What would you like your legacy to be? That in your chosen industry you were successful? Or that in your lifetime you animated that industry with vibrancy and colour? Severin Wunderman achieved all of the above, and in doing so became one of the (the?) best Watchbrand Makers of our times.
He was, essentially a salesman, but he was also a visionary, who was an expert at finding a niche into which to put a quality product, at the right price. He was a patron of the Arts and an art collector from an early age, with a particular fondness for the works of Jean Cocteau, yet he was also a generous man and a lifelong philanthropist. Those familiar with the name Wunderman will, no doubt make the immediate connection with the Corum watch brand which he aquired in 2000, and indeed this is where he found an outlet for his skills of innovation and creativity, but even before his efficacious years at Corum, he had already had almost three decades in the watch industry, years during which Mr. Wunderman had created a new blueprint for the marketing of luxury designer-branded timepieces, which some of the more savvy individuals in our industry still use today.
Early Years of Hardship
..... But life was not easy for the youthful Severin Wunderman, one can hardly imagine a childhood with worse adversity. Born to Jewish parents in Brussels in 1938, Severin's childhood was to be interrupted by the life-changing events of World War II when, like many, his family were forced to take drastic measures to save their children. He and his siblings were placed under the protection of a Catholic priest in the countryside, then with a Gentile family who were somewhat reluctant to return their little charge, his father having to forcibly remove him. During this time Mr. Wundermans's education continued in a school for the blind where he was the only pupil with sight. These were character-building years which would serve him well for the challenges that he would face throughout his life. After the war, normal family life would continue to evade him, his mother died when he was just ten years old, after which he emigrated to Los Angeles on his own, to live with his older sister Bella, who had already taken up residency there.
The Watch Industry Beckons
Like many young men, Severin found that years spent in High School were no match for the independence gained from earning his own money and with an enterprising spirit emerging, he made his income from a number of ventures, including the manufacture and sale of gold chains eventually gaining a foothold into the watch industry. In the 1960's, while selling watches for Alexis Barthelay, a legendary encounter was to seal Severin's fate, sending him firmly into the watchmaking business. He had hoped to simply sell some watches to Gucci when he entered their New York flagship store. When he got there a phone was ringing, the assistants were otherwise occupied. Was it audacity or merely good etiquette which made Severin pick up to answer the call? It matters not, at the other end was the boss - naturally irritated by such boldness. This opportunistic moment led to a meeting of the two, and Severin, ever the salesman, became the sole manufacturer and distributor of Gucci watches, and the development of those first models and his company Severin Montres was financed by a cheque written by his new-found friend, Aldo Gucci.
To ensure the success of Gucci watches, Severin found the perfect mix of fashion, price and quality. This was one of the most prestigious designer brands - that they would be fashionable was a given, but rather than compete in the high-end sector where competition was rife, he created timepieces which were priced to sell but which were worthy of the quality expected by potential customers. Luxury was not to be compromised, but he found solutions - instead of watchcases in precious metals, he concentrated on much more affordable steel and was one of the first to add the ultimate in economical opulence, diamonds on a steel case. Gucci went public in the late 1990's, and had it not then perhaps Severin Wunderman would have remained as he was, in a watch sector which he had made his own ... but that would have left our industry bereft of his animation and enthusiasm.
Corum – A Perfect Outlet For His Creativity
Perhaps Severin Wunderman had viewed other brands before setting his sights on the Corum brand, but surely none could have provided a more suitable avenue for his inventiveness. The brand was founded in 1955 by Gaston Reis, an independent watchmaker himself since 1924, and his nephew René Bannwart and were viewed by many in the industry as the “other” watch brand, one which dared to be unconventional.
Well renowned for being more than a little eccentric, this was the brand who in the 1960′s split coins, sandwiching a slender mechanical movement between the two halves, the brand who in the 1970′s had presented a watch featuring a peacock feather on its dial and one styled like a miniature Rolls Royce grille, the brand who in the 1980′s, and leaning towards Haute Horlogerie created the exquisite Golden Bridge with its slender baguette movement. With Corum, Severin would find himself perfectly at home, relishing the challenge of continuing and developing this unusual portfolio......
... and his influence was tangible almost immediately. In 2000 Corum presented to the industry the Corum Bubble, a piece inspired by a Rolex timepiece on Professor Picard's submarine. The Bubble had an astounding 11mm thick submarine hatch-styled sapphire dome.
The piece was ingenious in a number of ways: it was styled to be a durable part of the new Corum portfolio, with a sapphire crystal which would magnify and showcase the brightly coloured dials and limited edition pieces which would be released in the future: it was a surefire method of attracting publicity not just for his for his newly aquired watch company, but was also a way of attracting a younger client base in the hope of gaining brand loyalty for the future, and of course, it was a very public statement of intent to the watch industry - Corum, under the direction of Severin Wunderman would continue to be as atypical as ever before.
These were good years for Severin Wunderman, having survived lung cancer in the 1990's, the aquisition of such an originative company no doubt stimulated him, both mind and soul. And he had much to do, he had a strong conviction that through the brand's core values and its "Four Pillars" he could lead Corum to a higher level of Haute Horlogerie whilst remaining true to its core values. He was a man unafraid to look backwards to move forwards, and Corum although relatively youthful still had quite a portfolio archive and he set about re-working and developing some of the collections including the Golden Bridge and the Admiral's Cup.
Severin Wunderman died on 25th June 2008 having suffered a stroke while at his South of France residence. He left behind not only his contributions to the watch industry, but also the legacy of numerous gifts donated to aid medical research, the Severin Wunderman Family Foundation and a substantial collection of art donated to help found the Musée Cocteau de Menton.
Well before his passing, Severin had introduced his son, Michael Wunderman and his own longtime friend Antonio Calce into pivotal roles within the hierarchael structure, and under their direction the Corum brand was able to carry the momentum built up over the previous decade.
More information at Corum's Official Website here.