches have become valuable collectibles and collectors love them, first and foremost, I wanted the watch to be a real tribute to how much we value the Silver Snoopy and treasure our relationship with NASA’s astronauts and the Mercury and Apollo Space Programs. We still have an incredibly strong relationship with NASA, and so, we had to live up to the incredible history of our partnership and make something they would look at and say, “We love it.”
The sheer audacity and creativity of Snoopy flying in space in his command module, for 14 seconds each revolution of the chronograph seconds, is brilliant. How did you come up with this?
The second thing I told my team — headed by Jean Pascal [Perret] and Gregory [Swift], who are great guys — is we have to do something more. We have to elevate the concept even further than what we already did for the 2015 45th-anniversary Silver Snoopy Award Speedmaster, which had the beautiful hand-carved Silver Snoopy medallion against a bed of aventurine on the caseback. If we don’t, then we aren’t going to do it. I prefer to be criticized for maybe going too far, than not doing enough.
But I have to say, the team was aligned in agreement with this, and so, we started to conceptualize something far more ambitious than we had ever done. So what Gregory and Jean Pascal did was, they went to NASA to have a meeting with them and start to discuss ideas. And it was after the conversation with them that we refined all the small details that made the watch so meaningful. For example, Snoopy is in his command service module, and he is flying precisely 14 seconds before he disappears from sight behind the moon.
The 14 seconds is, of course, related to the 14-second engine burn of Apollo 13, which inspired the words, “What can you do in 14 seconds?” on the dial of the 2015 Silver Snoopy watch. After this Snoopy disappears behind a photorealistic moon, which references the fact that Apollo 13 used the gravitational pull of the moon and travelled around the dark side of the moon to slingshot themselves back to Earth. My philosophy — and the philosophy at Omega — is about creating all these small details that together add up to a watch that is so perfect and expresses all these things that we love about our history with the space program, and even human history.
What is the most important thing you think about when creating a new watch?
I always say, at Omega, we aren’t making products. We are making watches that mean something. Watches whose intrinsic values are as important as their external value and any associated marketing. I think what gives us one big advantage at Omega is that we are all watch people. We all love what we do and we love watches. So when we made the effort to really grow the story of the Speedmaster, to really connect people emotionally to this icon, it came very naturally for us because we genuinely love this watch. We are not trying to come up with a clever marketing product that we want to convince people to buy.
We consider ourselves the guardians of a true treasure. Of course, we want to modernize it and grow the audience, but never at the expense of the core, essential values of the Speedmaster and its incredible legacy, which no other chronograph in history can compete with. It was the watch chosen by NASA, the first watch on the moon, and the only watch ever officially certified for the Space Program. It was the watch that genuinely helped to save the lives of the astronauts on Apollo 13.
Look, for example, at the incredible rise of the value of vintage Speedmasters in the last decade. These watches went up in price not because of speculation, but because as we and others told the story of how they were connected to the most incredible adventure in human exploration, people understood their significance. People loved this and became super passionate about this. And, I like to say that the reason for the rise in the prices of these vintage watches and expansion of this passion, is that the story of the Speedmaster is a real story rooted in truth — whereas with some other brands, I think the rise in their prices might have more to do speculation than anything else.
I love that the Earth on the watch rotates once a minute as well. Why did you decide on this?
When we created the background of space for Snoopy to fly across, we immediately thought about depicting Planet Earth. You always hear about astronauts having this almost-religious experience when they see Earth for the first time from space. And it really reminds them that we are all on one planet together. This message couldn’t be more important than now.
Are you talking about what the astronauts call the “overview effect” where, from space, national boundaries and conflicts vanish and Earth is seen as a small, fragile ball of life, a “pale blue dot”?
Yes, precisely. We loved this idea of a blue planet where you can see that we are made primarily of water, and that we must all do our part to conserve our resources and protect the future of Earth. This was quite an emotional idea for many of us: the way in which we conceptualized this Earth is as it is seen by astronauts from space. To me, it reminds us of how the whole world is connected, and the human connectivity that binds us all together. We are all on one single planet, and maybe this message is more important this year.
