Zermatt is a small village at the foot of the Swiss Alps, world famous for being the place you go if you just have to climb, ski, or photograph the Matterhorn. The Matterhorn isn’t the tallest peak in this stretch of the alps, but it’s the most iconic, with a distinct triangular shape that looms over the entire region, inspiring not just the packaging of the Toblerone candy bar, but a whole lot of tourists to come and gawk at it. It’s an awe inspiring sight, and I am not nearly jaded enough to not be giddy to see it out of the window of my hotel room when I arrive in town for the launch of the new Norqain Wild One.
The Wild One is the most ambitious release in the young life of the upstart Swiss brand. It’s the product of a new relationship with Jean-Claude Biver, the powerful and influential former executive at the LVMH Group, TAG Heuer, and Blancpain, to name a few. He’s now an advisor to the board at Norqain, and the new watch presents as immediately Biver-esque if you’ve been tracking his career and the watches that have been made under his influence. It’s sporty, contemporary, and probably a little bit risky for Norqain. But the scope of the launch event in Zermatt underscores their confidence that they have a winning product on their hands.
Zermatt is not an obvious choice for a splashy watch release, but it’s right at home for Norqain. First and foremost, it’s the home of their first dedicated boutique, which sits within walking distance (everything is within walking distance in Zermatt) of Breitling and Hublot boutiques, as well as authorized dealers for Rolex, Patek, and others. Like other Swiss tourist destinations, this one caters to visitors who might want to mark their experience here with a luxury watch. But these high end boutiques sit well off the beaten path – the village is isolated and not easy to reach. From the Zurich airport, you take two trains to reach Zermatt, the second of which winds its way slowly into higher altitudes as it passes postcard perfect towns that feel almost removed from time.
The real link between Zermatt and Norqain is the generally sporty and adventure prone vibe of the place. This is the energy that the brand has been going for since its inception, and Zermatt would seem to live up to it. People come here to really participate in a certain kind of adventurous lifestyle, as opposed to a pure luxury experience (although, that is clearly available as well).
We learned about Norqain’s vision for how their watches correspond to that adventurous lifestyle in an elaborate launch presentation at the Vernissage, a swanky and comfortable hotel right off Zermatt’s main drag. In an auditorium setting, Norqain CEO Ben Küffer presented the new Wild One in a panel discussion format, alongside Biver, Pascal Bourquard, CEO of BIWI SA, makers of the new Norteq material featured in the Wild One, as well as a host of brand ambassadors.
Much of the evening was devoted to explaining Norteq, a carbon fiber composite that, until you see it and feel it in person, is frankly impossible to truly wrap your head around. That’s not because there’s anything particularly special about Norteq mind you (although, as I found out, there is) it’s because when it comes to materials, talk is cheap. You have to experience and live with them to understand whatever benefits have been engineered into them. More than that, when it comes to carbon fiber, there is an enormous range of quality to contend with. The carbon fiber case of a watch is simply not the same material as a carbon fiber component made for a Lamborghini or similarly exotic sports car.
The driving principle behind Norteq is twofold. First, Norqain sought to create a carbon fiber composite that is lightweight enough to be appropriate for a high end sports watch, while maintaining a particular density and elasticity that allow for it to be completely robust. In other words, it had to be light, but not feel cheap, and hold up to the types of activities one might engage in while in a place like Zermatt, which might include falling off a bicycle, a mountain, or something in between.
Second, Norqain really wanted to be able to add color to these carbon fiber cases, and to do that without compromising the case construction in any way. This was a difficult task, and Norqain claims that Norteq is one of a kind in the way the material can be colored without impacting the structural integrity of the carbon fiber. When I asked Biver and Küffer about how they were able to accomplish this, they indicated it took a considerable amount of trial and error, with an emphasis on the error. The new Wild One in a burgundy case, however, is evidence that a solution was found, and I could find no difference in how this colored case felt in the hand compared to the standard black models.
