A few months ago, I had the sincere pleasure to visit Mr Mintiens at the RESSENCE HQ in Antwerp. The interview was scheduled in the weeks leading up to SIHH. This is by default a busy period for all attendees at the fair, but I’d estimate it was extra exciting for RESSENCE as they were about to unveil their final version of their new and much anticipated Type 2 with eCrown.
When we met at the RESSENCE HQ in Antwerp, I was fully aware of the fact that this was crunch time for them, and so I didn’t want to take up more time than necessary for the interview. However, much to my delight Mr Mintiens was not going to rush this.
Before even going anywhere near the questions for the interview he hands me a little booklet. He says, we have to go through this first, he wanted to make sure I was well-informed before moving into the interview. I nearly, mistakenly, declined the offer suggesting to jump directly into the interview. Luckily, Mr Mintiens’ enthusiasm swiftly made me change my mind.
Following the more than two hours of conversation that ensued, I can honestly conclude that this is a one of a kind CEO and watchmaker in the watch industry. This is a man on a mission, with a goal and making a calculated run for it without making compromises. A special blend of a designer, an engineer, an entrepreneur and a risk taker. The reason that RESSENCE watches are so unique, is because the man behind RESSENCE is unique.
Please note that the original interview was conducted in Dutch, and translated afterwards in English. It was a lengthy and surprisingly open conversation with one of the most interesting watchmaker’s out there today. Sincere thanks to RESSENCE & Mr Mintiens. This was one of the most insightful, interesting and memorable conversations I have had in my professional career.
Jan de Griff: You’re an industrial designer, not a watchmaker. You’re based in Belgium, not in Switzerland. Do you consider this ‘outsider’ position as an advantage or disadvantage?
Benoît Mintiens: Certainly an advantage. I’m a trained product designer and have been an industrial design consultant for over a decade. I absolutely consider this to be an advantage.
The watch as a product, is being developed almost exclusively by watchmakers. They have an approach that is very different to mine. The watchmaker will start from the movement. He’ll think about how to increase precision, how to add complications etc. The whole watch will be built around that. A designer on the other hand starts with the user. What will the product be used for? In this case – what will the watch be used for? Functionally speaking, it needs to tell us the time. And so from that perspective I work my way down towards the final product. Considering this is a very different approach than the more typical wachmaker’s one, you can expect that the final result, the watch, will look quite different as well.
It didn’t make any sense for Ressence to create a watch that looked and behaved the same as all the watches currently out there. The bigger groups would for sure do a better job at that, they have the most capital, can afford the best marketing campaigns. And so we have no choice but to be different. To be the same, wouldn’t make any sense. The fact that we are different, is a great asset.
Small remark perhaps, many brands are not necessarily run by watchmakers anymore, but by bankers or investors instead.
Jan: Prior to starting up RESSENCE , I understand you had a great job and also the opportunity to work on several prestigious projects (Browning, Thalys, Bombardier, Frisk…). What is it that made you leave all that and step into the unknown by starting a watch brand?
Benoît: Ah, the golden cage. I do take risks but I don’t take them blindly. The first three years of RESSENCE I had in fact kept my consulting job, working on the RESSENCE concept during my lost hours & the weekend. It is when the time came for the Type 3 that I had to take the definitive jump and quit one job or the other. The Type 3 was a very difficult and challenging project.
I essentially fell asleep while driving as I just slept too little. That was a wake up call. It was no longer physically possible and so just made up my mind to move out of consulting and go full time with RESSENCE . I also did not like the business model of living life by billing out my hours as a consultant, and I also had an urge for entrepreneurship. All those elements made that I wanted to start my own company, by using my assets, creativity with a vision, and to combine those. The watch was a natural choice. From a design perspective it is a very interesting and multi-dimensional product in its creativity. Let me explain that a bit.
You can be creative in design, how things look and feel, but you can also be creative about the technical aspects, how things will function. Most mechanical watches do the same thing, they tell time in the same way. It is not very creative, so you can completely rethink that concept. You also have the social aspect of a watch. We wear watches to say something about ourselves. How do you deal with that? Who is a RESSENCE customer – without ever having had a customer? You need a brand and a name and so on and so forth. It all needs to make sense, be logical and be able to withstand the test of time. As such, as a creative person & designer it is a very exciting industry to be active in.
Jan: Now in eight years, you have gone from a concept to a seat at the table with the big boys. Did you expect this at all?
Benoît: I was not expecting anything at all. Even today, when mowing the lawn and having some time to reflect on it I say to myself: Benoît, what were you thinking? Start a watch brand? A watch brand means 5000 employees, 16 factories, who knows how many watchmakers, 200 years of history, what on earth are you doing? All my savings went into the prototypes of our watches and I was lucky enough that they caught on.
Around 2007 I had finalized my concept, but I was not yet sure whether it was a unique concept. The principle of telling time is a mechanical one, so technically speaking there was nothing that would have made it impossible to come up with a similar idea in the previous 100 years. So I was lucky that I was indeed the first to come up with this concept of telling time. It was only later on that I realized that my concept would not have been possible in the past. We use ball bearings with a tolerance of 3 micron, that would never have been possible without today’s technology.
