When we think of the emperors of old, names like Alexander or Caesar come to mind, powerful men whose conquering might was matched only by their ambition.
For Count Jérôme de Witt, descendant of Emperor Napoléon, great-grandson of King Leopold II of Belgium, son of Princess Marie-Clotilde Napoléon, it’s not a thirst for military victory that defines him, but rather a dedication to excellence.
On a recent fall day, during an interview at The Carlyle Hotel in Manhattan, the Count cut a tall, elegant, and dignified figure with his gray suit, red tie, and formidable beard. He was with his wife, Countess Viviane de Witt, whose gentle smile and flame-coloured hair immediately lit up the more muted tones at the hotel’s Bemelmans Bar, where they were sitting.
There was a gleam on the Count’s wrist: a watch of his own design and manufacture, the DeWitt Academia Mirabilis, inspired by its namesake flower, which only opens in late afternoon. Instead of hour marks between 7 o’clock and 12 o’clock, there is an open, plunging view into the inner workings of the watch.
Mechanics has always been a passion for de Witt. There is nothing that he relishes so much as to take something apart, explore its inner workings, and put it back together, in perfect functioning form.
The Count was born at the family chateau in the Périgord region of France, which now harbours the Musée Napoléon. He recalled that, growing up, “when something broke, you took it apart, you fixed it, and put it back together.” It gave him a different way of approaching the world than that of today, where one might simply look up a repair shop online.
He also owned agricultural property, and being able to fix and repair, he said, was not just a financial issue, but a matter of survival. “When something stopped [working], everything stopped. But animals can’t stop living, they have to eat, so you have to find a solution.”
Passionate about restoring old cars, de Witt turned his attention to the world of fine watches only a little over a decade ago, forming the company DeWitt in Switzerland in 2003. He had never designed a watch before, something he took as an advantage.
“I said right away, I want something exceptional,” he said. “Knowledge is a fantastic thing, but it’s like a tunnel. That is to say, you know the limits, and everyone is going in the same direction inside this tunnel. We can be on the outside of this tunnel, which gives a vision and creations that are totally different.”
DeWitt took the watch world by storm with its innovations and designs. Only two years after the company’s inception, it won an innovation award at the Grand Prix de l’Horlogerie de Genève.
In only a matter of years — merely a blip, you could say, in the long history of watchmaking — DeWitt’s star became firmly established in the firmament of Swiss watchmaking, anchored by distinguished numbers that set it apart. Among 600 brands of watches in the world, only 18 companies are capable of making their own movements, and of those, only four make their own dials in-house — DeWitt being one of those four.
It’s a remarkable achievement in the crowded world of luxury watches, one where it’s all too tempting to give customers what they want — or what you think they want.
For de Witt, it’s not about giving in to demand, which he said would be a slippery slope “because one makes concessions in the name of price and competitiveness,” he said. “It’s better to have freedom.”
My kingdom for a hair
Behind a great man, as they say, is a great woman. And Viviane de Witt, as the CEO of DeWitt watches, brings years of business experience and marketing savvy to the role.
For example, when it occurred to her that the sales of the new entry-level steel line weren’t matching the quality of the watches, she used Napoleonic DNA to give things a boost. Monaco’s royal family was selling its collection of objects belonging to the emperor, and she bought two lots containing strands of his hair. So inside each of these watches, right on the emperor’s hat, 0.5 millimeter of the emperor’s hair was placed.
The watch captivated the imagination—envision wearing Napoléon’s DNA on your wrist, and perhaps some of his self-assurance and boldness as well—and was a success. Even the English and Russians, enemies of the emperor in history, bought the watches.
Nothing is impossible
When de Witt brings a new watch concept to his technical team, it’s scribbled on a tiny piece of paper. It used to be that his team would pore over his design for a week, and come back to announce, “It’s impossible.”
“Nothing is impossible,” de Witt would reply, perhaps channelling some of his ancestor’s imperial determination. He would say, “You have to have an open mind, that’s all.”
Though constant innovation has kept competitors and consumers watching and guessing, de Witt firmly values the traditions of the past, combining “knowledge from the past to see how, with today’s knowledge, we can do better… but to always keep the roots of history and of the past,” he said.
This means making every component in-house — a watch has about 300 components — a highly rare capability for a watchmaker, but one that enables DeWitt to ensure quality.
Beyond the ephemeral and the passing of fads, DeWitt watches also eschew the use of certain materials (de Witt calls them “matériaux magiques”) that may well be outdated tomorrow — dooming the watches made with them to extinction.
“We want to preserve tradition, quality, and we are creating for the future,” de Witt said.
There is no large marketing campaign behind DeWitt watches; they are shared by word of mouth, worn by connoisseurs who relish their exquisite design and craftsmanship — a club, if you will. It’s not uncommon, for example, for someone wearing a DeWitt watch to discreetly acknowledge another wearer. The most consistent aesthetic characteristic across the different collections may be the imperial columns that crown the bezel, signifying strength and power.
DeWitt watch innovations are bewildering. The mysterious Academia Mathematical, for example, does nothing short of reimagining the concept of what a watch is — it tells time, but has no hands. The numbers are scattered on the elegant watch face, giving the illusion of chaos.
“We are pretentious when we want to control time,” de Witt mused. “We are the ones who decided to put 24 hours in one day.” And yet despite its appearances, the Mathematical tells the exact time, thanks to numbers that jump and enter an untinted area at the center of the watch.
At the manufacture, about 1,500 watches will be made this year, each watch handmade by one watchmaker who brings to it his personal touch and expertise.
Once a watch is finished, he moves on to the next one, ready for a new challenge.
“Every time there is a technical obstacle and a solution has to be found, that’s where it becomes exciting, because one must surpass oneself,” de Witt said.
Text by Channaly Philipp Translated by Cherry Chen Produced by Olivier Chartrand