Benoît Mintiens is not your typical CEO of a watch brand. An industrial designer by training, Mintiens can count high-speed trains, aircraft cabins, leather goods and even medical devices as part of his portfolio before the thought of founding a watch brand popped into his mind.
So the fact that he is now, the founder and CEO of Ressence, a small but up-and-coming watch brand that is making a name for itself in the industry amongst enthusiasts, is somewhat of a pleasant surprise for the Belgian-born designer.
Since founding Ressence in 2010, the company has established itself as a breath of fresh air in the world of watchmaking, not just in the way its watches are designed: its first watch replaced the traditional hands of a timepiece with rotating discs to tell the time, but also in its approach towards how it runs its business. Its goal is not to make expensive watches but rather to make something led by the experience of owning a watch that is decidedly different and unique to each of its wearers.
“The freedom that we have is very important,” Mintiens told Luxury Society in an interview. “You really have the impression that you are inventing a new chapter… and you also have the freedom to do it. And your customers expect it from you. They buy your product because of that.”
Indeed, how Ressence builds and designs its watches is something very different altogether. Take its Type 3 and Type 5 watches, which feature two separately sealed chambers: one filled with oil, and the other filled with air that includes the base calibre of its watch, the result being never-before-seen visual effect called “water drop.”
Or how it rethought how to place convex discs in a watch to tell the time, such as the hands on top of a fixed dial, or sub-dials that continually revolve around the main dial like moons around a planet. Each part of how a Ressence watch is designed, constructed and manufactured is a consideration of how we even began to tell time in the first place, and how we can approach watchmaking in the future.
So the fact that interest is growing in this small, independent watch brand, at a time when the biggest brands seem to be taking up a lot of space on the global stage, comes as a hopeful sign that all parts of the watchmaking ecosystem can thrive.
After all, interest in luxury watches is at an all-time high right now. In April, the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry reported yet another increase in growth for watch exports, a rise of 6.8.percent compared to the same period last year, to the value of 2.1 billion Swiss francs. For the whole of 2022, Swiss watch exports rose by 11.4 percent to 24.8 billion Swiss francs, exceeding their 2021 performance. And in March, in what is now the largest gathering of the watch industry, Watches and Wonders recorded approximately 43,000 unique visitors at its seven-day event in Geneva, nearly double the number seen in 2022.
Mintiens sees no signs of demand slowing but remains cautious. “It's such an interesting journey in the sense that I believe that this approach, this vision that we have on watchmaking, is starting to spread,” he said. “We see it in the demand. We see it in the retailers that are starting to understand where we are going. More and more people are understanding the vision that we have.”
Last year, the company delivered 626 watches, 50 percent more than in 2021. This year, it aims to deliver 900 to 1,000 pieces, but this will depend heavily on lead times for production, particularly when it has become an ongoing challenge to source the different components needed, and for Ressence, whose watches have between 200 and 500 components, remains one of its biggest challenges.
“We are a growing brand,” said Mintiens. “It's a big increase. But again, you can increase a lot when the production is still small, and it's still easy to have these huge numbers. The biggest challenge since the start has always been to be able to produce enough to answer the demand and to get the watches in time.”
“The lead times for production for a component, whatever components, has doubled to tripled in last nine months,” Mintiens continued.” This means that we have to order double or triple that amount because you have to cover these quantities…it really becomes a very dangerous balancing exercise. Smaller players have to commit more and more to get what we want. And then, if it goes down. Yeah, we will be in trouble.”
Another challenge for Ressence is how to grow from a start-up into a mid-sized company.
“We are moving away from a start-up mode of operation,” he said. Now, there are more processes, there are more digital elements to think about, there are more people and more quality controls… everything that makes us become a more mature company.”
Describing the current landscape of the watch industry, Mintiens feels that we’re living in strange times. “It's weird, I’ve not been so long in the industry, 13 years, but I've seen many brands come and go already. That's unfortunate, but that's the reality. And the world is changing all the time.”
“But if you look at it from a statistics point of view, it's never been so good,” he added. “We have to be careful in all these things, and we are very much influenced by all these things. Buying a watch is an act of the future, and if you don't believe in the future, well, maybe, you will not spend that money. So we are in an ecosystem.”
But despite the challenges of being a smaller player, being part of that ecosystem is something that Mintiens treasures, particularly amongst the tight-knit community of smaller independent watchmakers.
“We don't consider that we have competitors,” he said. “There's no one that's doing something similar to us, and I think that many independents have all found a kind of DNA that is unique, and that makes us very different from all the others. And the proof is we have very good relations between us. We don't feel as if we are competitors.”
For Mintiens, what remains at the heart of his company is the product and creating that sense of wonder for his customers.
“People that are attracted to independent watchmaking are product lovers,” he said. You see that many of them are curious people … they really want to be in wonder when they see our products. It's something that speaks to their heart. And I think that's the big difference that we can generate because everything we put in our watches is custom. There's nothing standard in there.”