Inside Armin Strom: Maximum Transparency From The Top Down
There are high-end watch brands titled with a person’s name that have no reference to a specific human being; “Maurice Lacroix” is a good case in point, a name that was simply chosen.
But more often than not in horology, there are actual people behind watch brands with human-sounding names. And there is hardly a brand more human in my estimation than Armin Strom, an independent Swiss manufacture currently celebrating ten years of its modern incarnation, or second life if you will.
Armin Strom is currently owned and managed by Serge Michel. He is aided by Claude Greisler, officially credited as co-founder and responsible for the brand’s technical and watchmaking expertise.
But before we get into these gentlemen, I’ll set the context with a brief introduction to Mr. Armin Strom, the Swiss watchmaker for whom the brand is named.
Who was Armin Strom?
Strom means “electricity” in German, an apt description for Armin Strom’s lifelong work, which was founded in skeletonization, even though he is also a watchmaker who spent many of his first years in restoration, repair, and retail service before purchasing a watchmaker’s workshop in Burgdorf, Switzerland, in 1967 and settling down.
Initially, Strom based his business on a pocket watch he had created and shown. Spurred on by praise for this piece but told that the movement needed to be more visible, he came up with the idea of removing all the unnecessary parts of the movement to make it more transparent and unique.
Skeletonizing was never part of a class at any watchmaker school, so he taught himself how to do it. For his third pocket watch – he preferred using the larger surfaces of pocket watch movements at first – he added decorative techniques such as engraving and plating, which were performed by outside specialists. He thus created a style that was all his own upon officially presenting it in 1983.
By 1985 Strom was already including wristwatches in his repertoire. “The small movements may have been harder to work on, but for this reason they presented a greater challenge for me,” Strom remembered as he talked to me about ten years ago. Each one of his creations was unique, often bespoke or tailored to a certain customer. And this mindset remains a high priority today in the company that bears his name.
In 2006, he formed a private limited company in partnership with industrialist Willy Michel from Burgdorf and continued to skeletonize watches of every shape and size under his own name and as contract work for other brands. He retired in 2011.
Local networks play an important role at Armin Strom
Serge Michel is now the owner and founder of the modern Armin Strom manufacture, while his childhood friend Claude Greisler is the boutique brand’s head of technology and co-founder of the modern company.
These two men are very private, so it shouldn’t have come as a surprise to me to find out after knowing them for more than a decade that I hadn’t known they were childhood friends until recently! But it does also explain the way they work so well together.
That these two should end up together leading a creative watch company that continually surprises collectors with technical delicacies, attractive designs (that continue Armin Strom’s transparent style), and new ideas should be surprising . . . it was not pre-programmed by upbringing in any way.
Serge’s father, Swiss industrialist Willy Michel, was a customer of Armin Strom, whose workshop was in Burgdorf where the Michels were at home. A self-made billionaire mainly made in pharmaceuticals, Willy Michel invested in Armin Strom in 2006 with the idea that “Armin Strom” would became a brand, producing small series instead of the individual pieces that the traditional watchmaker specifically made for clients.
“I think my dad was attracted by the calm in Armin’s workshop,” Serge, who spent time there between the ages of 8 and 12, tells me today. “You can imagine that to build up a pharma company from scratch is a huge challenge and also very hectic. Being in Armin Strom’s atelier was like being in another world. I saw both sides as a child and, somehow, I don’t know why, I got more attracted by Armin’s world.”
Serge became the director of Armin Strom in 2008 at the age of 30.
Serge Michel: tick-tocks, art, and a calling
Aside from being a hotel owner, pharma baron, and castle owner, Serge’s father Willy Michel also founded the Franz Gertsch art museum in 1998 using his own collection of Gertsch portraits as the base.
Art, watches, and good business were also elements that Serge, who learned hotel management, graduating in 2002, grew up with.
The Michel family is very humble and down-to-earth despite its obvious accomplishments as evidenced by Serge’s career before the acquisition of Armin Strom: he worked in luxury hotels, as a PR consultant, and then in marketing before taking over the direction of this boutique brand.
