When the independent watch company HYT was announced in March 2021, few industry observers expressed much surprise. Many had thought that the quirky brand, which used a highly unusual liquid-based system to tell the time, would be the first to be in ruins due to the pandemic.
“I always thought that after a certain point the brand would struggle to find a lasting place in the market,” Jack Forster, editor-in-chief of watchmaking website Hodinkee, wrote in an email.
But in the past year, HYT has been reborn with new investments and under new management. A private investment company called Kairos Technology Switzerland bought the name HYT, along with its internet address, assets and shares for an undisclosed amount. And in July, Davide Cerrato, who had left his position as director of Montblanc’s watch division, was appointed general manager and creative director of HYT.
In January — a timeline Cerrato described as “miraculous,” considering most watches are years in development — HYT introduced Hastroid, a 27-piece limited-edition watch, priced at $77,000 each. As with previous HYT designs, it showcased the brand’s unusual technology: the hours are indicated by the flow of a fluorescent liquid through a capillary tube, driven by a mechanical movement.
The appointment of Mr. Cerrato as HYT’s chosen savior was no less unexpected than the rebirth of the brand. An industry veteran for over 20 years, the 51-year-old Italian made his name in the 2010s with the Black Bay in Tudor and the Minerva watches in Montblanc, the sort of vintage-inspired designs that became his signature, along with his polished shoes and bow ties.
He seems like an unlikely choice for such an avant-garde company, but Mr Cerrato said the industry is heading in a new direction and he intended to lead it. “The vintage wave is coming to an end,” he said in a video interview from HYT’s offices in the small Swiss watchmaking town of Neuchâtel. “The peak is gone and a lot of people are getting bored. HYT is the perfect place to push the next wave.”
When HYT was founded in 2012 by Lucien Vouillamoz and Patrick Berdoz, it immediately caught on. By convention, the only liquid that should ever get into a mechanical watch is the watchmaker’s lubricant. And yet here were watches with a traditional mechanism next to two reservoirs filled with liquid (one colored and one transparent) that were pumped in opposite directions around a tube by two mechanical bellows. Based on that esoteric technology, HYT became one of the leading names in high-end independent timepieces.
His watches were also huge. Most were at least 48 millimeters in diameter and fell 20 millimeters from the wrist, and many were made even more unmistakable by a sapphire crystal that looked like a garden bell jar above the dial.
They were also flawed. Crystals were glued in place and could easily come loose, so that – ironically given the brand’s unique selling proposition – moisture could get into the watches and damage the works.
Mr Cerrato said he decided this was his primary concern: “The quality issues completely undermined the brand’s progress and its image.”
HYT had always relied on suppliers and employees, rather than in-house staff. Continuing that pattern, Cerrato collaborated with Swiss companies Edge Design and Efteor to develop the titanium and carbon fiber Hastroid housing, which bolts on instead of glued on and can be easily adjusted. It still has a diameter of 48 millimeters, but the new watch is 13 millimeters deep and weighs 80 grams (2.8 ounces), about the same as a large egg. Those dimensions make it significantly thinner and lighter than previous HYT models such as the H0 and H1.
For the mechanical movement, Mr. Cerrato returned to Purtec, HYT’s original timepiece supplier, and to master watchmaker Eric Coudray. Mr. Cerrato said that the basic movement had been introduced shortly before the brand went out of business, but that he had changed or improved 40 percent of its functions (to wear a central minute hand instead of a small hand at 12, for example) and that components had a higher quality finish. The intellectual property rights to the critical fluid module are owned by the Swiss company Preciflex, which is still a supplier.
In 2017, HYT had lowered its unit prices to about 50,000 euros ($56,630) in an effort to boost sales. But according to Mr. Cerrato’s estimation, “it destroyed the brand’s image.” He said the brand would return to its original price point and later this year he planned to introduce two models with traditional complications at a price higher than Hastroid’s. (This would be in line with recent industry trends, which, according to the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry, showed production volumes declining even as average export prices rose.)
Cerrato said he was confident that his new watches — with their space-age design, “alien technology” marketing talk, and their scarcity — would attract high-end customers. He said he had money for a five-year project and that he had invested in the company himself. “It’s a good time to come back,” he said. “The customer is evolving towards more rare, more unique pieces and we are the wildest kid around.”
HYT’s production was unlikely to exceed 200 units by 2022, according to Mr. Cerrato, who added that he plans to partner with about 20 retailers this year, in addition to online sales. Furthermore, he was reluctant to make projections. “We’re in no rush to push watches,” he said. “We are very curious how the company will start. The vision is to grow with demand.”
How quickly that increases may depend on factors largely beyond its control, such as the value of models produced before the brand filed for bankruptcy. Cerrato said the company wanted to stabilize the pre-owned value of existing watches by taking back entries and “drying up the market”. He said he wasn’t sure how many watches the old company had produced, but it was probably around 1,500.
A second-hand retailer offered a positive note. WatchBox said the average price of the H0 and H1 models sold last year had risen to $32,000, from $23,000 in 2020, although there were only one or two sales per month.
HYT’s revival has left industry observers wondering if its return will be successful. “HYT was the first to reinvent the way time was displayed in a very long time,” said Oliver Müller, founder of Swiss luxury consultancy LuxeConsult. “But I don’t understand why they would pass at a higher prize when they failed at a lower prize, no matter how talented Mr. Cerrato is as a creative director.”
Mr Forster of Hodinkee said the brand needs to break free from its past. “HYT will have to innovate not only in its core technology, but also in other areas,” he said. “I don’t think repeating the existing technology is a long-term path, if that’s all HYT does.” However, Cerrato said he had received “hundreds of messages from people saying, ‘We’re so glad you’re back.'”
But he acknowledged that HYT’s future was not the only one at stake. “It’s a big challenge for me and very different from anything else I’ve done.” he said. “It is absolutely crucial for me to show my knowledge and creativity and bring this brand back to life.”