In 1964, 50 years ago, “Les Ambassadeurs” opened its doors in Geneva for the first time. How did this luxury watch and jewellery boutique decide on its name?
It was a stroke of luck. And a good choice because it is a simple and altogether great name which perfectly describes our mission and our origins while being completely international. At the time, the Café Les Ambassadeurs in the Rue du Rhône was on the point of closing. Up until then, it had been the meeting place for diplomatic circles in Geneva. It was in this café, whose name was taken over by the founders of our company, that we opened our first boutique in 1964.
At the time, one might say that Les Ambassadeurs was the first mono-brand boutique in Switzerland, above all for Omega. Why that particular choice?
Omega is the first watch brand to have thought of not selling its watches simply through its some 200 representatives, but also in a boutique specifically dedicated to the brand in an exceptional location. The instigator of this idea was Gameo in Lausanne, the company that was then responsible for distributing Omega. Charles Bauty, owner of Gameo, was also the General Distributor of Tissot and Audemars Piguet Switzerland and these two brands started to enrich Omega’s offering. But the transformation into a true multi-brand distributor only took place much later.
The boutique was not alone for long. When did the expansion from Geneva begin?
Things began to move under the leadership of Gameo’s visionary director Charles Bauty, who undertook the extension of the boutique network, starting with Zurich in 1971. The opening of the store at number 64 Bahnhofstrasse created quite a stir. It was the first time that a watch boutique had displayed its wares on several floors, as well as associating them with Haute Couture apparel and accessories. But the new building in the Bahnhofstrasse also became a place of pilgrimage for architectural enthusiasts. It architectural concept was revolutionary, especially in light of the fact that the floors were connected by escalators.
Before the expansion continued, there was a merger between Siber Hegner and Les Ambassadeurs.
In 1976, Les Ambassadeurs was bought up by Siber Hegner, which was part of today’s DKSH Holding SA. At this difficult time just after the petrol crisis, this came as a new stroke of luck for our company, because Siber Hegner decided to encourage the expansion of Les Ambassadeurs and it was thus that new subsidiaries were opened in prime locations: St. Moritz in 1979 and Lugano in 1983.
Nonetheless, Geneva remained the group’s flagship store for a long time?
… and still is today, even though the Zurich store has become consistently more important, to the point of being on a par with Geneva following the recent renovations. Don’t forget that the heart of the Swiss watchmaking world beats in Geneva. However, the key role that our Geneva boutique plays is particularly due to Frédéric Jeanjaquet who managed the branch until 1997. For decades, he was the uncrowned ruler of the Western Swiss watchmaking world, mainly thanks to his expertise and his keen sense of the market and brands. As a trained watchmaker, he enjoyed huge respect from our partner brands as well as the watch creators.
Great personalities have always been key to selling watches. Aside from Jeanjaquet, have other people played important roles in the history of Les Ambassadeurs?
Jeanjaquet succeeded in having a top-notch team of professionals around him. Aside from Jeanjaquet, Melchior Brunner was also a major figure in the parent company in Geneva. Watch enthusiasts and professionals congregated in Les Ambassadeurs’ workshop because Brunner and his team members had a solution to every technical problem. Our repair shops in Geneva, Zurich and Lugano have inherited this philosophy. It was my predecessor, Patrick Frischknecht, who continued to develop our reputation as a temple of the art of watchmaking over nearly 15 years by focusing very early on niche brands – many of which are now highly sought after by collectors. While space would not permit me to provide an exhaustive list of noteworthy employees, I will just cite the example of Rolf Richner, the most gifted salesman we have ever had in Zurich. Richner contributed to our boutique’s success for four decades as a highly professional, experienced salesman and manager.
At the beginning of the 1960s, Les Ambassadeurs decided to transform itself into a multi-brand boutique geared towards clients and service.
Indeed, that period marked the beginning of Les Ambassadeurs’ transformation into a “Leading House of Leading Names”. Our slogan, which remains valid today, comes from our CEO at the time, Dr Heinz O. Weber. Parallel to this, new partner brands such as Cartier, Blancpain and many others were consolidated, while never losing sight of the necessary sense of individuality. Volume has never been a concern for Les Ambassadeurs – we have always focused on quality and especially on comprehensive customer service.
