Jenny Berich talks to the man behind the Australian branded watches with Swiss watch movements.
Sam Der Bedrossian has always been fascinated by watches. As a young boy in Egypt he would sneak out of his father’s shoe shop to watch the nearby watchmaker at work despite strong protestations from his father who wanted him to take on the family business one day.
“I think I was born with a love for watches,” he says. “I was always fascinated by the tick. I always felt that a watch without a tick was dead and that the watchmaker who repaired it was bringing it back to life.”
Despite his passion for watches Sam nonetheless followed his father’s wishes and took over the family business at just 17 when he died. It wasn’t until seven years later when he emigrated to Australia in 1964 that his love for watches had the opportunity to grow further.
“When I arrived I was a qualified accountant, having completed my formal training while running the family shoe business, but couldn’t get a job as an accountant or a clerk as I had no experience in the local market so I ended up taking a job as a railway clock contractor although I had no formal qualifications as a watchmaker,” he says.
Sam’s job was to repair pocket watches for train guards, fix bus-stop clocks and once a week wind-up the station clocks along the Bankstown and Sutherland train lines.
“In retrospect I was lucky to have the bad luck not to get a job in my profession and to be given the chance to turn my hobby, my passion, into my profession. Of course at the time I didn’t realise how lucky I was – getting a job was just a matter of survival.”
Sam stayed with Railway Clocks Contractors for one year before moving onto Neuchatel Watch Sales, a Swiss watch importing company where he stayed for one year working for Freddy Beck.
“Like every other watchmaker in Australia, I was kept very busy assembling watches as everyone was importing watch movements to save on the Federal Government’s extremely high import duty on assembled watches,” he explains.
With the high demand for watch assemblers, Sam decided it was the opportune time to start up his own business, Sams Watchmaker Jeweller. Within just a few short months of opening in March 1967 Sam had enough clients to move to an office in Sydney’s Market Street and employ his first watchmaker.
“At the time I assembled at least 2000 to 3000 watches a week for various wholesalers and importers around Australia.”
A few years later Sam stopped focusing on assembling watches for others and began designing and assembling his own.
“I chose the name Classique for my watches because I felt the name represented classic style,” he says.
From the beginning his goal was simply to “produce high-quality stylish watches with genuine Swiss parts (manufactured only in Switzerland and assembled in Switzerland or Australia) at a very competitive price”.
“I began creating mechanical and quartz analogue watches at a time when everyone was crazy for digital watches,’ he says, “but I wasn’t nervous about my choice because I always knew that digital watches would only be a temporary fashion”.
According to Sam his business and watch brand were definitely “not an overnight success” but that he gradually built up a loyal client base by literally driving around Australia for “four or five years” and personally showing his watches to jewellery retailers.
“Most jewellery retailers in Australia today know who I am because I have probably visited their store at some time,” he says proudly. “I loved driving all around Australia visiting them. I love my watches and when you love your product you love to introduce it to as many people as possible.”
“Drive to any jewellery store around Australia and say the name Classique to the owner and they will think of me – say Sam and they will think of Classique.”
Today Sam no longer drives around Australia selling his watches. He doesn’t have to. His family business is now based in larger premises in Sydney’s Clarence Street and employs 14 staff as well as agents across Australia.
“I got a lot of joy from travelling and meeting people but there comes a time when it is impossible to do everything yourself so I now concentrate more on the design side of things.”
Sam’s business may have grown over the years but his simple philosophy of producing quality watches for a reasonable price remains the same. Today the Classique range has grown to include men’s and women’s designs with retail prices ranging from $150 to $2000 and also gold watches from $2000 to $15,000.
Positioning himself as a “very fashion biased” watchmaker, Sam believes that the biggest trend in men’s watches in recent years has been the return of the mechanical watch.
“There is a whole new generation of men who aren’t familiar with real watch mechanics – the gears, the balance, the pallets, etc – so they’re fascinated with mechanical watches even though they are much more expensive than their quartz counterparts, because they can see the movement on the face or the see-through back.”
He says the biggest trend in women’s watches has been the move to larger rectangular and square faces.
The trend shared by both sexes is the increasing use of gemstones in all watch designs.
“Watches are no longer just timepieces they’re jewellery pieces as well,” he says.
“A few years ago no one even considered wearing a steel watch set with diamonds, but now it’s a very big trend for gents and ladies.”
Sam is however reluctant to make longer term predictions for watch designs.
“The jewellery industry is like the weather,” he says. “We can’t predict what it will be in five years but we know it can’t stay the same. It has to change although history does tend to repeat itself…”
He is happy though to dismiss claims that mobile phones will replace the watch as a timepiece.
“If you have two phones in your pocket you still look at your wrist for the time,” he says.
After more than 40 years designing watches Sam still isn’t ready to retire – at 67 his passion and enthusiasm for watch making remain as strong as they were in his boyhood.
But there are two other Der Bedrossians to lend a hand if he needs it. His wife Alice has helped run Sams Watchmaker Jeweller since the day they got married in 1968 and his son Steve joined the family business in 1992.
“I will still be here designing quality watches for reasonable prices and long as my health permits,” says Sam. “It’s my life.”