RIP RJ Romain Jérôme: First Horological Casualty Of The Coronavirus Fallout?
RJ Watches – formerly known as Romain Jérôme – has declared bankruptcy with immediate effect.
Here’s a brief look at the 16-year run of this quirky independent boutique brand, its design-focused existence having formed an interesting tribute to the power (and limits) of marketing.
Romain Jérôme was founded in 2004 using the first names of founder Alain Bajulaz’s two sons. It was consultant Bajulaz’s love of golf and watches that also gave the brand its first creation: the Golf Master Time, a watch that could count its owner’s strokes on the golf course. At the same time, the brand introduced a tourbillon model in three variations (50 pieces for each variation, too!).
I recall seeing these models in a hotel outside Baselworld, thinking that announcing such complicated models in high numbers – the Golf Master Time was announced in 250 pieces each of three precious metal variations as well – was a seriously bold move, even at a time that the watch industry was experiencing record highs.
I didn’t hear much about the brand after that until Yvan Arpa was hired to put Romain Jérôme on track.
There are likely not many aside from me who remember Romain Jérôme before this brand began communicating its Titanic-DNA watches under Arpa. And though the golf-themed timepieces were attractive and seemed well made, they certainly didn’t have the intense attraction of a Hublot Big Bang or Audemars Piguet Royal Oak.
That quickly became clear to the brand’s group of investors, who hired an idea man to breathe real life into it in 2006.
Romain Jérôme under Yvan Arpa: Titanic proportions
The first thing Arpa – a former manager at Hublot – did was scrap the golf watch. If he was going to lead a new brand without a history or a name to success, he was going to do it in a big way.
Arpa came up with the idea of the legend. He knew that without a typical Swiss background, he was going to have to find an idea that made Romain Jérôme’s watches unique. He chose the polarizing route.
In best Jean-Claude Biver tradition, Arpa took the Big Bang concept further at Romain Jérôme, giving a striking timepiece an authentic story just oozing with controversy. Love it or hate it, everyone was talking about it. It was magnetizing and polarizing at the same time.
Arpa also thought up a good story about Romain Jérôme’s reasons for using metal smelted with a genuine piece of the original Titanic on the brand’s watches. The past meets the future: a myth is reborn, just like mechanical watchmaking.
But by mid-2009 Arpa and other management and staff were out, with the brand’s owners embarking upon a three-year legal battle with Arpa, which he won in 2012.
To celebrate his victory, Arpa created a unique piece called Rust & Dust whose “bezel rust” came from all the staples removed from the legal papers, while the “dust” on the dial came from the ashes of said papers, which he “ceremoniously burned.” In a press release, Arpa stated it took his team two weeks to remove and process the staples.
As the new CEO, the Saudi-based investor group announced Manuel Emch in December of that year, who had until then been head of Jaquet Droz since 2001. Arpa went on to found his own boutique brand specialized in custom watches of unique design, Artya.
At Romain Jérôme, Emch was able to break away from the refined elegance of his creations at the Swatch Group-owned Jaquet Droz, creating timepieces that were modern, colorful, and often controversial: these were timepieces like the Romain Jérôme x Pokémon, Tattoo-DNA by Xoil, Batman-DNA Gotham City, and the unique Spacecraft, which was designed by Alain Silberstein.
2018: another new era of Romain Jérôme
In January of 2018, Geneva native Marco Tedeschi – another graduate of Hublot’s management team – took over from Emch as CEO of the brand now called RJ Romain Jerome (which did finally officially morph into just “RJ”). Tedeschi was also an engineer.
In this incarnation, RJ continued some of the brand’s mainstay elements like the audacious cartoon-oriented watches, primarily centering on licensed characters like the Joker and Spider-Man, but also added a new line called Arraw.
These new timepieces were interesting, particularly in their unique designs, but not interesting enough to capture a wider audience in today’s crowded horological landscape, especially at the high asking prices.
February 27, 2020: RJ Watches declares bankruptcy
And just like the Titanic, RJ Watches surprisingly hit an iceberg and has suddenly sunk, taking 33 employees with it.
Announced through a dry, e-mailed press release, RJ has declared bankruptcy thanks to its majority shareholder, Alliance Investment Group SA, having unpredictably stopped the flow of funds.
I am not aware which was RJ’s best market, but if there was any reliance at all on Asia to keep afloat then I would not be surprised in the least if RJ could be termed the first horological victim of the Coronavirus, which has also prompted the cancellation of major watch events like Watches & Wonders and Baselworld. Even larger brands like Hublot have stated a 70-to-80-percent drop in sales in the region since the beginning of the virus spread.
RJ Watches is gone, so if any of these quirky watches ever appealed to you, now is probably the time to hunt one down.