A larger theme that emerged during Norqain’s presentation of their new watch and this new proprietary material was the idea of innovation being central to their ethos. This makes sense with the addition of Biver as a member of the team, but it initially struck me as something of a right turn for the brand. Norqain has only been around a short time, but purely innovative watches have not been their forté to this point. They are often handsome, rugged, and well made, and they frequently feature unique textures and dial finishing applications, but it’s not a brand I think of when I consider those that are part of a new generation of tech forward innovation. The Wild One is their bid to change that.
“People are fascinated by innovation,” Küffer told me when I sat down with him and Biver on the day following the big unveiling of the Wild One. “You’ll have more reactions, positive and negative, for something totally new than if you reanimate a watch that people already love from the past.” Creating something that feels exciting and distinct from what’s offered by the competition is part of the brand’s larger strategy to appeal to a younger generation of watch buyers who Küffer hopes will grow with the brand as they continue to push the envelope. He’s also banking that those customers are as tired of old designs being trotted out from heritage brands as he is. “I’m bored by the reanimations of watches from the 60s and 70s,” Küffer told me, continuing that he believes the vintage reissue trend will come to an end in the next two or three years.
Biver, for his part, has been outspoken about not being fond of the vintage reissue trend for years, as if the aggressively modern watches that were produced during his time at the helm of Hublot and LVMH were not already indicative of this. “Art never goes back,” he said to me. “The future is always there.”
I was able to spend some time with the Wild One the morning after the big launch party. We took a train from Zermatt to Gornergrat, a rocky peak southeast of Zermatt and overlooking Gorner Glacier. The Gornergrat Railway is the highest open air railway in Europe, and the views from the car as you ascend to an elevation just over 10,000 feet are dizzying and beautiful. The final stop has clear views of the Matterhorn and other peaks, as well as a hotel that feels like it could be the setting of a Wes Anderson movie. It’s the kind place with a large outdoor patio that feels like it’s part of the mountain itself, the ultimate apres ski setting where you grab a warm blanket from a rack before sitting down with your coffee to admire the view. Inside is a visitor’s center with a gift shop, which displayed a trio of large chocolate Matterhorns, each coming in at just under 10 pounds. Biggest in the world, according to the sign. Not for sale, unfortunately, though I tremble at what they might cost considering the price tag of more easily accessible chocolate souvenirs.
The Wild One, as we learned in the previous night’s presentation, has been extensively tested to survive all manner of strenuous activity, including climbing the type of imposing mountain we had arrived at via a comfortable train ride. The watches are reportedly tested to 5,000 g-forces, and are completely anti-magnetic and non corrosive. Water resistance is a healthy 200 meters, and the Wild One weighs only 84 grams. I didn’t have the chance (or the inclination) to “put it through its paces,” but I did have enough time with it on my wrist to determine that it’s uncommonly comfortable for a watch of its size (42mm), and that the material advances Norqain is touting with Norteq aren’t entirely blind and raving hype.
As I discussed in the brief introductory post on the Wild One before I had a chance to see it in person, the case has a complex multi piece construction, using three primary materials: a Norteq outer shell consisting of a front and back piece that are screwed together through the lugs, a titanium inner case that protects the movement, and a partially exposed rubber shell fit in between that adds additional color and does the work of providing a well of shock resistance where the case wall should be. A total of 25 parts are used in each case,
The Norteq material is very lightweight, but unlike some plastic watches we’ve seen come to market in the last few years, there’s nothing cheap feeling about this material. It has a smooth finish that feels great in the hand (it’s not brittle at all), and on the wrist it has a confidence inspiring presence. The rubber straps are perfectly integrated, and everything is well balanced. The headline, though, and the thing that I think will ultimately impress people when they get a chance to handle the Wild One, is the uncanny lightness and the way the watch conforms to the wrist. As Jean-Claude Biver is fond of saying, the watch has to love the wrist, and this one melds to it in a particularly satisfying way.