“Of course, having a successful parent always puts a kind of pressure [on one] even though he never forced me to do this or that,” Michel told me when I asked if he ever felt pressure to perform in a certain way with the brand. “Today I see it more as luxury to have the possibility to choose to do what I like the best. Claude and I started Armin Strom almost from scratch and we both are extremely proud to have built up such a great brand and being successful today. Everybody knows that building up a watch brand needs an initial investment, and I am extremely thankful that my family believed in me ten years ago when I was only 30 years old.”
Watches were always a topic in between the father and the son. “It’s mainly my dad and myself who have this strong fascination for mechanical timepieces,” he explained.
“I believe that being an artist is a gift, something you don’t choose to be,” Michel also told me. “I have the same impression of talented watchmakers.” And combining watchmaking with art is something that he occasionally likes to do – as in the case of the Manual Hunt Slonem Edition for the Only Watch charity auction in 2017.
Serge received his first watch at the age of six. “My dad gifted me a membership to the Swatch Collectors Club. I was fascinated by the endless variations and I was always looking for limited series. Together with my dad I went to auctions and started to buy special pieces. I knew from the beginning that there are also mechanical watches, but at that age I was more into colors and designs. This has changed today obviously,” he quipped.
By the age of ten Serge Michel owned about 12 watches. Today, the tourbillon ranks as Serge’s favorite complicated element.
Childhood friend: Claude Greisler
This one-two punch of leading figures at Armin Strom includes watchmaker Claude Greisler, who grew up with Serge Michel: both men were born 1978 and went to school in Burgdorf, the city where Armin Strom’s shop was located.
Greisler’s grandparents worked in the watch industry, but not his parents, who came of age during the quartz crisis.
“My father is an optician and not much into watches,” he explained. “My mother is the one from a watchmaker family, but she had no chance to become a watchmaker. She was, however, into watchmaking since childhood. She never pushed me to become a watchmaker, but she is very proud that I chose this direction.”
How did Claude, who loves to spend as much time among Switzerland’s natural beauties – mountains, water, clean air – as he can, find watchmaking as a vocation? “My grandparents had a small crystal cube (5 x 5 x 5 cm) with an ‘exploded’ watch movement inside. My grandfather used this cube to showcase the parts his company produced. Already as a child I was so fascinated by this micro mechanical art. When I was a few years older, my grandmother taught me how to assemble and disassemble Heuer stopwatches. From this point on, it was very clear for me to become a watchmaker.”
Greisler underwent extensive watchmaker schooling in Solothurn and Le Locle, which included restoration of vintage and complicated movements.
This 40-year-old watchmaker with an intense but friendly demeanor came to Armin Strom in 2006 after three years at Christophe Claret, where he worked as a movement designer.
As the new head of product development, Greisler’s main objective at the beginning was to develop a manufacture movement with a more contemporary feel, but one that remained true to Armin Strom’s original idea of transparency through skeletonization. Greisler was given a blank slate to create the new movement, which became Caliber ARM09. Armin Strom presented the first complete collection powered by this caliber in 2010. The tourbillon Caliber ATC11-S followed in 2012.
Armin Strom’s influence on Greisler and Michel
The duo has been highly respectful of what Armin Strom built and how he built it since taking over, keeping the brand’s movements styled with openworked elements and hand decoration as unique points.
“Serge and Claude have fully honored Mr. Strom’s legacy with the direction of ensuring that there is always a degree of openwork in every watch produced,” explained Jeremy Oster of Oster Jewelers, one of Armin Strom’s U.S. retailers. “After all, that is what made Armin Strom happy: he always wanted to expose the inner workings. The manufacturing base that has been created is remarkable – as is the level of personalization available to Armin Strom clients.”
I wondered, though, if the two men felt Strom had influenced them personally in any way.
“I have known Armin since I was a child; my father’s optician shop was across from his jewelry shop,” Greisler answered promptly. “Armin was a gentleman and very quiet; he didn’t influence my watchmaker career. But during my studies I started to realize how famous he is for skeletonizing. The fact that a watchmaker from my hometown had a successful ‘independent’ business was very motivating to me.”
As Michel stated above, he was attracted to the calm lifestyle of the watchmaker rather than the hectic days of a successful businessman. And Michel thinks of Strom very fondly, recalling, “When we started this journey and Armin Strom was still active, he always messed up our names: I think nine out of ten times Armin called me Claude!”
