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Titanic timepieces: selling history: a watch using steel from the sunken ship Titanic is making waves even as consumers show their approval with record sales. Romain Jerome CEO Yvan Arpa spoke with Swiss News about a controversial approach and why it seems to be working.


Who hasn't been moved by the story of the Titanic? Yvan Arpa, the CEO of watch company Romain Jerome, was counting on striking that chord when he decided to create a timepiece from the rusted remains of the legendary ocean liner that tragically sank on its maiden voyage in 1912.

Swiss watchmakers like to emphasise a long history in the craft to reinforce their brand's reliability and popularity in a highly competitive market. But when Romain Jerome launched its first line in 2005, it obviously had no such history to claim. Arpa would have to look elsewhere.

Inspiration came when he was visiting a collector of fine paintings. On this collector's desk sat a piece of the Berlin Wall. Arpa had his angle. He would "put a trophy of history on the wrist".

The task, of course, was to select the right historical monument. Materials would have to originate from a well-known historical event, Arpa felt, and have a unique or precious quality, "because people would want to show off their purchase".

After some thought, he decided to make a watch using original rusted steel from the Titanic, a plan that was complicated by the ship's final resting place, 4,000 metres deep in the North Atlantic, and by Swiss watchmakers' hesitancy to work with rust, he said.

"Convincing the master watchmakers in the Jura to work with this corrosive substance--their natural enemy--was more difficult than obtaining it!"


But the choice was obvious for Arpa, a man with a self-proclaimed penchant for being provocative who also appreciates a trend in which rust is viewed as an artistic medium.

Raising the Titanic

Titanic DNA was the first of five watches in the Legend of DNA series introduced at Baselworld in 2007, with price tags ranging from $7,800 to $173,100.

Its gold, platinum and steel timepieces have black dial faces made of lacquer paint that includes coal recovered from the debris field of the Titanic wreck site, offered for sale by the U.S. company RMS Titanic Inc.

The rim of the watch face, or bezel, is a mixture of original rusted steel from the Titanic shipwreck brought to the surface by professional divers, and the newest steel alloy used by Harland and Wolff shipyards, where the luxury liner was built almost a century ago.

A company in Liverpool, DC Merseyside Castings, created a fusion of the two metals and cast the molten mass into 600 slabs of metre-long metal. The process was overseen by solicitor Carl Holden who certified the pieces before they were loaded into an armoured truck and transferred to Geneva.

The remains of the Titanic have been protected from divers and excavation for more than a decade. When questioned about how he obtained the steel, and from whom, Arpa was humourous but secretive.

"It's a story of James Bond and Coca Cola," he said with a smile. "I had to become an American lawyer because there is a certain way of doing things. I cannot reveal my sources out of respect for them and because I want to maintain the mystery. I also do not want my competition to know how I came to have the materials!"

Mysterious he may be, but Romain Jerome has officially confirmed that it purchased a 1.5-kilogram piece of the hull that had been recovered in 1991, when the site was unprotected and dives were still occurring.


Too provocative

When the watch was first released, many people voiced outrage. Critics on more than a few Internet sites slammed the venture as unethical or likened it to desecrating a tomb.

Such remarks do not faze Arpa, who points out that 95 per cent of reviews appearing in print have been positive.

Nevertheless, people appear to be purchasing Titanic DNA products despite their controversial nature--or perhaps because of it.

"No other new brand of watch matches the number of orders which Romain Jerome is currently receiving," Arpa says. "The company cannot keep up."

He adds that some customers have ordered a SFr 300,000 watch based on nothing but a written description.

In his office in Geneva, Arpa insists that the idea is to remember the era--the innovation and industry represented by the Titanic--to respect it and to learn from history.

He says the watch is something unique in a saturated market and may appeal to collectors:

"Many rich people buy incredibly complicated watches without understanding how they work, because they want a story to tell ...

"To them, we offer a story."

A Titanic concept

More than 600 watch brands are manufactured in Switzerland, requiring companies in the timepiece industry to compete fiercely for a piece of the revenue pie.

Information is closely guarded, as are supplies of essential parts like movements--the mechanism that measures and displays the passage of time.

The message is clear: enter at your own risk.Yet every once in a while, a newcomer challenges centuries of tradition by facing off against giants like Rolex and Audemar Piguet.

Birth of the company

In 2005, Vaud businessman Alain Bajulaz decided to tempt fate and, with the help of top designers and international investment, he created and patented a watch that reflected his passion for the sport of golf. In a sentimental moment, he named his company after his two sons, Romain and Jerome.

The Golf MasterTime, released in 2006, became the flagship for the company's early collection and was capable of recording a player's performance on three counters. The dial and case were adorned with golfing motifs, which supported the brand identity.

In 2006, an official audit of the company was ordered by Bajulaz to control company finances and give the new brand a competitive edge in a tough market.

Yvan Arpa, managing director of the brand Hublot, was brought in to do the job. Arpa determined that the Golf MasterTime was not targeting a wide enough audience for a brand that was trying to situate itself as a top international player in this luxury industry.

"Even though the watch market is currently in a growth phase, differentiation is crucial when there are over 600 brands vying for status and attention," Arpa said.

As a result the company focus changed--some might say, dramatically. A new concept was required. Arpa was officially put in charge of re-branding the company and eventually became its CEO.

The result was Romain Jerome's line of watches based on compelling historical themes, such as the sinking of the Titanic.
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Title Annotation:BUSINESS
Author:Movigliatti, Tracy
Publication:Swiss News
Date:May 1, 2008
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