w&w Exclusive: An Interview with Helmut Sinn

Articles | Popular | 03.07.2013

Sinn – the German word for sense, mind, spirit

Watches from Sinn have been the embodiment of German aviator chronographs for decades – functional, of high quality and with exceptional readability. This doesn’t come by chance. Ultimately the wristwatches sold since 1961 unambiguously carry the genes of those on-board clocks with which the company founder, Helmut Sinn, was already equipping for the German Air Force in the sixties. At that time, he won a bid against the established watchmaker Junghans with his on-board clocks. The cockpit clocks were, and are, to be found in jet fighters like the Starfighter, Alpha, Jet, Tornado, and Eurofighter among others.

The Top-Gun Effect

The pilots of these machines were enthusiastic about the functional, frill-free watches that Sinn made. The quality of the chronographs and the Sinn brand spread quickly throughout the aviators’ world. A better and more positive advertisement could not be wished for even by Helmut Sinn, himself an inspired pilot and former military flight instructor. During the following years he consistently strove for the “Top-Gun Effect” and a fascination for modern battle flying, years without notable marketing hype, decades before the film even came to the theaters.

Sinn in Space 

Even German astronauts wore Sinn watches on their Space Shuttle Missions. A Sinn 140/142 (actually a 141)  in 1985 was the first automatic chronograph in space. Up until then automatic watches were not trusted to function accurately in weightlessness. Sinn proved otherwise. *more on this topic here

The price factor also contributed to the success of the Sinn brand. Helmut Sinn remained true to his principle, “The best quality – at the lowest possible price.”

Just as his watches were conceived, so was his business model: he dropped everything that was unnecessary and that generated unreasonable costs. Middlemen, expensive advertising and marketing were among them. He never wanted his clients to have to pay an unnecessarily higher price for their watches because of such nuisances and “parasitical middlemen”. He sold his watches directly and trusted proven word-of-mouth recommendations. The concept caught on – his clients thanked him for it. For decades they have valued the quality at an advantageous price.

And today?

Today things are different. If Helmut Sinn speaks about the company that still bears his name – which has not belonged to him since the middle of the nineties – he shakes his head. And that is the least sharp reaction. It’s a shock for him to see what has become of his company since a former International Watch Company manager and engineer took over the business. Above all, as far as “good prices” are concerned, in his view, the new Sinn company has forfeited a significant part of its original core market.

As a matter of fact, in the Sinn catalog for the year 2013 one finds no reasonable beginning entry into the world of aviator chronographs – at least not under 1,000 euros. The classic Sinn 103 can be had today from 1,190 euros up. Four years ago it was still 850 euros. As a comparison, at Guinand, Helmut Sinn’s second watch company, the beginning entry into aviator chronographs is 860 euros (Modell 20.50.02). A watch comparable to the Sinn 144 (from 1,350 Euro) one can get from 960 euros (Modell 60.50).

Naturally, there have always been market-driven price increases in the watch industry. At Sinn these average around 10% per year, and years ago led to exceeding the 1,000 Euro mark. For that reason, one finds increasingly more watches that lie between 2,000 euros to more than 4,000 euros (e.g., EZM-10). This is, above all, substantiated with technical innovations. However, in our conversation, Helmut Sinn several times throws doubt on the necessity of these technical innovations, standards, certificates, and the accompanying price increases.

The Moderately Priced Classics are Slowly Dying Out

Another noteworthy item: Sinn classics like the 144 GMT St (2011 still from 1,550 euros) have, in their moderately priced versions, evidently been completely taken out of the program and shoved into the online archive and replaced by technically more luxurious versions several hundred euros more expensive (in this case the 144 GMT Diapal – from 2,310 euros). In German watchmaker forums, the regular, punctual September Sinn price increases are hotly discussed. Some are irritated at the new, high prices; others are pleased that their vintage models thus annually increase in value.

However, many old Sinn clients have jumped ship and have apparently been replaced by a new increasingly ready-to-pay clientele. The “new” Sinn brand lost its former unpretentiousness and down-to-earth roots. It thus has the appearance of being on its way to becoming a luxury label. Helmut Sinn confirms this when one asks him about it – not without considerable indignation.

In view of this background I spoke with the now 96-year-old Helmut Sinn – personally at a meeting in Frankfurt and several days later in the form of a telephone interview. Helmut Sinn is a real troublemaker, and for many perhaps the oldest enfant terrible of the watchmaking industry.

We talked about watches, prices and values, about his old and new companies, and about the World Time Watch (WZU-5) from Guinand, the firm he acquired in 1996. He also told me of how he became one of the founders of the Bell & Ross brand of watches and produced the first watches for Bruno Bellamiche and  Carlos Rosillo.

