Some superlatives attract journalists like wasps to a picnic. "Most complicated". "Biggest". "Smallest". "Most expensive". Others are less headline-grabbing, especially in the luxury watch world. "Best value", for example, or "most sensible".
Oris has built its name on watches in the latter categories, and as CEO Rolf Studer acknowledges wryly, “to make sense, and to be useful, can in some ways be contradictory in the luxury market”.
Oris has always placed its emphasis on a blend of functionality and fair pricing, and with good, honest, sensible pilot’s watches and good, honest, sensible dive watches at the heart of its collection, it is easy to understand how it could at times find itself out of the limelight.
Studer, who took over as CEO at the start of 2016, after a decade in the company’s sales and marketing teams, is aware of the issue. “Making a good mechanical watch with functions that make sense, for prices that make sense – that has always been our brand message. Now that can be boring, or that can be very exciting.”
The good news for him, and for anyone shopping for a good watch on a moderate budget, is that recently, Oris has become quite exciting indeed.
If you know the brand at all, it’s probably from hearing about innovations such as the Altimeter, or Aquis Depth Gauge – two fantastic watches which drew universal praise for their simplicity of purpose and ingenuity of execution. Go back a few more years and other nifty ideas crop up: a worldtimer with pushers for easy adjustment forward and back; a locking timer bezel for divers. It has become a cliché to observe that no one else does innovation like this at Oris’s level, but it bears repeating once more. “We have at Oris the luxury of common sense,” as Studer puts it.
The brand’s biggest success in years, however, isn’t an innovation at all. It’s a design story; a little watch that first appeared in 2015. It had quirky reversed-out numerals, a svelte 40mm case and a slightly placky “tropic” rubber strap. It didn’t seem to fit in with anything else Oris was making, and either despite or because of this, we all gravitated to it. The Divers Sixty-Five was born.
Two years later it has been confirmed as a roaring success. Oris rolled out several brightly coloured dial variations, and added an upsized 42mm version which dropped the jaunty numerals in favour of a more typical dots-and-triangle offering with sumptuous blue and green dials. It even brought out a limited edition in bronze dedicated to ground breaking US Navy Diver Carl Brashear. After years of stolidly ploughing its own furrow, it was as if someone at Oris opened up a mainline connection to the zeitgeist and grabbed it with both hands.
On paper the Sixty-Five is no different from the endless stream of revived archive designs that the industry has served up in recent years. But it still had to be well executed – the design team, we learn, was “beefed up” three years ago, and doubtless deserves a pat on the back for bringing this one to market in all its well-judged forms. But the original idea came from Oris’s sales team – and if that punctures some of the magic for you; welcome to Oris. Smoke and mirrors need not apply.
Truthfully, Oris would be mad not to start reinterpreting its historical pieces. Not just because everyone else is doing it, but because there is genuinely strong source material to work with. Not everyone will know that it used to be one of the 10 largest manufacturers of movements in Switzerland, and that prior to the Quartz Crisis it had 279 in-house calibre designs to its name. There will be more retro designs to come, but the silver dialled Divers Sixty-Five released in December will be the last of that line for the time being.
Another area in which Oris is keen to reconnect with its past is in the production of in-house movements. Matters are more advanced in this corner, with the limited edition Calibre 110 having appeared in 2014 for the brand’s 110th anniversary, followed by Cals.111 and 112. This year sees the Calibre 113 join the range.
It shares the same 10-day power reserve base (with non-linear indicator, for those keeping tally of the innovations) as its siblings, adding a radial weekly calendar display. It most likely won’t set hearts ablaze in the UK, where we’ve never really cottoned onto the idea of measuring the year out in weeks, but it’s a logical extension of the range.
“As an independent brand it’s a big statement to have your own movement,” says Studer. “Sure, it’s easier not to do it, but if we took the easy way we wouldn’t still have our independence. We made our own calibres before – mechanical competence is a very important value at Oris. To have your own full movement back again is the next logical step.”
This sense of maturity and progress is on Studer’s mind as Baselworld 2017 approaches. Oris is re-launching the core Aquis collection of dive watches, the first time a family of watches from the current range has been around long enough to need a refresh, and it’s something he feels strongly about: “Now, we are becoming a brand that refines its existing collections. That’s much more difficult for me, to improve on already good things rather than just bring out something new.”
The new Aquis isn’t a quantum leap; slightly smaller at 43.5mm and looking neater as a result of tweaks to the case, hands and dial. The range is headed up by another example of sharp Oris thinking, however: the Aquis Regulator. This might to some feel like a shark has been jumped but there is proper logic underpinning it. Minutes are the most important piece of information for a diver, and are the single thing prioritised by a regulator display. Particularly this one, with its cartoonishly big red and white hand. The combination of such a classical idea with the bold utility aesthetic of a dive watch is a little jarring at first, but I reckon it’s a grower.
Certainly Oris has no problem letting its products do the talking. But Studer readily acknowledges that these days that isn’t enough, and has been putting effort into giving Oris more personality as a brand, whether that’s through social media and online – where the website now profiles the “real people” behind the watches – or through well-chosen corporate social responsibility schemes.
“To be relevant means being where your consumer is: we’re online all the time,” says Studer. “The bond between brand and consumer is getting tighter; interaction has to be more direct. We don’t believe in the customer paying a premium for celebrities who have nothing to do with the watch, but you do want to load up your story with emotion, and emotion means people. People at Oris put their heart into what we do.”
Still, getting the customer to care about a brand’s “personal connection” with the watches at this price level can be a struggle – everyone knows that one set of CNC machines is exactly like another. What works well are traces of what we can call the “Nomos effect”; cleaner design and a bit of wry German humour. Oris does tend to see itself as a little bit apart from the main concentrations of Swiss watchmaking – a product of geography dating back to when Holstein seemed a lot further from Geneva – and the perception of the brand as a slightly leftfield choice lives on in the products. Oris’s challenge now is to reap the rewards from its inroads in innovation and design without losing that edge.