To call Guillaume Tetu an artistic man would be an understatement. Since the inception of Hautlence, the brand he co-founded with Renaud de Retz in 2004, Tetu has pushed the boundaries of design innovation. From his locomotive-inspired debut timepiece HL04 that featured jumping hours, retrograde minutes and trailing seconds using the brand's unique connecting rod system, to the tonneau-shaped Concepts d'exception pieces which display the hours via a 12-link chain system, Tetu has help come up with some of the most novel ways of displaying time.
Chatting over tea and scones at the Shangri-La, Singapore, it becomes increasingly apparent that design is more than just a point of interest for the charismatic CEO; it is a way of life.
Even the most ubiquitous items pique his curiosity. Gesturing towards a lamp, he says: “I don't see it as just a lamp. I see its reflection, its shape.” He continues to analyse our surroundings and soon fixates on the floor-to-ceiling windows around us. According to Tetu, the way in which two horizontal glass panes sandwich a vertical one, creates an illusion of the window panels floating — a mirage he, too, has tried to realise on his Hautlence dials. “I personally like architecture a lot,” he says. “And this is [the kind of thing] I take from architecture to put in my watches.”
Tetu's foray into the world of watchmaking began at Rolex and Tag Heuer, where over nine years working in design and production, he learned the ins and outs of the industry — a good foundation for anyone with ambitions of establishing his own brand. A relatively quick success, Hautlence was able to build a cult following for its signature iconic TV-screen-shaped timepieces, until the economic downturn of 2009 (at which point co-founder de Retz left the company), which put the brand in choppy waters for the first time in its young history.
Looking back, Tetu acknowledges there were things he could have done differently, such as pricing his watches more realistically and forging relationships with serious partners, instead of working with whoever first came his way. “I wouldn't call them mistakes though,” he says. “I would call them experiences.”
Following an amiable distributorship agreement with MELB Holding in 2011, Tetu began looking into the possibility of a takeover by the family-run watch group. By 2012, the deal was finalised and Hautlence (an anagram of Neuchâtel, the city in which it is based, and a portmanteau for “haute elegance”) came under the charge of Georges-Henri Meylan, chairman of MELB Holding and Audemars Piguet's former CEO of 20 years, with Tetu retaining creative control of the brand.
“The first real [difference since the takeover] was the respect received on the ground,” he admits. “Now with the Meylan family taking care of the company, the confidence [from retailers] is different.” Among the new developments is Hautlence's re-entry into the Singapore market late last year, a move Tetu credits to Meylan's own personal relationship with Asian distributor Cortina Watch.
Production figures have been boosted since the acquisition, with a target of 500 watches this year, up from the previous 150 to 200 Tetu used to create. Collections have been re-examined, with simplifications made to designs and materials. Products will also be offered at a more affordable rate, with a revised price range of between 20,000 (S$29,267) and 30,000 Swiss francs, down from the original 60,000 to 150,000 francs.
More recently, the brand debuted its first chronograph, the Invictus, Morphos Limited Edition, a collaboration with former footballer, actor and artist, Eric Cantona. Not just a brand spokesperson, the multi-hyphenate celebrity contributed a great deal to the watch's design process. “We are not a big brand like Omega, for example, and we can't [afford to] pay him €2 million a year just to take pictures,” says Tetu with a laugh. “So when I approached him, it was really to be a part of the creation as well.”
The timepiece features a blue Morphos butterfly made of mother-of-pearl inserts and black decals unfurling its wings on the dial — one of the creative inputs from Cantona. It runs on a Soprod A10 base movement fitted with a skeletonised Dubois Dépraz chronograph module and comes in a limited edition of 250 pieces only.
Presently, Tetu is working to relaunch a ladies' collection under Hautlence, where pricing remains a cause for concern. “In reality, this is what happens at a shop: People ask for a beautiful ladies watch and they will bring out a Breguet Reine de Naples, which is 30,000 francs. And when they put the Hautlence next to it, [a price tag of] 68,000 francs makes no sense,” he explains.
As the new ladies' timepiece is still in the works and set to debut only in three years, Tetu declines to comment too much about it, apart from that fact that it would likely continue to adhere to the brand's distinctive design codes. Like all his other creations, inspiration from his travels and experiences will also feature in this upcoming watch. “But not all my life experiences, or else it would be a really complicated watch,” he says with a chuckle.