Jan: Surely it wasn’t all luck.
Benoît: Of course there are other elements, other than the ‘luck’ of coming up with a unique concept. One is I couldn’t afford any mistakes, so I avoided making them. In addition, the very slow transition from my work in consulting to building up RESSENCE , gave me the luxury of time. It allowed me to ignore the pressure of having to deliver products right away, it allowed me to take time, to make certain mistakes which today I can’t really afford anymore. Back then mistakes meant losing time, not money.
In addition, I had the benefit of having supportive clients. In case they had ordered based on the concept products and I had to tell them the release was to be delayed, most didn’t mind. Keep in mind of course, I say you need to be lucky but of course also think about what you will do. My way was to think long and hard and to take things step by step. Calculated risks.
Jan: Ressence watch faces are very recognizable, with that specific dial layout. What was the inspiration to this unique way of telling time?
Benoît: A very rational approach. I set myself a specific briefing like a designer would do. I gave myself three criteria: I had to be able to buy the watch (at the time) with the salary that I earned at the time as a consultant. Not without effort, but I had to be able to buy one. Second was that it had to be original enough to get people talking, but not too far out where it risked to alienate people. So it was a balance between those two points. These two points are by far the most important. The price of the watch and the effect it would have on people. The third point was quite simply, it had to be a watch that I would want to wear as well.
With these three points in mind, I followed the same methodology as I would have used when designing other products. I asked myself a series of questions such as “What’s the purpose of a watch? How can I tell time in a better way? Etc.”
Jan: Taking it back to one of those criteria, the price. The current models aren’t exactly affordable for many. Can we expect RESSENCE to release an ‘entry-level’ watch in the (near) future?
Benoît: I have designed one, and everything is ready on paper. While the watch design and everything needed to get it made is ready, RESSENCE as a brand isn’t ready yet. We are still a very young company. We need to work on the brand so that more people are aware of us. That way we’d have a wider audience to which we can then present this potential watch release.
Entry-level for us would mean around EUR 10.000, still quite high for a watch of course. And for that, it would mean that we need to strip quite a lot of Ressence elements out of that watch. We are at the moment not very price sensitive, we sell equal amounts of Type 1 models than the (more expensive) Type 3 models.
Jan: Your past releases have been very well received and perceived. The Type 3 won the Revelation prize at the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève. You’ve set the bar higher for yourselves with every release to date. Has your collection now moved past the point where you can no longer make a single mistake, or is your current line-up sufficiently established to absorb the hypothetical miss in a series of hits?
Benoît: We do not live from the new releases. This is actually very important. In our segment, many watchmakers can only survive if they bring something new every single year, if not it would have significant financial repercussions for them. We do not have this.
This is also reflected in our watches. Type 3 was released in 2013, I still have the Type 3 in the catalogue today. On the outside, it looks virtually the same as it did in 2013. The internals are very different today of course, but visually it is the same watch now as it was then. So I think long term with every single design. The Type 1, released in 2014, we still have it today. And it is only this year that we’ll be tweaking the case a bit.
I think very long and hard about each and every single watch release, so that it will most likely withstand the test of time. How it should look, which functionality it needs etc..
There are other reasons of course why we think long term. Let’s look at the value of a brand for example. How can you see what a brand is really worth? The easiest way is to look at the second hand market. You’ll immediately see the value. Look at a RESSENCE , and you’ll see our prices remain very stable.
Eventually, I guess we will have a less successful release of a watch, it can happen to anyone for a million different reasons. Should that happen, I’m sure we’re in good shape to ride through that. We think long term and work hard on making sure we have a strong foundation to build on in the future. I am able to live from RESSENCE, pay everyone’s salaries, and RESSENCE is growing, so what more to ask for.
Jan: Ressence has been a product based company. With little to no marketing, every single Type had to speak for itself and convince potential buyers. Are you looking at improving overall brand recognition?
Benoît: Many brands nowadays have stopped making & selling watches, and invest most of their time and money in selling the brand instead. This is a smart thing to do, but I don’t agree with it. As long as the customer is happy, fine.
We are indeed looking at improving the brand and defining the brand, but that is completely separate from our products. The product is and will always remain the focus.
Jan: About your product, you are currently heavily focusing on the e-Crown.
Benoît: Hah, yes indeed. For the past two years, every single day.
Jan: You are mixing digital with analogue, are you in any way concerned that the purists might reject this idea? Did you take this into account?
Benoît: Yes absolutely. We started by defining the e-Crown. What is e-Crown? It is a technology used in the new watch called the Type 2. The Type 2 is a 100% mechanical watch, with the additional benefit of having an (optional) automated crown function. That’s it, a smart crown on a mechanical watch. So we limited ourselves purely to the crown function which is found on every other watch. The Type 2 works perfectly without the e-Crown, in fact you could remove the module quite easily and have a perfectly functioning watch much like the Type 1.
