How Hermes is digging into its luxury heritage to become a serious watch brand

Laurent Dordet, the chief executive of Hermes Horloger, discusses the maison’s recent Dubai Mall installation

The Slim d’Hermes La Panthere de Robert features a panther captured in 3,500 individual pieces of leather mosaic. Photo: Hermes
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“We are Swiss in terms of technique, but French and Parisian in terms of design,” explains Laurent Dordet, chief executive of Hermes Horloger. “We bring some fresh air.”

Last month, Dordet walked me through the Crafting Time exhibition at the Hermes store in Dubai Mall, outlining how the maison is acting as a new voice in the extraordinary world of high-end timepieces. Surrounding us were some of the remarkable watches that have grown out of this intriguing, dual identity.

While the house has been making timepieces since the 1920s, it is a relative newcomer to horology – beginning making its own movements a mere 12 years ago, which even Dordet admits, is “like yesterday”.

Yet it is cementing itself as a serious watch brand.

In our highly-digitised world, horology has become a rarefied world where a small number of companies compete to squeeze ever more technical feats and advanced complications into wristwatches. Entirely mechanical and hand-constructed from a bewildering jigsaw of tiny metal pieces, creating watches at such a level is astonishingly difficult and painstakingly slow from the first sketch to the finished timepiece.

It is little coincidence, then, that the industry is dominated by a handful of Swiss names that can draw on centuries of experience.

“It is important that every year, step-by-step, our products prove we are improving our level of watchmaking and show that Hermes is truly becoming a technical watchmaker,” Dordet explains, adding that the French luxury house has something new and different to offer.

“Not many people naturally think of Hermes as a watchmaker, but we are proving it with our product and with what we are doing. Our philosophy is to be as good as the best in terms of technique and as different as you can for everything else.”

The exhibition in the Dubai Mall store was filled with timepieces that reside at the intersection between the maison’s famous aesthetic and Swiss technical expertise. This includes Arceau L’heure de la lune, a 43mm white gold watch that pays homage to the moon. Two rotating counters reveal mother-of-pearl moon phases for the northern and southern hemispheres, while the dial is carved from a meteorite that landed in New York in the 1960s.

The sheer audacity of using such a rare material is what drew Hermes in, Dordet explains. “We buy from a meteorite hunter and then cut it. Sometimes we can, and sometimes it goes to dust. We never know how many pieces we will get from the meteorite.” The uncertainty only adds to the story, he insists, making each piece truly a one-off.

Also on show was Arceau Tourbillon Lift Les Sentinelles, a watch that mixes art with complication. The dial is decorated with walking giraffes, captured in miniature enamel painting and cloisonne enamelling, while underneath sits a flying tourbillon, its bridge decorated with a motif lifted from the Hermes flagship store on Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honore in Paris. The movement, meanwhile, is the Calibre H192.

Another case holds an example of Hermes’s leather mosaic, a technique so innovative it secured the maison the Grand Prix de l’Horlogerie in 2018. “The craftswomen invented a way to put 2,500 pieces of leather on to one watch dial,” Dordet explains.

This year’s iteration is the Slim d’Hermes La Panthere de Robert, in rose gold with a 39.5mm case. It features a panther captured in 3,500 individual pieces of leather mosaic.

“You have to be extremely passionate about this, extremely delicate. The panther had a lot of trials because it was looking angry or tired. It takes a lot of time to get the expression right.”

Dubai was one of only three cities in the world to host this exhibition, alongside Tokyo and Shanghai, as it is home to many watch aficionados, Dordet says.

“Dubai is a booming market. It’s very influential – the world is coming to Dubai now.

“The audience here has a strong understanding of what they’re looking at and are very educated in terms of watchmaking. The Middle Eastern market is very strong, from entry-level up to the most complex complications you could possibly imagine.”

While establishing a reputation in high watchmaking is a slow process, Dordet believes that the core philosophy of the brand is fundamental to the process. “Hermes is a family-owned company with a long-term vision. When we want to do something, we take our time. We started the silk story in 1950, integrated the production in 1980, and now everybody considers Hermes a silk manufacturer.”

Of course, the brand’s greatest point of difference is its reputation and its enviable position of already having a high-net-worth clientele that flock to the maison in search of the very best. “We have an extreme asset; we know our customer. We can talk directly to our customers,” Dordet explains.

The market is also beginning to search for new perspectives, he says, and heritage alone is no longer a guarantee of success. “Being a 300-year-old Swiss brand is not enough to succeed any more. Being different used to be a pain. Now, it is becoming a strength,” he adds.

Dordet has been with Hermes for more than two decades, first as joint managing director of the silk division, then as head of its precious leathers department. Despite having no watchmaking experience, he was appointed to lead the watch division in 2015, already armed with a deep understanding of the Hermes universe.

With Dordet able to lend this rich affinity to building the watch division, it is now growing organically as a wider audience begins to grasp what the house is capable of. “Even the biggest collectors, when they spend an hour with Philippe [Delhotal, creative director of Hermes Horloger], they always say, ‘We just didn’t know you were doing that.’”

“The best customers in the world come into Hermes. Since we launched our latest complications, we have had the pleasure of seeing the arrival of a new [type of] client to Hermes; watch collectors, and they are coming for the watches.”

Of course, humility is part of the Hermes mystique, and despite having plenty to shout about – the house is ranked as the second-most valuable luxury brand in the world, outranked only by Louis Vuitton – nothing as vulgar as a boast will ever pass its lips.

“We don’t usually speak about ourselves as a fashion or luxury house. We prefer to say we’re focused on beautiful and well-crafted objects that we hope to convey to the best number of customers possible,” Dordet says.

Updated: November 09, 2023, 3:05 PM