HomeSuppliersAt the Heart of Your Watch and the Watch Industry: L. Klein SA

There’s a striking contrast between the cold, hard metals stocked by the thousands across infinite rows inside L. Klein SA’s high-ceiling warehouse and the warm welcome, cozy atmosphere and gentle tone of the Schiess family, running the firm since 1973. Facing the Jura hills, a few hundred meters away from where Rolex produces all its movements, the team of 20 plays a fundamental role in the Swiss watch ecosystem. Established 77 years ago, the firm not only imports and distributes over 50 types of steel and other metals across 4,000 offerings. It also harmoniously enables the deep, diverse and highly specialized industrial web of watch suppliers and brands across the entire watch valley. As such, there is a strong sense of responsibility here. Not just to do business, but also to keep alive the wonderful, complex and immensely diverse value chain behind every Swiss watch. 

Family style, part I

In 1973, Rudolf Schiess took over the business previously founded by Léon Klein. It has stayed in the family ever since. The 2 CEOs, Olivier and Philippe, are Rudolf’s sons. The new generation, starting with Céline, the CFO, and now Nick, an Account Manager, are keeping their elders close to how the world is evolving, preparing the future.

As we all sat together around an excellent cup of coffee, roasted under the same roof by their investment company Cocuma, it was heartwarming to see how well they all got along. Conscious of the role everyone has to play, and the responsibility that goes with it, each member of the family is clearly inhabited with a sense of purpose, and a long term vision. 

Family style, part II

Over the 2 hours I spent on Chemin du Longchamp, I think I heard the word « family » more often than either « metal » or « steel ». And pretty much every time, it wasn’t in reference to the Schiess. Rather, they were talking about their employees. Sure, many companies do this, but practice does not always follow to say the least. 

Here, it felt different. The average tenure among the team is 13 years, and the number would be even higher without some very recent recruits. Despite working myself at a tech company renowned for its employee perks, I was very impressed at the beautifully welcoming break room, where each person’s hot drink beverage preference is registered on a sheet. The entire facility is extremely pleasant, built with natural, noble and sustainable materials, such as clay and wood, contributing to a pleasant atmosphere for all. I also really like how the company website showcases every single team member, in an equitable way, 

The sense of belonging is closely linked to productivity, and quality. The Schiess family explained how they want every person working there to have ownership over their prerogatives, and the accountability that goes with it. One example of why this is so important: if a steel pipe is mislabeled or misplaced, among the tons manipulated on a daily basis, it will be impossible to identify it. To avoid such mistakes, employees need to be in a serene environment, where they are able to take responsibility for their actions.

Family style, part III

Beyond the actual family, and the employees, a third category of individuals are considered family at L. Klein: their customers. Again, it’s a lot easier said than done, but one thing really struck me: they don’t do contracts, but rather simply shake hands, the old fashion way. When millions are at stake across dozens of stakeholders, it’s pretty amazing to see this still being done in 2024! 

With transparency as a core value of the company, even competitors seem to be welcomed. The L. Klein website is once more a great example, with an impressively detailed list of all offerings, accessible to anyone. The Schiess family is convinced that “there is enough for everyone”, and that cooperation within the industry will bring more good than unnecessary battles. 

Inside your watch

As you probably already know, there is a lot of metal when it comes to mechanical watches. The visible parts, of course, such as the case, crown and pushers, but even more critically inside. Steel is what you will typically find across dozens of components constituting the movement including bridges, plates, pinions, wheels and rotors. 

To make those parts, watch industry suppliers have very specific requirements. Malleability, resistance to wear, corrosion, all those in turn correspond to various proportions of alloying products such as chromium and nickel. Makers of parts have dozens of variants to choose from. At L. Klein, their needs are well understood. And when new needs arise, the firm is the voice of the watchmaking industry to the metal producers.

Acting for the industry

That last point is critical to understanding the role L. Klein plays across the broader watch ecosystem. As mentioned above, most tiny watch parts inside your mechanical watch are made from specific metal types, typically brought to the manufacturer by L. Klein (or the other main Swiss player, Notz Group, a few miles away). 

Because those parts are so small, they typically don’t require significant volumes of metal. Yet, the factories that produce the metal operate a volume-based business. In other words, they are not interested in supplying watch component manufacturers directly, close to none of which are in a position to handle sufficient bulk. That’s why an intermediary such as L. Klein is essential to keeping the uniquely specialized industrial web of watch component producers, and as a consequence the Swiss mechanical watch industry, alive. 

The company strategically keeps its prices very stable over time, with sufficient margins to account for variations in the raw materials market. As a result, smaller players across the watch industry are not unnecessarily exposed to fluctuations that could destroy their business from one year to the next.  

Beyond the watch 

One of the great strengths of the micro-precision and micro-mechanics industry developed around watchmaking in Bienne and the region is how it spills into other high standard industries worldwide. While about a third of L. Klein’s business is around watchmaking, other sectors, especially automotive and medical tools, are major customers. 

Olivier Schiess explained that this multiplicity of sectors was mutually beneficial: “With new ideas, new requirements and constant research and development, innovations from one industry soon find ways to benefit the other”. For instance, the chemical properties of medical implants have led to major improvements in the hypoallergenic composition of watch cases, such as the Chronifer Special 904L developed by the company a decade ago. 

Conclusion

It was a privilege discovering L. Klein SA from the inside today. While I’ve visited many watch manufactures, this truly felt like being given a backstage pass to the Swiss watch industry. Behind the brands at the tip of the iceberg, there are highly impressive players who make the watch world and its fantastic minutia possible. L. Klein is definitely one of them, helping the Swiss watch value chain run like clockwork, from Bienne.

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Alex

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Anonymous
Anonymous
5 months ago

Very interesting, I never thought about this aspect of watchmaking.

Heviloupe
Heviloupe
4 months ago

Super interesting BTS (meaning “behind the scene”, not the K-Pop band) of the Swiss watch industry. A fascinating business, run in a fascinating way by – I’m sure – fascinating people. Thanks for sharing!

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