You’ll rarely find musicians running record labels, tailors helming menswear brands or mechanical engineers calling the big shots at the major car marques. Which is why a former metallurgist, in late 2017, becoming a CEO at Breguet – the haute watch brand founded in in Paris in 1775 – raised eyebrows: and for all the right reasons.
Chatting to Esslinger about engineering, inspiration, the legendary Nicolas G. Hayek, Sr’s influence and horology’s remarkable weathering of the digital storm, Robb Report UK found Esslinger, who spent two decades working at Hayek Engineering AG in Zurich before taking his current position, to be one of haute horology’s most informed and engaging senior figures.
How does being a metallurgist shape your appreciation of luxury watches?
Progress in watchmaking has always been made [alongside] the mastery of materials. When we look at Abraham-Louis Breguet, his “perpetual” watches from the 1780s work well because he used platinum for the oscillating weight, a metal for which the melting process had been discovered just a few years before that. He was always looking for the best type of steel for his hairsprings and the best stones for his escapements. He was designing bimetallic or even trimetallic pendulums for certain clocks, mastering the dilation of different metals in the composition of timepieces and creating high-precision laboratory thermometers in metal. Nowadays, it is not surprising that new improvements come with the use of new materials, such as silicon.
What is Breguet’s motivation for sponsoring Race For Water?
Today we understand the large-scale impacts we have had on our planet and we need fast, realistic, global answers to tackle the issues. Race For Water is providing those answers and safeguarding our environment through voluntarism and action, unlike many other conventional charities. The Race For Water boat enables the crew to meet people across the globe, giving special attention to educating the younger generations. The pedagogical dimension is strong, as is the scientific angle, which is key in offering real solutions. Collecting waste is good, valuing and turning it into clean energy is better.
Why is the digital revolution posing so little threat to mechanical horology?
Fine mechanical watchmaking and mass produced electronic devices do not meet the same needs. It’s possible to wear both types of watches on the same day depending on your activity, but in fine watchmaking we sell art that incorporates the latest advances in technical artistry and craftsmanship. While Breguet is neither a quartz business or a digital brand, our R&D office is constantly innovating with new technical solutions and new materials. Our customers expect the beauty and irreproachable quality that mechanical watches exemplify, as well as historical and emotional ties that digital watches cannot offer.
Is the Breguet client base changing?
We find that our client base is getting younger. The new generation of clients look for authenticity and understatement. The history of Breguet and watchmaking trends fascinate our customers, even the youngest – we have daily testimonials! The emerging generation likes to be surprised by the timelessness and innovative side of our brand, discovering watchmaking subtleties. It’s up to us to find the right language to continue to engage with this new generation, to meet their needs – and that is exciting.
What have you learned from the life and work of Nicolas Hayek Sr?
Working for 15 years alongside Nicolas G. Hayek was an unforgettable experience. The man was terribly endearing. The speed and accuracy of his decisions was legendary – he was a true visionary, and many of his concepts are only taking shape today. What lessons did I learn from him? That reality and dreams can coexist. He often said that he made dreams a reality, and – along with an army of engineers, who he encouraged to preserve their childlike curiosity – he fulfilled this mission! His was a school that preached modesty, perseverance, precision, dynamism and insight – and a hated of arrogance. For this, I will always be grateful to him.
In what circumstances do you get your best creative ideas?
At Breguet, the management committee often meets and talks about new ideas. I listen to everything, put forward my own ideas and make syntheses, as a moderator. Then, in the inspiring tranquillity of the evenings at Vallée de Joux, I try to programme proposals and actions from these syntheses. This informs the decisions that I might take once meeting up with Marc Hayek – who is very much his grandfather’s grandson! He is personally involved, and this is extremely contagious, motivating and engaging.
Who are your heroes in the luxury sphere and why?
If the definition of a hero is a person able to create wonder and admiration then Nicolas G. Hayek is one for me, but he is not alone – all our watchmakers at Breguet and others, too, are worthy of a mention because they practice craftsmanship that inspires the same feelings and continue to exemplify the tradition, the excellence, of haute horology.