Robert Punkenhofer’s revival of the Austrian watchmaker Carl Suchy & Söhne is a refreshing change from the typical micro-brand start-up template . For starters, Punkenhofer is no enthusiast or industry veteran; he’s a complete outsider - a former diplomat and a prominent art and design expert. By his own admission, he’s never owned an expensive watch. And yet, he’s plunged his hard-earned savings into resuscitating life into a once-renowned watch company that supplied watches to the Austro-Hungarian Royal Court and counted the Austrian Emperor among its patrons in the 19th century.
So what possessed the Punkenhofer to call time on his diplomatic career and become an entrepreneur? “The driving force for me is the creative act. I saw this wonderful legacy – Carl Suchy was the most important watchmaker of the Austrian Court and yet nobody knew about him. The opportunity to bring back to life this once-renowned Austrian company was a major motivation,” admits Punkenhofer.
Over the last 20 years, he’s curated more than 100 exhibitions including the Vienna Art Week.
Until last September, Punkenhofer served as Trade Commissioner for the Austrian Foreign Trade Organization in Barcelona, a post he’s also held in cities like Berlin, New York and Mexico City in the past. The Vienna native, however, has always had one foot firmly planted in the world of art and design. Over the last 20 years, he’s curated more than 100 exhibitions including the Vienna Art Week. He is also the director of Art & Idea, an agency “dedicated to promoting and facilitating a cultural dialogue by organizing contemporary art, architecture, fashion and design programs of international scope.”
A FORGOTTEN HISTORY
It all began three years ago when Punkenhofer was researching the history of Austrian design for an exhibition he was curating in Milan. “I was researching contemporary Austrian design but I wanted to prove that we had a historic base too with companies like J & L Lomeyr or even Swarovski. That’s when I stumbled upon Carl Suchy and a few other brands that produced world-class products.”
If you have never heard of him before, Carl Suchy was born in Prague in 1796 and he opened his eponymous clock manufacture in 1822. However, it was only after his four sons entered the business that his fame and industry grew. The company became the official timepiece supplier to the Imperial Court in 1835 and the first Watch Purveyor to the Royal and Imperial Court in 1844. The eldest son Carl Suchy Junior established a pocketwatch factory in La Chaux-de-Fonds and his younger brother Hans opened the first store in the historical center of Vienna.
The pocketwatches Suchy produced were popular with Austrian aristocrats and royalty including Emperor Franz Joseph and also intellectuals counting Sigmund Freud. Unfortunately the firm slipped into oblivion around the First World War in 1914, ironically at a time when the popularity of wristwatches really took off in Europe and America.
Punkenhofer roped in a young Serbian designer, Milos Ristin, and independent watchmaker Marc Jenni to work on the first prototypes. The debut timepiece was the Waltz N°1, a wristwatch that was inspired by the fine lines of Viennese Modernism, notably the work of famed Austrian architect Adolf Loos, whom Punkenhofer refers to as the ‘Frank Gehry of Vienna’.
“The idea was to introduce a modern wristwatch with contemporary design but with a nod to Vienna’s historic past and respecting the city’s beauty and elegance. We referenced Adolf Loos’s design philosophy. He was among the first to reject ornamentation and give priority to proportions and volume. Minimalism and seamless connections were his thing. You’ll notice that on the Waltz N°1, leather floats into steel, the steel floats into glass. The connections are seamless” explains Punkenhofer.
By his 50th birthday last summer 16 of the 22 watches produced as prototypes had been sold, mostly to family and friends. “I had exhausted all my savings by now. A diplomat’s salary was never going to sustain this. I had to find an investor,” he recalls. He found one in Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, the former chairman of Nestlé and a fellow Austrian. Brabeck-Lemathe now owns a third of the company, Punkenhofer owns the rest.
The first production series of the Waltz N°1 was launched just before Christmas last year, fittingly, at the Looshaus, a building in central Vienna designed by Adolf Loos and considered one of the finest examples of Viennese Modernism. “This was like kissing the brand awake. I always say Carl Suchy took a 100-year-creative break because as soon as word spread about the revival of the brand, I started getting emails from around world, from as far as Brazil, written by people who owned Carl Suchy pocketwatches.”
Though none of Carl Suchy’s descendants are involved in the family business, Punkenhofer says he was able to track down a descendant, a textile merchant, in Vienna. “I got in touch - not for legal but ethical reasons. On realizing the love and passion we had invested in this project, he was impressed and even offered his shop to us for client presentations.”
THE OUTSIDER ADVANTAGE
Starting a fledgling watch brand in an already saturated market can be a slippery slope, even for seasoned professionals. So how does a rank outsider find his way around? It turns out; Punkenhofer has a history of pulling off seemingly impossible projects. When he worked with the Austrian Embassy in Mexico City more than 20 years ago, he opened a cutting-edge not-for-profit art gallery in the center of the city. “This was after the earthquake and with the notoriety that the city had given the high crime rate, no one expected the gallery to do well, but it flourished,” he says.
Punkenhofer was also involved in the conception of Murinsel, an artificial floating island in the middle of the Mur river in the Austrian city of Graz. It was designed by famed installation artist Vito Acconci and was funded by the Government to mark Graz’s appointment as the European Capital of Culture in 2003. “I am good at using my connections to bring together diverse sets of people to work together on a project,” he explains.
It’s not been easy though, there have been times of utter despair, like when Punkenhofer realized he didn’t have funds to pay for the last installment of production of the Waltz N°1. Fortunately for him, an entrepreneur friend let him borrow €30,000 to make the last payment and secure his watches.
Carl Suchy has already caught the attention of renowned retailers like Chronopassion in Paris and Noble Styling in Tokyo. What has been the most difficult part about being a micro-brand owner? “All these creative projects I have been involved in the past were in my career as a diplomat. I never had to sell them. I just had to conceptualize and find the right people for the project. Now I have to do all of this and also sell the final product. Now, I am very good at selling ideas and I have the patience and the will to execute it,” he signs off.