The art of time: “You should be able to take a loupe and know it is a Bovet, no matter the price,” says Raffy, wearing one of his Amadeo watches, which easily converts to a pocket watch or table clock Image: Jamel Toppin for Forbes
By the age of 36, Pascal Raffy, a French pharmaceutical executive, was enjoying early retirement, and keeping an eye out for investments. Knowing Raffy was a passionate watch collector, with hundreds of vintage timepieces, an investment banker friend would often tempt him with opportunities in the watch world. Each time, Raffy would decline—until one day his friend insisted Raffy do a blind touch test with a timepiece.
“My friend put it, with several of my other watches, under a cloth,” Raffy recalls. “One by one, I felt those watches, and when my hand fell on one of them, I knew it was truly different. I felt the crown at the top of the strap and realised this was a watch with its own identity. Then I looked at it, and in a nanosecond it talked to me. I took my loupe and saw that it was a beautiful piece of horology. It had substance. I was interested.”
And he had the means to make a significant investment. At 25, Raffy bought into a family-run French pharma company, where, after a merger, he became head of the firm Synthélabo. After several successful years in France, Raffy expanded Synthélabo into North Africa, where he began the production of drugs and built facilities for marketing and distributing them on the continent.
During the 10 years Raffy led Synthélabo, he turned it into the third-largest pharmaceutical group in France. But after his young daughter lamented that he worked too much, he decided to cash out. It took 18 months to organise the sale of Synthélabo to Sanofi, but Raffy wanted to leave the company in good hands. “Whenever you start something in an area of health and caring for human beings—where there is also a moral dimension in addition to the business side—it is very difficult to stop work,” he says.
The retirement was short-lived once Raffy touched that watch under the cloth. The timepiece was made by Bovet. Swiss watchmaker Edouard Bovet had founded the brand in England in 1822, when the Silk Road was flourishing and there was demand in Asia for fine handmade pocket watches.
Bovet’s earliest watches were hand-painted and created in identical pairs, so if one watch needed to return to Europe for repair, the owner still had a fine watch to wear. The business operated out of England, but the watches were made in Fleurier, Switzerland, where they continued to be produced until the late 1930s.
By 2000, when Raffy learned that Bovet was looking for a new investor, the two men who owned the brand were operating from a small office in Geneva, buying components and assembling about 140 watches a year. “I listened to what they wanted and told them that I am not the person to do quantities,” he explains. “I am not jumping into a watchmaking house to build a huge brand. I am doing it for my own selfish pleasure, for beautiful watchmaking. My ideas were totally unaligned with the era we were living in then, but I knew I wanted to build Bovet into a true watchmaking house with a soul.”
Raffy bought the majority share of Bovet in 2001 (about a $5 million investment at the time) and developed a vertical integration strategy derived from his passion as a collector. Bovet had to be a true manufacture of unique and exclusive pieces. He vowed that he would never produce more than 4,000 watches a year.
“Collectors don’t want what everybody else has,” he says. “So I decided that my product would be very expensive and be worthy of its costs. We would go back to the glory of the 19th century, with our own facilities and making every part of our watches ourselves.” Raffy estimated it would take eight to 10 years to build the company to his standards. “I spent the first two years listening to all of the experts about what I should do, but in the end I decided I wanted to do it my way.”
“ I decided that my product would be very expensive and be worthy of its costs.
By 2003, he bought out his partners and began assembling a watchmaking team. Three years later, he bought Bovet’s supplier of watch-movement components and, within months, took ownership of its dial supplier and bought a minority share in the company supplying its cases. That same year, the Swiss canton of Neuchâtel approached Raffy about buying a local castle. He had no interest until he learned that the estate had once belonged to the Bovet family. He purchased Château de Môtiers, adding it to the House of Bovet (which he renamed Bovet 1822), and built a state-of-the-art watchmaking facility within its ancient walls.
With those major investments, totalling about $35 million, Raffy brought the company full circle. “I waited six years to see a return on investment,” he says, “because I knew I wanted the facilities in place for the brand to be seen as true manufacture.”
For the past decade, Raffy, now 53, has dedicated his efforts to garnering a cult following for Bovet. True to his promise of exclusivity, he has kept watch production down. For the past two years, the brand has produced about 1,800 watches annually.
Bovet’s core watches range in price from $20,000 to $65,000, and those with grand complications range from $220,000 to about $1 million. The revenue split between these categories is just about 50/50. Signature features include Bovet’s iconic “bow” atop the crown, unusually placed at the 12 o’clock position (the feature that first attracted Raffy to the brand) and the patented Amadeo case, which converts the wristwatch into a table clock or pocket watch in a matter of seconds.
Every Bovet timepiece is hand-crafted to the same exacting standards, whether the watch costs $30,000 or a half-million. “You should be able to take a loupe and know it is Bovet, no matter the price,” Raffy says. “Otherwise it is like treating two children differently. I accept that this means I will have varying profit margins.”
Today, Raffy claims Bovet has net profits of more than 15 percent—with profits as high as 25 percent in some years, roughly $20 million annually. “I have investments that are big businesses with mass production. But this is not for Bovet,” Raffy says. “Bovet is a jewel, and it will remain a jewel.”