In your opinion, what are Les Ambassadeurs’ strong points for the future?
These range from our salespeople’s professional training to the extreme quality of our repair workshop. Expertise and confidence are decisive factors for our clients, particularly in the realm of after-sales service where they can be in direct contact with our watchmakers. We intend to intensify these contacts even more in future and especially with watch collectors and connoisseurs, such as through our Watchfinder search engine which is available to our clients on our website. In the past few years, we have focused all our watchmaking workshops on our clients’ needs. And in our lounges, that we call “Espace Connaisseur”, we organise events specially designed to offer watch enthusiasts a closer look at the fascinating world of watches and jewellery.
Les Ambassadeurs is now part of Excellence Holding. Has the strategy implemented in the 1980s been maintained by the new owners?
It has been continually extended. Today we offer the widest range of brands in Switzerland and we are one of the most important meeting places for watch collectors and connoisseurs in the world. The Al-Rayes family has been the sole owner of Les Ambassadeurs for more than ten years. Our development over the past few years is solely due to its strong attachment to continuity and stability, combined with its passion for the art of watchmaking. Dr Renato A. Vanotti is the Chairman of the Board of Excellence Holding, which he heads in a resolutely circumspect manner that greatly contributes to its current success. He leaves me as CEO plenty of room for manoeuvre, while providing me with the support of his long experience.
Many jewellers and watch boutiques today survive almost exclusively through “global shoppers” and the Chinese in particular. How are things looking for Les Ambassadeurs?
We have had an international focus at all our sites, while never losing sight of our local clientele. This has always played a very important role that we want to further reinforce – notably through our watchmaking workshops and the Espace Connaisseur serving as a meeting place for our local clients. We must not forget our origins and our roots, which are definitely local.
Les Ambassadeurs has always played a pioneering role when it comes to the interior design of its shops. Will this still be the case in future?
Indeed, this approach began in Zurich at the beginning of the 1970s with the Omega building. This revolutionary concept for the time brought us a considerable audience and indeed nearly every day, whole classes came to sit on little fold-up chairs to sketch the architecture of our boutique. Today, there are different needs, so we have redesigned and developed our four shops according to completely modern criteria.
But a parallel with the first boutique in Zurich remains – namely the presence of several floors?
That is true – the watchmaking workshop, the advisory and sales area and the Espace Connaisseur extend over three floors. We want to be closer to our clients and above all the watch collectors. Thanks to this modern concept, customers must feel at home with us and be well advised without feeling obliged to buy. They must be able to take their time, and we need to offer them conditions enabling them to decide for a watch or a piece of jewellery. And even once this decision is taken, we are there for our clients by offering them the best possible service in our workshops.
What are the critical lynchpins in Les Ambassadeurs’ multi-brand strategy?
Our employees are the key ingredient in our success. Their passion for watches and jewellery, their know-how and the customer service they provide make all the difference. They also constitute the basis of our success with our regular, loyal local clients and our extensive client base all over the world, which includes important watch collectors and connoisseurs. These aficionados know that we have the most extensive range of watch and jewellery brands in Switzerland and that they will be served with charm, competence and neutrality, in addition to the fact that our workshops remain at their disposal long after they have made their purchase. Thanks to the recent introduction of our Watchfinder, our clients can also obtain information on the most recent products on-line at any time and no matter where they are in the world.
In 2014, Les Ambassadeurs is celebrating its 50th anniversary. What are you planning for this jubilee year?
A large number of different events for our clients, partners and employees. We kicked off with updating our history, an endeavour undertaken in collaboration with the Public History Research team. A great many documents and a vast amount of knowledge – which had been lost over time – have now been recovered and reassembled. By devoting two special sections in the edition No 13 & 14 of the L.A Magazine, we are hoping to share this work with our clients, our partner brands and our employees, as well as other interested parties.
Are you planning a jubilee watch?
Not just a watch – an entire collection! We owe it to our regular clients and watch collectors.
Download here the anniversary brochure