It’s sometimes hard to get a sense of quality with alternative materials like carbon fiber composites, plastics, and ceramics. Stainless steel, titanium, and precious metals can all be finished in such a way that we recognize certain luxurious qualities inherent in the material itself. That’s often not the case with carbon fiber composites. In addition to simply being a little less familiar to most of us, these composites usually share an unfinished aesthetic. It’s only when you can literally feel them that you can perceive a difference in quality.
I’m not an expert in evaluating carbon fiber, but I can tell you that the Norteq material had a pleasant smoothness to it that I haven’t observed in less expensive carbon fiber and plastic cases. More importantly, the fitment on the multipart case is very precise and feels almost organic. The rubber inserts don’t feel like they’ve been added at the last moment, but rather are integral to the case. The strap, while removable and interchangeable (it attaches with standard spring bars at the lugs) should really be thought of as an integrated bracelet. The way it curves downward just past the lugs feels very intentional and goes a long way toward making the Wild One so comfortable, and the material itself is supple and easy to manipulate (none of that annoying rubber strap stickiness).
I’m focusing so much on the feel of the material specifically because a lot of the commentary around this watch – already – has been about the price point. The Wild One starts at a little over $5,000, which is not inexpensive by any means. But when you’re being asked to spend that much on a material that the watch community is unfamiliar with, a certain amount of eye rolling is to be expected. What I can tell you having had a chance to handle the Wild One briefly over the course of a few days, is that this is not a cheap feeling plastic that some have already dismissed it as. There are other high profile watches released just this year that feel in the hand like they should perhaps cost less than the few hundred dollars that’s being asked for them. The Wild One is in a completely different category when it comes to materials and finishing, so anyone equating Norqain’s new watch to one cast in colored plastic or bio-ceramic is being somewhat disingenuous. To put it plainly, I didn’t come away from my experience with the Wild One thinking it was too expensive.
The watch from my own life that the Wild One reminded me most of was my old Zenith Defy Classic, similarly made in an alternative material and designed to be lightweight, sporty, and rugged. It’s also easy to dismiss as overpriced or “cheap” if you haven’t actually held one or strapped one to your wrist. The Wild One is on par with the Defy in terms of fit and finish, in my opinion. And on my wrist, because of its larger size and light weight, the Wild One beats it handily in terms of comfort and pure aesthetics while wearing it.
The feel of the watch is something that Küffer and Biver took seriously and refined throughout the design process. From speaking with them, you get the sense they understood the potential objections. They spoke of making it light, but not too light. And ensuring that the colored cases were actually representative of a new and different color, and not simply a muddy version of basic black.
“If you copy nostalgia, it’s a sin…the future cannot be made with copies of the past”
An aspect of the case construction that Norqain is particularly proud of is the execution of the visible screws on the tops of each lug. The screws are angled such that they are in line with the curve of the case, a small flex that is typically found on far more expensive watches. Early on, a more economical approach was taken, but Biver objected. “We had standard screws that were cut straight,” according to Küffer, but “Jean Claude said ‘No no! We don’t do that, every screw has to follow the case shape!’ So, in that kind of product, there is nothing below $10,000 – we’re paying for screws what a stamped case normally costs!”
Little details like that add up, and you wind up with a watch that is far more refined and high end feeling than anything Norqain has made to this point. Another example is the dial, which has been laser cut on multiple layers separated by fractions of a millimeter. The mandala-like pattern is actually an inversion of Norqain’s logo. While the technical execution of the dial is spot on, aesthetically for me it’s the Wild One’s weak point. It’s just a little too busy for my taste, and while the design doesn’t inhibit legibility, I think a flatter, more sober dial might make more sense on a watch that is meant to be an all out outdoorsman’s tool. It just seems a little out of place. The limited edition version of the Wild One made in partnership with conservationist Dean Schneider features a textured pattern that is meant to resemble a lion’s mane, and this design is more successful in my opinion. Ultimately, of course, this is a matter of subjective taste. And it’s hard to argue that the mandala pattern effect isn’t 100% pure Jean-Claude Biver.