Teamwork: a key to Armin Strom’s success
“The harmonious way we do what we do speaks for itself,” Greisler justifiably insists. “We have different skills! Serge is a salesman and I am the watchmaker. And we trust and have a lot of respect for each other,” Greisler answered my query of what makes them such great business partners.
“We both have different minds but share the same philosophy and passion for watchmaking,” Michel answered the same question. “Claude has huge knowledge in the construction of watch movements while I bring the view of a collector and with this the sales and marketing side of the business. Claude knows all about watch history and lives the traditional side of the industry while I bring in the view from outside.”
Jeremy Oster of Oster Jewelers also provided me with some insight into this dynamic duo. Oster Jewelers has been carrying Armin Strom for several years.
“Most people don’t know that Serge and Claude grew up together,” the Denver-based jeweler reminded me. “There is a trust and a deep-rooted relationship and friendship that makes you feel that this company is in strong, stable hands. I’ve enjoyed quite a few dinners with both of them, and there is never a sense of ego. It is all about doing the right thing and communicating with their partners.”
Armin Strom’s achievements
This little company producing less than 1,000 watches per year is nonetheless quickly becoming a technical powerhouse. Aside from the array of manufacture movements that include a tourbillon caliber, Armin Strom presented something genuinely new late 2016 that took my breath away: the Mirrored Force Resonance, a serially produced timepiece that harnesses the advantages of the phenomenon of resonance (find out more in A Synchronistic Technical Tour De Force: Armin Strom’s Mirrored Force Resonance). Visually as well as technically, this is an astonishing timepiece.
“They are creating some of the best made, unique, and interesting timepieces available today,” Oster agrees. “They offer exclusivity, distinctive design, and long power reserves to provide an enjoyable experience to all fortunate enough to own an Armin Strom. Our clients love the design and the exclusivity; the ability to personalize each piece makes this a true luxury purchase for a discerning collector.”
“I like to challenge old theories in watchmaking,” Greisler says. “That doesn’t mean that I don’t have a lot of respect for those theories, but I think we have to find new solutions. There is so much room for new ideas and designs; we have to leave our comfort zone and work hard for new watches. Being independent has so many advantages for improving existing things, like our standard movements with very high quality. The resonance improved our technical skills. And there are more exciting things coming!”
Greisler agrees with me that achieving resonance was the biggest achievement for the brand from a product point of view thus far.
“There were many big steps inside of the manufacture, and the R&D team grew over the last two years, which makes me proud. The level of manufacturing is at a very high standard, and our technicians push quality day by day – as do the artisans in the decoration workshop. We have a lot of experience in decoration and even search for new techniques. Last but not least, our watchmakers had to push their level very hard to work with the resonance element.”
Michel stated that his best decision was to invest in the product and not in marketing at first.
But this duo does not rest on its laurels, giving me some examples of goals that are still on the table.
“I always say, we are still at the beginning of the Armin Strom journey,” says Michel. “We want to grow to become a brand while keeping it independent, which is exactly what gives us the freedom to try out new things such as an online configuration tool and the unique complication of resonance. There is certainly more to come!”
“We are at the very beginning of a great future,” Greisler agrees. “We want to become the leader in watch engineering and movement design. I have so many ideas and goals that I am very excited to go to work every single day!”
For more information, please visit www.arminstrom.com.
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A Synchronistic Technical Tour De Force: Armin Strom’s Mirrored Force Resonance
A Watchmaker’s Technical Look At The Mirrored Force Resonance Fire By Armin Strom: A Dual-Balance Watch With A Difference
Watch Modding By The Brand: Quill & Pad Team Members Play With The Armin Strom Watch Configurator And Share Their Results
You Are There: Video Tour Through The Armin Strom Factory
Armin Strom Pure Resonance: Less Is Really More And That Resonates
Armin Strom Manual Hunt Slonem Edition For Only Watch 2017: Artfully Neo-Expressionist And Definitely Unique
*Disclaimer: Armin Strom is a valued advertising partner of Quill & Pad, but had no input into this article apart from providing factual information and quotes.
Also published on Medium.