With this pandemic we are facing, we understand that the whole world is in this fight together. To highlight that the Earth is a living planet, we decided to connect it to the seconds wheel so that you can see it revolving. Bear in mind that when you view Earth from anywhere above it in space, such as looking at the North Pole, it appears to be rotating counter-clockwise. Which is what you have on our caseback.
OK, I have to ask: why is this not a limited-edition watch?
It’s funny. I read on the Omega forums that they were complaining that the watch should be limited, and I was thinking, “Thank you, guys. You were complaining five years ago that we should stop with the limited edition, especially because not enough people can get the watches.”
Anyway, I didn’t want to create such a watch that we knew people would feel emotionally connected to, and then not make enough so that most people who want one cannot have one. This will, of course, be a gradual process. Every year we will make the number of watches that we are capable of. I’m sure that there will be a surplus of demand, but we will make more each year, and eventually, the people who dream to own the watch can make this a reality.
I think this is very important, because otherwise, with limited editions, sometimes people get upset because they feel left out. We are Omega, we don’t like to exclude people as some others do. We want those who dream about it to be able to get it eventually. This will be a model we will continue to make, but never in huge quantities and without any time limitation. It will be a limited production every year.
We already know it will be a very popular watch, and so, we will make precisely the quantities that we had planned, which will not be a lot. This also allows us to closely monitor the sale of each watch, so that we can do our best to ensure each Snoopy ends up in the hands of a true collector and not a reseller.
How do you make sure the watches end up on the wrists of real customers and not resellers?
That’s one of the biggest issues that I have. OK, to begin with, I would say it is important that we create a watch that is the right price. We could have taken advantage of the huge pre-owned market price of the 2015 Silver Snoopy and made a more expensive watch, but that is not the way we do things at Omega.
I can see that some opportunists are already trying to speculate on the 50th-anniversary Silver Snoopy and this is a concern for me. We really want this watch to be on the wrists of the right people. Our biggest asset in accomplishing this, is our network of 160 boutiques in the world where real clients have developed a relationship with the staff there and we know these are genuine people. Some brands don’t believe in this direct contact with their clients, but for us, we love this. We love to hear their feedback and get to know them on a personal level.
So I would say that our own network is the best tool for “vetting” clients, to ensure they are genuine in their appreciation of the watch. We make a real effort to monitor that these special watches end up on the right wrists. It’s funny, I sometimes feel other brands even encourage the speculation on their watches as a sign of their desirability — but that is not the Omega way.
Did you see some clown on a trading forum trying to sell a watch that hasn’t been delivered yet, for 38,000 dollars?
I saw that. But this is a gray market dealer or a speculator who’s trying to profiteer on the watch’s success. This is, again, one of the reasons why I prefer not to make it a limited edition — so that if you are a genuine collector and have some patience, you will get the watch.
How do you think the events of 2020 have changed the way we regard luxury watches?
I have to say, I don’t think the desire for luxury watches has changed. I saw this very much with our online sales, which we accelerated during the lockdown and which went totally crazy. But the success of this was because we did the online platform in the right way. It was already prepared when we launched it, so we didn’t have to rush to integrate online sales at a time when no one could leave their home.
It was interesting to me that one of the results of this year is that people are really engaged and they read everything; they want to be informed, so if you are able to create a narrative-rich environment, and if you have watches that are truly connected to some of the most important and uplifting acts in human history — which we have with the Speedmaster and its story with the Space Program — people will respond very enthusiastically.
There’s this famous quote from Warren Buffet: “When the tide comes in, you see who’s swimming naked,” This year, the tide came in, and we saw some brands increasing market share in a big way, and others really suffering. What made the difference?
I think that this year was already tough on brands that were extremely authentic and really making watches that are expressions of their true DNA. That means that for all the guys who were making tactical moves or marketing-driven strategies, this year was very difficult for them.
In times of crisis, do people retreat to known values and entrenched models and brands?