At 10,000 feet, with views of the Matterhorn to take in, a high end, design forward sports watch with proprietary materials makes a lot of sense. At sea level, for the average watch enthusiast, the Wild One, and Norteq, might be a tougher sell, and I found myself wondering who this watch is for, and if they’ll follow through and buy it. Norqain’s strategy from the beginning has been to appeal to a younger clientele by offering solid value and something genuinely different. At a $3,000 price point, that case can be made convincingly. But the Wild One tops out perilously close to $6,000 (the burgundy-cased limited edition is $5,690). And while in my view the watch is priced fairly given its specs and materials, there’s a lot of competition there. What Norqain sees as their leg up on the competition is their independent spirit and mindset. When I asked Küffer what was involved in appealing to those younger clients beyond price, he spoke of the culture and the brand he’s building. “The big mission for us is to really make [young customers] understand the emotions that they get with this watch,” he said, “that they’re part of the community.”
That culture seems central to why Jean-Claude Biver is involved with Norqain in the first place. More than anything else, I wanted to ask him if there was something about Norqain that reminded him of other brands he’s worked with. I figured that for Biver, who has literally seen it all, there must be some parallels to be drawn between Norqain and some element of his past professional life.
Based on the sporty, materials focused nature of the Wild One, the brand that I figured Biver would reference when prodded would obviously be Hublot. There seem to be clear links between the Wild One and certain aspects of the Hublot ethos. A focus on non-traditional watchmaking materials, of course, but also an inclination to appeal to a younger client, the type of client that might have a tendency to thumb their nose at stodgy traditionalism. So I was a little surprised when he mentioned Blancpain.
“[Norqain] reminds me very much of the start and success of Blancpain,” said Biver. “It reminds me of this period of which I am still a little bit nostalgic. It attracts me to be part of it. If a psychologist were here, he could make a nice analysis of my problem.”
He went on to elaborate that Norqain shares a similar youthful energy with an earlier incarnation of Blancpain. “The vitality of a startup is [at Norqain],” he said. “The excitement is also there – you can see the company growing.”
That said, Biver understands that Norqain is a very different animal, not just from Blancpain but from any other brand. When I pressed him on this idea of nostalgia, he was quick to point out that this is a personal feeling for him, and he is not seeking to recreate something from his past. “If you copy nostalgia, it’s a sin. You should take advantage of nostalgia to go to the next level,” he told me. “The future cannot be made with copies of the past.”
The Wild One feels like a turning point for Norqain, a brand that is now four years old, but by any traditional Swiss watchmaking standard still in its infancy. In addition to what must be a considerable financial investment by Norqain in the Norteq material, the Wild One is a very different type of watch than the far more traditional sports watches we’ve seen from them in the recent past. It is very deliberately contemporary, a quality which seems like the single greatest influence to come from Biver’s involvement in the project.
The last scheduled event of my trip to Zermatt was a dinner at Norqain’s boutique. By this time, I had had the chance to visit many of the other watch boutiques in town, and had fairly typical experiences at each of them. The watches are all under glass, and if you want to try something on, a salesperson who may or may not be eager to help you has to grab a key and go through an entire process to get the watch on your wrist. Norqain’s boutique is different: there’s nothing under glass. Customers are free to come in, browse, and handle any watch they’d like. It reminded me of the experience of being at a Windup Watch Fair, where watches are placed on tables, and you’re free to pick them up, try them on, and have a conversation with the folks behind the brand. Or not. It’s totally up to you.
I’m a pretty big fan of the Wild One for its unconventional case structure and novel materials, and I’m excited to see how they expand the line in the future. But the lasting impression I have from Norqain by way of this trip is of a brand that genuinely wants to connect with their customers and provide them a unique experience. That starts with the watches themselves, of course, but it has to be underscored by the experience the brand gives you as a customer, or a potential customer. Every brand claims to innovate somehow, and every brand has eyes on the next generation of watch consumers. But most brands continue to do things the same way, with watches under glass. I give Norqain credit for letting these watches sit outside their case. Norqain
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