So we stop at the crown function, we don’t go further than that. And I know that the industry can be a bit narrow minded when it comes to mixing digital with mechanical. We are an Haute Horlogerie brand and therefore it can be a bit strange. But when we reached out to our base, we had just one person – one – to give some resistance. The reason that there was just one, is that the product is absolutely and entirely mechanical, its mechanical integrity has been preserved. You do not need an app or a phone to use the watch, it works just fine without either.
Jan: Personally, why I don’t like digital mixed in with my mechanical watches is because I’ve gotten used to anything digital having a very short lifespan. Mechanical watches instead have something eternal about them.
Benoît: I know that you mean. I am absolutely allergic to planned obsolescence. I can’t stand it. So the Type 2 again – everything will work – without any assistance of the digital aspect. You can set the watch perfectly purely mechanical. It is just easier to use the app of course, but it is not at all mandatory.
But who knows what happens indeed with the apps in 10 years from now? I can tell you the Type 2 will still work very well, regardless of what happens to the apps. A fundamental concept of the Type 2 is ‘Trust’. Trust that the Type 2 always tell the correct time. If you have the e-Crown, it syncs up and you will be sure it always displays the time correctly.
For example. Say you have a 50.000,00 USD watch. You have to catch an airplane last minute. You run towards the gate. What do you check to know the exact time in these moments? You check your phone. That is crazy isn’t it? I have a problem with that. With the Type 2 you can trust that it displays time correctly.
I believe that a mechanical watch evokes more emotions than a digital watch. Even someone who is not technical, say my wife, even such a person will make the distinction. Say she has two watches, a mechanical and a digital watch. If both of them stop functioning, she will very likely have the mechanical watch serviced. The digital one, not very likely. A mechanical watch is a little creature on your wrist, with a heartbeat, you hear it ticking and you get attached to it. And the Type 2 has that same familiar ticking heartbeat, with the extra convenience of the reliability and trust.
If the e-Crown detects that there is anything wrong with the mechanical watch, it will tell you that by automatically move the hands to midnight. So if you as the owner look at your watch and the hands are not at midnight then you know you can trust the exact time displayed by your watch. Of course there are a lot of other functions allowed by the e-Crown.
Jan: So what I’m hearing is that the e-Crown technology works on top of the mechanical movement. You can move it out of the Type 2 and perhaps move it also towards another Type, or even further, license this to be used in other watches from other brands. Is that something you considered?
Benoît: We did think this through and have a worldwide patent for the technology. Which took extremely long to obtain, I was very happy when that was finally concluded. But it isn’t something we are currently exploring to license to other brands. Certainly not today but yes we did think about it. But never say never.
Jan: Tony Fadell, one of the fathers of the Apple iPod, was involved in the development of the RESSENCE Type 2. Not as a partner but as a consultant. How did that come to happen and how was the experience?
Benoît: I called upon Tony for a couple of reasons. Firstly, he is a collector and owns a few of our watches which is how I know him. He is a very interesting person and a bit of a human incarnation of the Type 2. He comes out of the high tech world but has a keen interest in the mechanical watch. At the start of the project, I knew very little about the technological aspects required to develop and manufacture the e-Crown. Tony is of course the opposite when it comes to technology. It was therefore a huge help and a big timesaver to have him on board to efficiently develop the correct approach to tackling this.
Jan: One final question. How did you experience these past two years leading up to the launch of the Type 2 with the e-Crown?
Benoît: Firstly, not at all according to how I was planning or hoping. We made the announcement of the Type 2 with the concept piece at the previous SIHH fair. At that time, I had sold about 80% of our watches for the year, at pre-negotiated prices. After the fair closed, our main supplier informed us they would be raising prices with 25%.
Jan: Did you say 25%?
Benoît: Twenty-Five percent, yes. And this is after we have just sold 80% of the watches for the year at prices not taking into account that 25% price hike. So my year went entirely not how I was hoping or expecting. The main focus shifted from Type 2 to keeping RESSENCE afloat.
Usually these sort of meetings are done facing the owner of the company. This was now no longer the case, I was negotiation with a hedge fund manager who was very clear that this was not a negotiation and just a fact. So this was unfortunately something that happened.
This is part of being an entrepreneur. We had made our investments, we dealt with it, and I’m happy that 2018 is behind us and we dealt with this situation successfully. In fact, this also motivates us to further grow, since a bigger player can have a bit more say at the table in this type of situations.
We have now launched the Type 2 and are looking forward to 2019.
Jan: The Type 2 is gorgeous, and the e-Crown mesmerizing. I’m sure that 2019 will be a positive year for you and wish you much continued success. Thank you very much for taking the time for this interview.
Thank you Mr Mintiens for this fantastic interview!
Please also make sure to read our Type 2 articles as they provide further insight in the working of the watches and the recently launched e-Crown by RESSENCE.
Splash image courtesy of RessenceWatches