A Brilliant Leader Shines in Paris: Meet Vacheron Constantin CEO Louis Ferla

A Brilliant Leader Shines in Paris: Meet Vacheron Constantin CEO Louis Ferla

“Just what the hell is going on at Vacheron Constantin?” This is the question I’ve asked myself for the past few successive years every time I attend a COVID-friendly, digitally optimized Watches and Wonders, or witness the launch of their latest timepieces. Because the only way to describe the watches emerging from the world’s oldest continuously operating manufacture is that they are so damnably good.

What’s that? You want irrefutable evidence? OK, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I give you the Overseas Perpetual Calendar, an ultra thin masterpiece of design, horological authenticity and a profound demonstration that whoever it is at Vacheron commissioning, designing and producing this absolutely stellar timepiece, understands exactly the type of watch the modern consumer wants to wear. The size of the watch is perfect, the dynamic tension between a muscular diameter contrasted by a lithe thin profile is perfect. The design is perfect. The choice of the precise blue Pantone color used for the dial is perfect. The skeletonized version of it is perfect. The 48-month leap year indicator based on their old pocket watches is perfect. The quick-change system between the rubber bracelet and precious metal bracelet is perfect. So much so that I would even say it could actually be a better watch than the Patek Nautilus 5740, especially in terms of wearability and adaptability. And well… until two years ago, unlike the other grail watch integrated bracelet perp cals, you could actually get one, although that era is now decidedly over, with both this watch and its ultra thin time and date counterpart selling for considerable premiums. On the subject of the Overseas, let’s talk about the Everest, the 150-piece limited edition based on the watch worn by Cory Richards on his ascent to the famed peak, which broke the Internet and is selling now for insane nose bleed premiums on the secondary market.

Overseas Perpetual Calendar Ultra Thin Skeleton in 18K pink gold
Overseas Perpetual Calendar Ultra Thin Skeleton in 18K pink gold
Hand-finishing being applied to the skeletonised caliber 2160 SQ
Hand-finishing being applied to the skeletonised caliber 2160 SQ
The intricate decoration on Vacheron’s watches
The intricate decoration on Vacheron’s watches
Cory Richards wearing the new Overseas Chronograph "Everest."
Cory Richards wearing the new Overseas Chronograph "Everest."
Vacheron Constantin Overseas Everest Limited Edition Chronograph
Vacheron Constantin Overseas Everest Limited Edition Chronograph

But that’s just one model family. What’s one of the greatest complicated watches in recent memory? It has to be last year’s Traditionnelle Split Seconds Chronograph Ultra Thin – Collection Excellence Platine, an absolutely mind-blowingly beautiful timepiece with the single most beautiful automatic split seconds chronograph movement in creation. The idea of coupling (pun intended) a ravishing traditionally executed split seconds movement, with incendiary finishing — check out the black polish on the coupling levers and rattrapante brake — with a peripheral rotor is genius and perfectly Vacheron, a demonstration that classic can be innovative. Then, on the dial side, to create a perfectly balanced and restrained iconography is a master class in how to make watches that feel both highly contemporary and reassuringly perennial in one shot. Also, take note that during a period where many brands were shying away from grand complications, Vacheron fearlessly unleashed a ceaseless salvo of technical finery like Les Cabinotiers Grand Complication Tempo with 24 complications and, my favorite, the incredible 2019 Traditionnelle Twin Beat Perpetual Calendar with a power reserve of 65 days in standby mode. This mode is possible because the watch has two balance wheels, one oscillating at 5Hz for regular use and one at 1.2Hz for when the watch is at rest. Mind blown.

Traditionnelle Split Seconds Chronograph Ultra Thin – Collection Excellence Platine
Traditionnelle Split Seconds Chronograph Ultra Thin – Collection Excellence Platine
Vacheron Constantin Les Cabinotiers Grand Complication Split Seconds Chronograph – Tempo
Vacheron Constantin Les Cabinotiers Grand Complication Split Seconds Chronograph – Tempo
Traditionnelle Twin Beat Perpetual Calendar
Traditionnelle Twin Beat Perpetual Calendar

It’s as if in the past few years Vacheron has been single-handedly trying to uplift a largely dormant and somnambulant industry through its innovation in grand complications. This legitimacy and ambition have elevated all of Vacheron’s complicated watches, from its beautiful tourbillons to its perpetual calendars and perpetual calendar chronographs. Even watches like the sublime Patrimony Moonphase Retrograde Date – Collection Excellence Platine feel that much more special because Vacheron has asserted its position as the current king of complications.

