Vallée de Joux, deep in the heart of the Jura Mountains of Switzerland, was a cradle of its watchmaking industry. There were four founding families of this craft in the Vallée, one of which was Meylan. Today, the Meylan name is represented by the Claude Meylan watches. The brand, while being a specialist in the sophisticated art of “skeletonisation,” still insists on crafting its watches in the traditional, Jura way, offering a direct link back to those historic beginnings.
The eponymous brand was founded in 1988 by Claude Meylan, who sold it to the current owner and CEO, Philippe Belais in 2010. Philippe began his career in horology as Export Director for Pequignet watches, followed by Alfred Dunhill, where, after three years as Sales Director for southern Europe, he was made General Manager for jewellery, watches, pens and lighters. In 2000, he took over as manager of the Van Cleef & Arpels watch division, where he went deep into its archives to reinvigorate the brand. In 2005, he became President and CEO of Bertolucci watches.
Philippe Belais gave Signé an exclusive insight into the man himself and his brand of horology.
What is it about the Claude Meylan story that appealed to you, to make you want to buy it?
Maybe I should add that it’s a true story because there are also stories that are totally made up. It is very important to me that the brand’s roots are true, something that has values, integrity and philosophy, all in the same package. Claude Meylan descends from one of the founding families of Vallée de Joux, and they have been there for more than 300 years. The value of something like that is very hard to translate into words.
At what point in your life did you think ‘I want to be an entrepreneur,’ or was it something that just happened?
I never asked myself that question because I was lucky enough to work in companies that I liked, but I think I had entrepreneurialism in me right from the beginning. I love autonomy and the independence to express myself, so I think that I was very lucky to have bosses who allowed me that space.
How did your purchasing of Claude Meylan come about?
In 2010, I was free, and I was looking for another challenge, after three and a half years as CEO and president of Bertolucci. In those days there was the Geneva Time Exhibition for small independent watchmakers. I visited this exhibition where I met Mr. Meylan. I knew him from my Van Cleef days because he used to buy movements from Van Cleef when I was there. He told me that he wanted to sell his company because he was old.
I never planned on going to GTE. I never planned to buy the company. We started talking, and things moved very quickly. I saw many positives. The brand was sold commercially only in Switzerland. It had a great heritage, and so it had tremendous potential for growth. We signed nine months later in December 2010.
“Mr. Meylan is now 85, but he is still involved in the company. In fact, he lives above our offices and the atelier.” – Philippe Belais, owner and CEO, Claude Meylan
What would you say is your brand identity and was it always there or something you introduced?
First, I asked myself: what is this brand? I looked into its past for answers, and I came to the realisation that we are sculptors of time, we don’t create it. We are masters of skeletonisation, a specialisation within watchmaking. For inspiration, I went back to our roots, to the Vallée, to our village L’Abbaye, to our Lake Joux, and our river Lionne. These are the inspiration for our lines [collections].
Above all, I wanted to deliver a product that was reliable. Now, we are not a movement manufacturer. So, I needed to find movements that were extremely reliable. I was able to convince ETA [SA Manufacture Horlogère Suisse] to take a chance with us. We always base our art and our savoir-faire on an extremely reliable product.
What has changed since you took over?
The company was run in a manner that was typical of Mr. Meylan’s generation. There wasn’t much that you could base the future on. There was no strategy on the movement, no strategy on the lines. There were no lines. There was something like 650 references, no structure on who does what. Many movements came from many suppliers; some were even bought at auctions. In fact, even now at 85, Mr. Meylan drives across Switzerland to collect movements. I started the Legends line especially for the movements that he finds.
For us, being true to the customer, being true to the brand, being true to our heritage will be the base from which we grow.