x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

For Bovet owner, being with his children is time well spent

Profile: Pascal Raffy retired at the age of 38 and spent a few blissful months playing sports and spending time with his children before deciding to get back into business by buying Bovet.

Pascal Raffy bought an 1842 pocketwatch at an auction for 385,000 Swiss francs, after it was valued at 80,000 francs. Photo courtesy Pascal Raffy
Pascal Raffy bought an 1842 pocketwatch at an auction for 385,000 Swiss francs, after it was valued at 80,000 francs. Photo courtesy Pascal Raffy

People usually display paintings, pictures or trinkets in their living room. Not Pascal Raffy.

He parks his BMW Z8 - one of four cars he owns - in the middle of the lounge of his Miami property.

"It is the smallest one [but] I love this car," says the sole owner of the Swiss watch brand, Bovet, who also drives a four-wheel drive Ferrari, a Rolls-Royce and an Aston Martin.

"I take it out. I push it by myself to not put the gas in the house."

Mr Raffy, who was in the UAE last month for business, admits the unusual practice is a symptom of a "big problem" in his life: passion.

It was the same attribute that led him to buy Bovet after retiring at 38, having made his fortune in pharmaceuticals.

After studying political sciences and languages at the Sorbonne in Paris, Mr Raffy, who was born in Lebanon, ran a laboratory in Switzerland that was acquired by a larger one.

"When I started it was May 7, 1992. At that time, I had two people with me, my driver and one chemist. In September 2001 when I stopped we were billing US$700 million (Dh2.57bn) with 325 [people] and producing tablets, liquids, but not injectables [vaccinations].".

But he might have stayed in it for longer, if it were not for his 8-year-old daughter, who when asked by her grandfather if she was happy, replied that she had everything she wanted in life - but did not see her father.

"Your blood becomes frozen, blue, yellow, violet - all the colours," he says, describing his reaction when he heard what she had said.

Mr Raffy resolved then and there to give the laboratory up. He thought he would be able to get out within six months. In the end it took 18 months.

He played sports and spent time with his children for some months before he decided to get back into business.

"One of my bankers, who is a real dear friend - I have known him since 25 years. He knows my house, he knows my office. He told me you cannot stay like this. You think you can be retired but after 18 months you will see. You are going to get bored. I said no, no, no.

"He was right."

At that time in Switzerland in 2001 a number of watch brands were in need of investment. His banker friend brought in watches made by the companies then challenged Mr Raffy to name the manufacturers in turn.

"I said yes. I think I can. One, two, three, four, no problem. The fifth one I had not seen," he says.

"It was very curious to me, how could you have the crown [the button used to change the time] by the leather strap? Usually in 99.9 per cent of all the watches around the world, the crown is here at 3pm. I said this is not one of my timepieces."

The watch - timepiece as Mr Raffy insists on calling it - was a Bovet.

A watch, like the other four on the table, is what you look at to see the time, he explains, whereas a timepiece, like a Bovet, inspires emotion. At any event, he fell in love with the Bovet and decided to buy the company immediately.

Bovet watches start at 15,000 Swiss francs (Dh59,487) and go up to about 1.2 million francs. It is a lot of money, but the company has no problems finding buyers. Indeed, it has a waiting list every year, says Mr Raffy.

The company was established by a Swiss national, Edouard Bovet, in 1822 to manufacture pocket watches for the Chinese market. And it did so well for a time that it had to contract other companies in Switzerland to keep up with demand.

But the family was forced to sell its interest in the company in the mid-1860s after the watch market eventually collapsed under the weight of competition from France, the United States and, even in those days, Chinese-made counterfeits.

When Mr Raffy bought the company in 2001 he decided to limit production to 2,000 watches annually, only increasing the number if and when the company returns to China, which he hopes will be soon.

"It is impossible to do more than 2,000 timepieces to that standard of excellence," he says.

"Of course I have a plan to go to 4,000 timepieces, but it takes time."

His employees and facilities, like the one he bought in Switzerland in 2006, 52 kilometres from Geneva, are key to that plan. The factory was in a bad shape, but the employees who worked there understood the art of watchmaking.

"For me the important thing is not to hire a watchmaker. For me the important thing is to be sure that he shares my philosophy," he says.

"I said to myself I can make of this facility a real manufacture, a real house. [Six] years and it's one of my beautiful jewels."

He bought another one of his facilities, a Swiss castle that is home to a Bovet workshop, as a result of a call he received in 2006.

"All my life is guided by my true belief in destiny. So without asking anything from anybody, I received a call from one of the provinces of Switzerland. The states from where Bovet comes in the 19th century called me to say we have a castle to sell.

"My first reaction was I don't need castles, but to make it short this castle belonged to the Bovet family, so for me it had a sense."

And he bought it, just like that.

Mr Raffy's extensive wealth means he can also afford to indulge his penchant for collecting "timepieces". He owns 369 in all - half of which are Bovet - and the latest of which he acquired at a Christie's auction in Geneva last month.

The 1842 pocketwatch, which was valued by Christie's at between 50,000 and 80,000 Swiss francs, sparked a bidding war between himself, two museums and collectors based in Japan and China.

Mr Raffy eventually triumphed, paying 385,000 francs, including taxes. He had no upper limit in his mind, but sees the purchase at five times the original estimate as a good buy.

"It means that the community of collectors around the world, the museums, want to collect Bovet."

"In such a case you love to spend."

With a fleet of supercars and a timepiece collection large enough to stock a shop, Mr Raffy has no shortage of favourite possessions to choose from. But it is not something he bought that heads his list.

"You know when a baby is born you have in the clinics these plastic [wristbands]. I have the three of them in the front of my desk in my house. They are my most beautiful possessions."

gduncan@thenational.ae