Patrimony Moonphase Retrograde Date – Collection Excellence Platine
Patrimony Moonphase Retrograde Date – Collection Excellence Platine

But that’s not all, Vacheron has also killed it with its Heritage theme watches. Its Historiques American 1921 again became one of the most sought after timepieces around with the launch of a stunning version last year within the Collection Excellence Platine. On the subject of unicorns, Vacheron has created exactly that with the launch of the insanely cool 222, a faithful homage to the Jörg Hysek designed integrated bracelet sports chic watch from 1977 that is so coveted by collectors. The moment I set eyes on this watch the day before Watches and Wonders this year, I knew that this would be one of the hottest properties in modern horology, so perfectly was it tapped into the current zeitgeist. Honestly, that’s not all. The incredible power in creativity coming out of Vacheron’s Plan-les-Ouates manufacture has made it one of the hottest watchmaking brands around and an important demonstration that maisons such as Vacheron (and Cartier) that are owned by big groups can also be some of the most innovative on the planet.

Historiques American 1921 – Collection Excellence Platine
Historiques American 1921 – Collection Excellence Platine
The long-awaited Historiques 222
The long-awaited Historiques 222
The Vacheron Constantin Manufacture in Plan-les-Ouates (Image: ©Maud Guye-Vuillème)
The Vacheron Constantin Manufacture in Plan-les-Ouates (Image: ©Maud Guye-Vuillème)

So, of course, for the past four to five years, I’ve both recognized this incredible shift in Vacheron Constantin and been intrigued by it. I’ve scratched my head trying to identify the factors or individuals that have brought about such exciting, dramatic and positive changes to one of my favorite brands. But the interesting thing is, I couldn’t put my finger on it. That was, until I attended Vacheron’s launch of their amazing new Metiers d’Art Tribute to Great Civilizations and had the opportunity to talk to the maison’s CEO Louis Ferla. Now, I’ll put this out there. Ferla is, to many people, a slightly elusive and mysterious leader in that he doesn’t put himself in front of his brand.

Vacheron Constantin designers and creators in the creative process of rendering the masterpieces from the great civilizations. Here, decisions are made about the choice of craft techniques and colors
Vacheron Constantin designers and creators in the creative process of rendering the masterpieces from the great civilizations. Here, decisions are made about the choice of craft techniques and colors
Detailed sketch of the Sphinx
Detailed sketch of the Sphinx

He explains, “It’s not about me. It’s about Vacheron Constantin and about the team behind the brand. So I always prefer to put the brand first.” But a few minutes into our conversation, I suddenly understood everything. It was a serious Archimedes sitting in bathtub understanding volumetric displacement “eureka” moment. The incredible dynamism coming from Vacheron Constantin, the creativity and desirability related to the amazing watches, the brilliant way in which the brand has been building upon one success after another, the incredible demand for its timepieces, and the impressive secondary values for many of its watches is all down to him. Yes, to Louis Ferla. After both a 30-minute conversation on the opening night of the event and a lunch beside him at the Paris Automobile Club on the day of the launch, I quickly realized that he is one of the most brilliant leaders in the Swiss watch industry. The reason it’s taken me so long to figure this out is that he is, in many ways, self-effacing and humble to a fault. As such, he might not be so pleased I’ve decided to characterize him as “brilliant.”

In my defense, I look at this not as a compliment but as a statement of fact based on what he’s achieved in his six years at the helm of Vacheron.

