Interviewing Dr. Luigi Macaluso of Girard-Perregaux is a privilege: there are few watch brand CEOs who balance intimate knowledge of horology with genuine enthusiasm, while never issuing a single whiff of hard-sell. And if there are any arguments that on this occasion Dr. Macaluso was simply taking advantage of an opportunity to publicise his wares – as would any canny CEO – please note that the good doctor agreed to discuss a watch that is no longer in production. Being allowed to steal an hour of his time away from more pressing matters at the recent SIHH watch event in Geneva indicated the affection he has for the all-but-forgotten Daniel JeanRichard Highlands Automatic.
Although it figured early in the revival of the JeanRichard name, the Highlands was never a glamour item, never intended to establish the brand nor to create a following. It was merely a logical by-product of Dr. Macaluso’s earlier adventures in watch sales, harking back to 1984/5, and his fondness for a certain American brand. At that time, Macaluso was in charge of Tradema Italia, a watch distribution company that included Girard-Perregaux. Macaluso’s passion for watches extended far beyond the commercial, and his vast knowledge created in him a respect for Hamilton, which he described as once being ‘the Patek-Philippe of the USA.’
A colleague in the fashion industry returned from a trip to the USA wearing an inexpensive, mail-order Hamilton called the Khaki – straight military styling with no concessions to anything other than sheer functionality. Macaluso, with his Italian eye for style, borrowed the watch, and realised that it could be a fantastic product to sell in Italy – even back then the most sophisticated watch market in the world. Fully a decade before military chic would be a major force in the watch market, with players including IWC, Panerai, Tutima, Hanhart and a few dozen others, Macaluso was sowing the seeds.
Macaluso flew to the USA to visit Hamilton, then still based in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and convinced the management to allow him to expand the concept. Hamilton agreed, and Macaluso turned the Khaki from a utilitarian base model into a concept, something altogether more funky. The range is to this day a core line for Hamilton, one that has expanded to include chronographs, GMTs, quartz, manual and automatic models, and more.
By 1992, Macaluso was in charge of Girard-Perregaux; with G-P came the name of Daniel JeanRichard. 14 years later, hindsight allows us to see that Macaluso’s game plan for the brand – including the truncating of the name to simply ‘JeanRichard’ – has reached fruition, and it is now a true manufacture, but early on, he was under less pressure, and therefore in a position where he could produce a ‘simple but sophisticated model. I chose the name “Highlands” because it had a Scottish, out-of-doors feel, sporty, rugged.’
It was the entry-level range in a catalogue which, in 1996, already included the famous ‘TV Screen’ models that have become the brand’s signature case shape. The Highlands, we now realise, pointed to the future by bearing just the name of JeanRichard while the other models, including the aforementioned TV Screen, the Bressels and the various Chronoscopes, carried the full Daniel JeanRichard appellation. In addition to the Highlands Automatic featured here, the line also included a beautiful chronograph. But it is the Automatic that somehow slipped past the shrewd bargain hunters of the watch world.
Offered in stainless steel, with either a very Rolex-like bracelet, or a leather or canvas strap, the Automatic was available in a choice of dial colours. This added to their appeal in the primary market, Italy, which already had a collecting subculture for Swatch, MHR and one or two others that offered colour variants. The choice included the most popular – black – as well as cream, navy blue, light blue, olive green and salmon pink, and they shipped with straps in complementary hues.
[Author’s note: Demonstrating the prescience of this model, it was offered with cloth straps that pre-date the current craze by 18 years.]
A distinctive detail was the upward-pointing triangle at the 12 o’clock position – a military marking so evocative of the watches that were becoming ever-increasingly the province of auctions. The watches featured three hands from the centre, with the seconds-hand a true hacking type that stopped when the crown was in the ‘out’ position. Highlands provided rapid date setting, the date visible through a window at the three o’clock position. Arabic numerals and exceptionally bright luminosity completed the look.
Inside was a DJR Calibre 25 51-ruby 13¼’’’ movement with a power reserve of 38 hours and a frequency of 28,800 vibrations per hour. It was based on ETA’s 2824 calibre – all fairly standard stuff, but the package as a whole defied reason. Here was a watch with a robust and dependable movement, in a rock-solid stainless steel case measuring 38mm in diameter, with screw-down crown for water-resistance to 100m, with a dial so perfectly reminiscent of classic pilot’s issue (including nothing less than the legendary IWC Mark XI) that it’s still an ideal mid-size military-look model by 2006 standards. The illogical element, though, was its price.
Macaluso won’t go into detail, but – considering that the watch was only really on sale in Italy – it’s not remarkable that he can say with a smile that it ‘sold many thousands.’ I recall seeing them for sale at around the £250 mark, which corresponds conveniently with the quoted retail price from the only remaining sources of new-old stock: the internet. If you Google ‘JeanRichard Highlands,’ in the click of a mouse, you’ll see them advertised as having an original price of US $475 – roughly £270. Then you’ll see that you can buy one as pristine as the day it left the factory, for as little as $241. Even QP’s own Alex Doak couldn’t resist, and found one on-line for even less.
Although Hamilton still produces myriad Khakis with almost identical features and pricing, the Highlands had an extra frisson of style and panache. It is simply impossible to improve upon, and this author suggests you start surfing for yours as soon as possible – the supply truly must be finite. When asked if JeanRichard might one day consider releasing a Highlands II, with in-house movement (and elevated price), it was clear that the thought hadn’t occurred to Dr. Macaluso. What’s important is that he smiled at the notion…and didn’t say ‘no.’
(QP Issue 19)
© Ken Kessler 2006