I’ll put it this way: brands that don’t have a true history, who are not the reference in at least one of the major categories, and who don’t have truthful watches, will not be successful in these difficult times. In difficult times, we go back to real values, we go back to friendships, to family, and to the relationships that are the most authentic.
So if you as a watch brand do not have a relationship with the client that is also authentic in this way, you will not only have a difficult time this year, but also in the years ahead. Let me be clear that it is not only big brands that are authentic; there are small ones that have done a great job as well. To me, in our consumption, our shopping, we make a statement on the values that are important to us. What was interesting to see is that if you have this authenticity to the brand, then you can definitely transit this to people digitally, and they will respond and buy your watches.
The watches that feature the new caliber 321 occupy a higher price category that the caliber 861 watches. I understand that they even feature a double assembly process. Was it your objective to make the caliber 321 watches Omega’s examples of haute horlogerie?
I’m glad you brought this up. The caliber 321 is something almost mythical for watch collectors, and in particular, for Omega. It was created by Albert Piguet, who was the technical director of Lemania, which was part of the same company as Omega in the 1940s.
The movement really enabled us to become the leader in chronographs from the ’50s onwards. The movement enabled the Speedmaster to be selected by NASA as the only watch to be officially certified for the Space Program. The caliber 321 was in every watch that went to space, and was the watch worn by the men who walked on the moon for the first time in human history.
The movement was in the Speedmaster that helped save the astronauts in Apollo 13. So when it came time to bring it back, we had to treat this movement with the ultimate dignity respect and reverence. I wanted to treat this movement as something that made us who we are. It was very emotional for us to bring this movement back. I do not say it is haute horlogerie, because there are other brands in our Group that are the true stars of high watchmaking.
The movement is decorated, assembled and regulated by watchmakers dedicated to the 321 in our manufacture. The movement is one of the very few that actually undergoes a double assembly process where it is put together then stripped down, finished, and put together again. Then the watchmaker who built that movement is the one also placing it inside the case and even signing the warranty card. And when you look at the movement through the caseback of the watch, I think you’ll feel all this. To me, this watch is an emblem of our pioneering spirit. And it is an example of the highest quality we can achieve, but made in an industrial way, which was always Omega’s philosophy. So even though it is, in absolute terms, a more expensive watch, I would say — as with all Omegas — it offers a very honest value proposition.
There are countries like China that were relatively unaffected this year and whose economies even grew, how is the business there?
Well you can also feel, especially in places like China where most things are open, that people are very, very motivated to get over this. Like everyone else, they went through a difficult time, and now, they want to express their desire to get past this, to celebrate, to move forward. This time has made us more human and more emotionally honest humans.
You have a partnership with the two biggest events in 2020, the Tokyo Olympics and the James Bond film. Both of these have been shifted to 2021. Has this affected your business?
Don’t forget we launched the James Bond Seamaster Diver 300M “No Time to Die” in December 2019, and similarly we launched the Tokyo Olympics one year before the Games were meant to happen. And what we can see is that we are at maximum production for these watches and they are all still on backorder. So, it didn’t affect our business for these watches at all, and in some ways, makes them relevant well into next year. The thing is, we are not a mono-product or mono-message brand. Our messages are universal, and I think the messages of next year will be incredible. We are going to start with the America’s Cup. Then we will have James Bond. Then we will have the Ryder Cup and we will have some amazing new watches related to the Speedmaster. We will have the new Moon watch coming out. So, 2021 will be an incredible year focusing on the biggest pillars of our brand. I am looking forward to 2021, and even though it will be crazy busy, I can’t wait. It will be a great year.
What is the mission of watchmaking in 2020?
The mission of watchmaking is to keep people optimistic, to put a smile on people’s faces. We can all agree that 2020 has been a little somber. We miss the big opportunities to celebrate and to see each other, to be positive and to find this kind of emotion in our hearts and our souls. The essence of the 50th-anniversary Silver Snoopy Award is to bring a smile — and even life — to courageous men who were the greatest explorers we’ve ever known.