Vacheron Constantin CEO Louis Ferla
Vacheron Constantin CEO Louis Ferla

During my time with him, I discovered that he had spent the majority of his professional life in Asia, that he is fluent in Mandarin, and that he and I are united by a huge love for Cartier, where he was previously based, and a great deal of admiration for what its current CEO Cyrille Vigneron has achieved. We also both admire what Nicolas Bos has done with Van Cleef & Arpels. I learned that Ferla has a great sensitivity to “product design,” but, most of all, that he is an incredible team builder, leader and strategist. So much so that he could be giving a PhD level course in the fundamentals of being a CEO of a luxury watch brand. Here, then, is the conversation I had the pleasure of having with him…

Louis, please tell me about the guiding principles for you when you took the helm of Vacheron Constantin.

When I joined Vacheron six years ago, there were a few principles that we imposed upon ourselves. The first thing we said was, we are going to establish a very clear vision of what we want to accomplish. Then, we had to clearly articulate that vision so that everyone could understand and embrace what we wanted to achieve. In this situation, we have to even over- communicate the vision, because there will always be some people that don’t fully understand it, which is normal.

The next thing we had to recognize was that we couldn’t do everything at once. Instead, we had to focus on achieving the most important goals first, which meant that we had to pick our priorities. We had to say no to a lot of things — many of which were good ideas but were not the most urgent priorities — so that we could focus on executing the things we had to do very well.

It is much easier to say yes than it is to say no. We had to say “no” to a lot of people. This was particularly difficult, as often the people we were saying “no” to were talented colleagues. But for the first three years, it was clear we had to work on the very fundamentals of the brand. We had to identify what Vacheron stands for. And also, we had to create a commercial base that would give us the opportunity to enact the change we want, but step by step.

Once you established the plan and focused on the immediate steps, what was next?

The second principle we established is what I like to call a “qualitative approach.” This means that even though we are very selective, even though we do things step by step, when we do anything, we must execute it in the most qualitative way possible and at the highest level. That principle is guiding us six years later in the right way.

We want to be discerning and make smart choices in terms of what we do, but we want to do them very, very well. We don’t do events every year, but when we do them, for example, to launch the Fiftysix collection and celebrate our partnership with Abbey Road Studios, or with this launch at the Louvre for our Métiers d’Art collection, we do it at the very highest level imaginable. To close the Louvre and have a private guided tour of the artworks that inspired our Tribute to Great Civilizations is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for our guests. To have dinner underneath I.M. Pei’s pyramid at the Louvre is a dream for most people. But that is what I mean — a qualitative approach.

Vacheron celebrated two important partnerships recently: first with Abbey Road Studios (top left), which hosted the launch of the brand’s Fiftysix Tourbillon (above), and second, with the Louvre Museum (above right), which saw the presentation of the Métiers d'Art Tribute to Great Civilizations
Vacheron celebrated two important partnerships recently: first with Abbey Road Studios (top left), which hosted the launch of the brand’s Fiftysix Tourbillon (above), and second, with the Louvre Museum (above right), which saw the presentation of the Métiers d'Art Tribute to Great Civilizations

Take Watches and Wonders, for example. We didn’t launch a huge number of novelties. We launched 10 references, but at the same time, we hit all the important segments and, I would even say, exceled in these categories. We had women, complications, grand complications, sport. It’s not about quantity but quality. You mentioned you loved the titanium Overseas tourbillon skeleton? We recognize that this model has gained incredible momentum, but we didn’t want to simply rest on past success. We had to offer something truly exceptional, which I believe this watch is.

Vacheron Constantin Overseas Tourbillon Skeleton in grade 5 titanium and 18k 5N pink gold
Vacheron Constantin Overseas Tourbillon Skeleton in grade 5 titanium and 18k 5N pink gold

Today, we are working so in advance that we are preparing our watches for 2029, 2030 and even 2031. We know exactly what we want to achieve. And we have the discipline to not release things until they are perfect. We might look at a watch and say, “OK, this could be better, let’s work on it and postpone it by another year.” So I would say this principle of a qualitative approach, of doing things in order and doing them well has been very important to us.

You have one of the most passionate and united teams around. They are all true believers. How did you achieve this?

Aligning everyone behind a vision is incredibly important. As I said earlier, you communicate, you embark on, and you embrace the plan. But not everyone has the same agility to immediately understand what you want to achieve. When you change the direction of the boat, not everyone understands. So as I said, you have to over-communicate to help them comprehend. But at some point, you also have to be firm and say, “OK, this is the end of the discussion.” We have made a decision. Now we have to move, otherwise everybody continues discussing and we don’t take any action.

