Titoni: A Watchmaker Who Doesn't Peddle Dreams



Titoni is not only one of the most prestigious watch brands in Asia. In China, the Swiss timepiece is considered a status symbol. At the root of this Far Eastern success story lies an unassuming family business from Grenchen.

Perhaps, in the end, it was lucky that Daniel Schluep was born into a watch manufacturing family. Even if he wasn't very interested in watches in the beginning. Or at least acted as if he weren't. After all, who wants to be pressed into a preordained life? Certainly not Daniel Schluep. Yet, becoming a hippie or joining the antiestablishment fringe was not an option either. Initially, Schluep Junior left his hometown located in the southern foothills of the Jura to study business administration in Bern. Anything he learned there would come in handy – no matter which direction his life took.

Today's Schützengasse 18 in Grenchen: a characteristic building from the1950s – functional and reduced to the max. When it was built, the future looked predictable and – in keeping with the surroundings – stolidly Swiss. The proprietor's office, decorated with unobtrusive yet elegant furniture, is in step with modern times. But it is hard to say whether or not the furniture was made by a well-known designer. Daniel Schluep, dapper and in a suit, though sporting an open white shirt, welcomes us with a smile: "In the end, I was the one who ensured that Titoni remained in the family." Thirty years ago, following a few youthful detours to the Sorbonne in Paris, Sophia University in Tokyo and to the USA – a true bohemian lifestyle – his father suddenly died. It was a sharp wake-up call for the hitherto itinerant next-in-line. "I realized immediately that the business could only continue to run successfully if it stayed in the hands of a Schluep," he recollects. He thought of his father's business partners who had formed long-standing ties with the Titoni family – actually the Schluep family. He remembered the common meals and excursions to the Jungfraujoch he had gone on already as a small boy. The business relationships that had lasted decades and agreements that had been settled with a simple handshake – yet that were more binding than any complicated legal contract. And secretly, Daniel Schluep was looking forward to the cooperation with the Asian market where Titoni had been an established watch brand for decades. After all, different, foreign cultures are what have always fascinated Daniel Schluep most.

Accepting different viewpoints without judgment enables me to perceive the world in a new way, over and over again.

Titoni is an unusual Swiss watch brand. Hardly known in its own country, or the entire Western world for that matter, the name is synonymous with quality Swiss timepieces in Southeast Asia, especially in China. The watch manufacturing company – or in technical terms, the etablisseur – was established in 1919 by Daniel Schluep's grandfather, Fritz, who came to Grenchen from Bern. A fatherly-looking portrait of the founder is hung on a wall in the conference room. With a broadminded outlook on life, Fritz Schluep dreaded being reduced to simply his own country, and thus expanded abroad early on and passed his global views down to his offspring.

During the Great Depression in the 1930s the company patriarch saved Felco (afterwards Felca, as Titoni was known then – all "fantasy names") by producing affordable watches of high quality. "Our clients worked hard to earn their watches," Fritz's grandson quotes from the company history while – with a brief flash of a Titoni "Master Series" with a black dial on his left wrist – leafing through one of the many overbrimming company photo albums resting on the small round conference table in his office. The watchmaker from Grenchen rewarded them for their efforts with a product of excellent quality that lasted a lifetime. And Titoni established its business identity.

We are not what you would consider a trendsetter. We produce watches for self-assured people who know who they are and what they want.

And seen in this light it makes sense when Daniel Schluep, climbing up a stairway decorated with works by Chinese artists, says: "We do not peddle dreams." In the workshop on the first floor, watchmakers in white laboratory coats bend over minute mechanical parts with a loupe screwed into their eye – just as one imagines a watchmaker's shop. The watches produced here truly are classical timepieces: of understated elegance and suitable for every situation. "Unpretentious and long-lived," the proprietor adds. Which is very important to him since Titoni is not backed by an anonymous company; instead, he is accountable in person. "A family business has to plan and deal with a view to the long term. And keep its promises. I'm not a manager who moves on to the next company after three or four years," Schluep says. A credo that would have sounded fusty only a few years ago, but today rings fresh and innovative." Nothing – especially today – is stronger than an authentic brand. "I simply do it my way," Schluep says, and this is Titoni's way as well. They cannot really be kept apart. The proprietor doesn't mention that his strategy requires a good measure of endurance at times. For example when, during the 1980s and 90s, the business community in Solothurn scoffed at his strategy to continue betting on the state-controlled Chinese market.

In Asia most people want to offer their children a better life and are prepared to invest a lot of energy into this. Titoni is spurred on by the same spirit.

When the Chinese markets were liberalized, Titoni was far ahead of its competitors thanks to having dealt with China for decades. Indeed, it was half a century's worth of experience that had been sparked by Fritz Schluep's open spirit. In his day, Grandfather Schluep had made acquisitions on the markets of the Middle East for the company. And so in 1959, it was a foregone conclusion for his son, Bruno, to receive the Chinese delegation who made an official visit to Switzerland and who had an interest in watches. The remainder of the Swiss watch industry was not interested in working with Communists. Shortly after the visit, the national "China National Light Industrial Products Import and Export Corporation" ordered the first Titoni watches – and business was underway. "Making business deals with the Chinese was not always easy, and only seldom did one reach an immediate conclusion," Daniel Schluep recalls. "Orders had to be discussed over and over again until they were confirmed. But once a deal was closed, everything would be set in motion like a well-oiled piece of machinery."

Success is the sum of interest, passion, commitment and fascination.

Just as the clients in the Great Depression had to make sacrifices for their watches, the Chinese customer needs to work long hours to be able to afford a Titoni. That is why the quality has to be perfect. Frau Zumstein from Quality Control passes the final judgment. Wearing white gloves she turns and shakes each single watch, controls that it is waterproof, precise and accurate. In an exacting inspection she looks for minute scratches on the case and glass that surely would escape the notice of the most rigorous nitpicker. If the timepiece passes the examination, it is laid in a box designed in Titoni green and bearing the company's silver logo on a stylized meihua blossom, China's national flower.

Daniel Schluep looks at the watches laid out at Frau Zumstein's workplace with sparkling eyes. After all these years, he has finally developed a fascination for watches. And, of course, they have enabled the proprietor of this third-generation family business to indulge in his passion for foreign cultures.

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