One to One: Stephen Urquhart
The Olympics are set to become part of Omega’s legacy. President Stephen Urquhart tells Kate Donovan about the brand’s pioneering history and exciting future
Breaking records at the Olympics and landing on the moon – you’d be hard pushed to find two better displays of success and peak performance. Both are global stages on which Swiss watch brand Omega is entirely comfortable.
Just like athletes competing at the highest levels, this Swatch Group brand has faced and overcome numerous challenges during its 160 years, and one man who has been integral to its development and success is Omega president Stephen Urquhart.
Urquhart is proud of the brand’s association with pioneering events, which include the Omega Speedmaster Professional being worn in space during all six lunar landings; the launch of the first divers’ watch; and the creation of the world’s only certified marine chronometer wristwatch. Omega is also respected within the watch world for the introduction of the George Daniels-designed Co-Axial escapement, which made waves throughout Swiss watchmaking.
This year Omega will once again be under the spotlight, when the Olympics come to London. However, those behind the brand do not want any worldwide attention - well, at least not for the wrong reasons anyway.
“What we would like during the whole Games is for the name Omega not to be mentioned,” says Urquhart. “Because that means everything is working perfectly.”
It is a position familiar to Urquhart, whose job at Omega during the first moon landing in 1969 was to make a note of the times that Omega was mentioned. He recalls the company’s pleasure when Omega’s name did not come up, certification that all had run smoothly.
However, that’s not to say that at the London 2012 Games there won’t be credit where credit’s due. “Of course the Omega name will be seen,” says Urquhart. “Everyone watching will see the name at the Olympics’ sites and on their television.”
A look at Omega’s history of unbeatable levels of accuracy makes Urquhart’s confidence in its performance entirely understandable, and if anyone should know, it’s him.
A Swiss and British citizen, Urquhart studied industrial management at the Université de Neuchâtel in Switzerland before beginning his career at Omega in 1968 as international account manager responsible for all English-speaking markets. He also worked in management services within the marketing and
After six years at Omega, Urquhart pursued a career with watch company Audemars Piguet from 1974 to 1997, where he was international sales director and became joint chairman and delegate of the board of directors from 1989. From 1990 to 1997, Urquhart was a member of the board of directors at Jaeger-LeCoultre.
However, he returned to the Swatch Group in 1997 as president of Blancpain, and two years later became the president of Omega.
Since it was founded in 1848, Omega has become an internationally known and trusted brand, but Urquhart is very honest about tougher times.
Along with other well-known watch brands, Omega faced significant challenges during the quartz crises of the 1970s and early 1980s, when quartz watches dominated mechanical timepieces, resulting in a well-documented decline of the Swiss watchmaking industry. At that time the majority of watch production shifted to Asian companies.
As a brand at the cutting edge of watchmaking, Omega too moved into the quartz market. Although he was not with Omega at the time, Urquhart says that he understands the move by the company, which was expected to be at the forefront of developments in the market. However, the move came a little too late and failed to win over customers, who still sought watches with history and impressive mechanics. Amid dropping sales, the most significant impact on Omega was the dilution of its brand identity.
Urquhart says that, as he sees it, Omega “lost a generation”. He explains: “I think there was a generation for which Omega wasn’t the brand that it should have been.”
However, ever since the quartz crisis Omega and now Urquhart have been working on re-establishing the company’s identity as a must-own brand. “Omega is developing and maturing and is in the process of regaining its former position,” says Urquhart.
Essential to this was Omega’s introduction of the Co-Axial escapement in 1999, which signified a revolution in contemporary mechanical watchmaking. Swatch Group’s late chairman Nicolas Hayek acquired the rights for Omega to use Co-Axial technology, which had been invented by English master watchmaker George Daniels in the 1970s. “It gave Omega the edge,” says Urquhart.
He adds: “What’s great about the Co-Axial escapement is it’s given Omega a platform now by which we can come back to what we really are, which is making fantastically reliable and great mechanical watches.”
Compared with the much-used Swiss lever escapement, the Co-Axial escapement has its advantages. With any escapement, energy must be transmitted to the oscillator, maintaining the oscillator’s frequency. In a Swiss lever escapement, the impulse involves the wheel tooth sliding along the inclined surface of the pallet, the movement of which creates significant friction, which requires optimal lubrication to function well.
However, Omega’s Co-Axial escapement uses radial impulses to transmit energy. The pushing motion and the smaller contact surfaces reduce the friction of the escapement considerably compared with the lever escapement’s sliding motion.
The Co-Axial escapement also delivers more stable precision, with its clockwise impulse given directly to the pallet on the balance roller by the teeth of the escapement wheel. The result is greater mechanical efficiency.
Used in conjunction with a free sprung-balance, the Co-Axial escapement allows the watch’s rate to be adjusted without the disturbances caused by touching the hairspring and improves shock resistance.
“The introduction of the Co-Axial escapement took Omega right back to where it was,” says Urquhart.
Names and faces
Another key part of Omega’s high profile that Urquhart has been involved with is allying the timepieces with individuals who represent aspiration and peak performance.
Omega’s ambassador list includes actors George Clooney, Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig, astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Eugene Cernan and swimmer Michael Phelps. And 2012, of course, will be when Omega appears on the wrist of Bond in the latest James Bond film, Skyfall.
However, while Urquhart advocates the important role of the Omega ambassadors, he is adamant about what tops the brand’s star line-up. “Probably our number one celebrity today is the Co-Axial escapement,” he says.
It is the watchmaking expertise behind Omega that means it operates in worlds where timing precision is an absolute must. To date, the brand has kept time for 24 Olympic Games. Not only will 2012 be the 25th time Omega has served as official timekeeper at the Games, but it also marks the 80th anniversary of the watch brand’s first Olympics. 2012 is not the first year that Omega will be keeping time at a London Olympics, having done it previously in 1948.
However, as Urquhart explains, the experience is always different.
“This London Olympics will be unique. They have chosen a devastated area of London that’s never really been used for anything else before. Hopefully the Games will lead to this area not just being used for shopping but will create a whole new area of London. At the same time, they will be using established sites such as Wimbledon and Lords - only London can do that, no other city in the world has that.”
While it continues to build on its legacy, Omega is also looking ahead. Urquhart details a focus on Omega-only boutiques as part of the brand’s growth, which has also involved cutting points of sales elsewhere worldwide.
The flagship Omega Zurich store opened in 2000 and retail plans have picked up momentum, with the brand now having nearly 100 company-owned stores plus about 150 franchise flagship stores.
“Co-Axial and retail are the two things in the past 10 years or so that have really helped Omega to get where it is today and getting where we want to be is ongoing,” says Urquhart.
During 160 years of watchmaking, Omega has become renowned for its pioneering spirit, positioning itself at the helm of space exploration, deep-sea discovery and becoming an integral part of the most significant sporting events.
Now, armed with the revolution that is the Co-Axial escapement and a successful distribution and retail strategy, Omega is ensuring that it is the watch of choice for every generation to come. It’s a status that will be given extra legs by its vital role during the London Olympics, another event in Omega’s rich legacy. “People come into our stores today and they think they know the brand but are amazed when they find out about the legacy,” says Urquhart. “You can’t put a price on that.”