The base of this is to establish trust amongst the core members of your team. I cannot express how important trust is. Because trust is the basis for the tolerance for failure. That is why when we do our international expos or our global summits, I would say, the team building part is as important as the professional part. If you build a strong relationship within your team, the team will be able to face difficult discussions together rather than if they are very segmented. As we have discussed, you are only as good as the people around you. One thing about leadership is you owe your success to your team. But they are not responsible for any failure you might have. You as the leader must own the failures. So you share in the successes, but the failures are yours.

I’m intrigued by this. Please tell me more about the importance of trust.
Trust allows a certain positive comfort. Now I don’t mean we don’t question ourselves. But it means that I can address a difficult topic with my colleagues. Trust gives us the confidence to think outside the box. If you don’t have trust, you can’t have creativity, and you can’t have innovation. So we need to feel that we are engaged together in a human adventure.

A good example of this are the watches that we have made in collaboration with the Louvre. These are pieces of art. If you look at the images we prepared for the press, the level of detail and thought that has gone into creating these watches is really incredible. What I mean about a human adventure is that these watches could have only been the result of great teamwork and great trust. Trust amongst each other and for our collaborators at the Louvre. Because you are only as good as the people around you.

The Buste d’Auguste (Roman Empire)
The Buste d’Auguste (Roman Empire)
The Lion de Darius (Persian Empire)
The Lion de Darius (Persian Empire)
The Victoire de Samothrace (Hellenistic Greece)
The Victoire de Samothrace (Hellenistic Greece)
The Grand Sphinx de Tanis (Ancient Egypt)
The Grand Sphinx de Tanis (Ancient Egypt)

The world is such that there are specialists and experts in every subject matter. Because you cannot know everything, you need to surround yourself with people who are more knowledgeable than you in their specific fields. Then you need to get everyone to walk in the same direction, but at the same time you need to empower your team and give them the possibility to take credit for their work. When people ask why some members of the Vacheron team are empowered to communicate differently about these watches as opposed to me, it’s because they are experts in their specific fields and the best to speak about this to the press and to our customers. In the end, it is about what is the best for Vacheron Constantin. It’s about reach, engagement and relevance. I try to infuse this freedom into the team. That’s why you have Laurent [Perves] our commercial director, Christian [Selmoni] our style and heritage director, and Sandrine [Donguy] our head of product all playing a part at our event at the Louvre.

I love your insistence on humility. Where does this come from?

I often say the higher you climb, the harder you can fall. I feel when things are going well, you need to first of all stay humble, with your feet on the ground. You need to focus on your core business. You need to focus on your core values and not be distracted. And, most of all, remain humble. Success can create a lack of focus or even arrogant behavior. But I believe that if you have spent your time building strong fundamentals, then you want these fundamentals to remain in place. The most important part of this is having humility.

There are many of your watches with long waiting lists. How do you handle the overdemand?

As I said, it’s a lot easier to say yes than to say no, but unfortunately today, we have to say no to a lot of people. This is a really big challenge. We have to say, I’m sorry, that watch is not available, or I’m sorry, you might have to wait one year.
At some point, this becomes counterproductive if the wait is too long. If I have to say you might have to wait one or two years, you could accept this. But if I say you have to wait six or seven years, then this is counterproductive. So our approach is to find a way to stay humble and to find a way to address the needs of our clients, even though it might not be exactly what they wanted initially. We can propose another watch or suggest that they look at another collection that might be available earlier. So, for me, it is about staying humble and engaged with the client, never to pressure them but just to help them explore other dimensions of Vacheron. The amazing thing about Vacheron is the depths that we have.

Do you allocate watches only to existing clients?

We want to ensure that everybody has access to Vacheron Constantin. Of course, it’s not everything for everybody. But when we have a new offer, it is important to us that part of the allocation goes to our existing clients, and part [of it] goes to new clients. [This is] to grow our audience. An example of this is when I went to our boutique opening in Edinburgh. I met a client there who had come from Hong Kong. He said that he had received an Overseas Everest. He had never bought a Vacheron Constantin before, and so I was very surprised that he had received this watch that is very much in demand. But it turned out that he was a mountain climber. This was his hobby and passion. When the team had found this out, they decided to allocate a watch to him because he was the right person.

Vacheron Constantin Overseas Everest Limited Edition Chronograph (Image: Revolution©)
Vacheron Constantin Overseas Everest Limited Edition Chronograph (Image: Revolution©)

Again, it comes down to empowering your team and believing in their judgement and that they will make the right choices. It’s about trust that they will allocate the right watches to the right people. It is about taking care of our loyal customers, but also getting the right new people to enter into the world of Vacheron Constantin. Again, the point of entry is important because from there they will discover our universe which encompasses so much: métiers d’art, complications, sport, heritage, women’s watches, and so much more.

I’ve noticed that you are restrained in your production of the Overseas, and you’ve avoided the temptation to grow in a massive way using this model as your warhorse.

We don’t want to be a mono product or mono market brand. You never want to have an overrepresentation of one model or family in the same way you don’t want to be overrepresented in one geographical area for your commercial business. You want to have a balanced business.

If you are reliant on one collection and it goes out of fashion, you have a problem. If you are overdependent on one type of client and there is an issue with their region, you have a problem. I have seldom seen a brand that is very desirable only in one market and not in the rest of the world. If you have a good level of desirability, this is usually across all markets. Then, you have to ensure that your desirability is spread across many different collections.

Considering you only made 20 pieces of the new Métiers d’Art watches, the event in Paris is incredible. Why did you host such an amazing event?

When it comes to Métiers d’Art, we were making too many and often the watches were too simple. We made the decision five years ago to do less Métiers d’Art timepieces but to do them very, very well. This goes back to the principle of the qualitative approach. When it comes to the Louvre, the relationship is a very meaningful one. Vacheron Constantin is just 38 years older than the Louvre. We were both born into the century of Enlightenment. The partnership is one where we learn from the Louvre and they learn from us. In particular, the way they use their archives and the way they preserve craftsmanship is very important to us. We exchange ideas. If you see the 2022 Homo Faber exhibition, they’ve done something wonderful with us. Here we said we want to showcase our know-how. It’s not really a commercial exercise. With 20 watches, it would be impossible to have an ROI [laughs]. It is a communication exercise. We want to show to you guys and to show to the general public what we are capable of in terms of Métiers d’Art. Finally, the Louvre is the most visited museum in the world. The partnership with the Louvre is one in which we truly elevate each other.

Each Tribute watch is powered by the caliber 2460 with a 22K gold oscillating weight engraved with the eastern façade of the Louvre
Each Tribute watch is powered by the caliber 2460 with a 22K gold oscillating weight engraved with the eastern façade of the Louvre

Apparently, everyone wants to work at Vacheron now… Is this true?

[Chuckles] You know, five years ago, we had to convince people to join Vacheron Constantin. They said, “OK, you convinced us of the potential, we believe in you, let’s go.” For most of these key members of staff, their employability has increased a lot, whether they want to move within the group or even outside. When we post about a job today, we get hundreds of resumes.

I cannot let you leave without asking about the amazing 222. How did you know this year would be the time to launch it?

As I said, we had to do things in stages. We had to pick what we wanted to do first. And when we decide to do something, we have to execute [it] at the very highest level possible. So even though we saw a strong demand for the 222 and a rise in vintage prices for these models and even the original Overseas from the ’90s, we had to wait until the market was right and until we had time to do it properly. I think the watch we launched is an example of our qualitative approach, where we decided to execute a vintage theme timepiece but to the very best of our ability. I see the demand for this watch so I recognize that the market has responded favorably.

The original integrated bracelet Vacheron ref. 222 from 1977
The original integrated bracelet Vacheron ref. 222 from 1977
The Historiques 222, an 18K yellow gold re-edition
The Historiques 222, an 18K yellow gold re-edition

We are planning almost 10 years in advance from now and so we have to have patience. In the context [of a maison] that is as old as Vacheron Constantin, waiting a few years is nothing. But at the same time, I think this watch, and many other of our offers, shows that we may be the oldest continuously operating manufacture on earth, but we are also one of the most forward looking and forward thinking.

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