And naturally, still a skillful businessman,  Helmut Sinn succeeded in selling me a Sinn watch from his collection. But that’s another story…

Here is the interview with the unique and legendary Helmut Sinn:

Mr. Sinn, this morning I could not decide which watch I should strap on for this interview: a new Sinn 103 made in 2009 and thus a good 15 years after you left the company – or this old Speedmaster* here. What do you think of my choice?

“Good. I have had such a watch and several others myself in my collection and sold on my Website.”

And what  watch do you wear yourself?

http://bit.ly/VI3sPK

“A Chronosport World Timer Chronograph – with a second time zone. My daughter lives in Canada, so I always know what time it is there. Especially when we want to telephone each other.”

You have made a lot of watches in the last five decades. If someone wants to buy a genuine “Helmut Sinn Watch”, which would it be?

“I have to say that today there is no longer a genuine Helmut Sinn watch at all because the theory and principle that I applied to my watches, namely the best possible quality at  the lowest possible price, are no longer recognizable today. That a watch like, for example the 103 costs ten times (he stresses that loud and distinctly) the original price no longer squares with my principles. Obviously everything has become more expensive over the passage of years – but such increases and prices are completely groundless. If I were to make this watch today, I would naturally not sell it any longer for 220 marks or euros… But  let’s say under 1,000 euros.

Is there a watch or a watch concept of which you are particularly proud of?

“Yes, the Guinand World Time Watch WZU-5. It is still the only watch that one can set to five time zones separately and can indicate half-hour time zones – such as are found in India and a few other countries*. With other watches one uses as world time watches the hours can perhaps turned forward or backwards or forwards, but all other times change at the same time as well. With my world time watch each of the five watch time zones can be set individually. It was conceived first of all as a stock market watch and can indicate the time zones in the financial centers of Tokyo, Hong Kong, New York, London, and Frankfurt simultaneously.”

May we figure on more new concepts? Have you still got something up your sleeve?

“Yes, I have my eye on something, but I do not want to say anything about it. Once before I announced something openly and somebody else made it. When I am first with it in the marketplace and someone does it together with me, then gladly.

Actually I have a few things going on that, prudently, do not serve for beautification of watches, but should be functional. I might sometime move on one or two ideas with my good watchmaker contacts and partners. But I am just now in conversations about it. Soon everything will be decided.”

Let’s stay with your contacts. You have not just developed your own watch companies and brands (Sinn, Jubilar, Chronosport, Guinand), but also played midwife to a watch brand very well known today. You were in a way the mentor to Bell & Ross. How did that happen?

“That is right. In 1992 I helped Bruno Bellamich und Carlos Rosillo to bring their first watches to the market. At the time they came to me with really extravagant ideas, and I quickly saw that that was not my thing. But I wanted to help them, and so we produced some of my models of that time under the name “Bell and Ross by Sinn”, above all for the French market that we thus wanted to open together. Then they went their own way.”

Do you still maintain contact with the two company founders today?

“In the fall of 2012 both of them invited me to Paris, including flight, hotel, limousine, and so on, That really cost them something. The reason was that Carlos Rosillio was being ceremoniously awarded the rank of the “Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur” (Knight of the Legion of Honor) in the Invalides in Paris. And I was invited and present. In his speech he thanked me and praised me specifically as one of the founding fathers. A beautiful gesture.”

You even have contacts in space travel. Is it true that the German astronauts Furrer, Ewald, and Flade did not receive the watches for their D1 Space Shuttle Mission as gifts, but had to buy them from you?

“Naturally.“ 

But you granted them a discount?

“Well, OK. They got 25 percent. They said that they wanted a free watch. Then I said you won’t get any. Buy one. – That’s my style, you know. And it’s always been my precept: nobody that has not collaborated on the watch so that it is good and reasonably priced has the right to get a watch free.”

In the DVD documentary portrait “The Time Machine”, a sort of biography, you speak of “Spongers” that make money from watches although they did nothing for the product. Are there too many of them in the watch industry?

“Yes. For that reason I always sold my watches directly, without dealers between me and the client, without costly advertising and unnecessary marketing with standards and certificates purportedly costing hundreds of thousands of euros. Furthermore, I have never given watches to hundreds of people or put on expensive parties. What goes on today in the way of dog-and-pony shows that drive the prices of the watches up is irresponsible. Especially in consideration for the watch buyer.”

Then we come to the economical timekeepers. What do you think of quartz watches?

“If one wants a respectable watch, and it’s really just a matter of knowing the time and sees it as a utensil, he should get a quartz watch. These days you can get them for just 60 to 80 euros. You wear it for a couple of years, bring it in for a check, change the battery, and you have it for another two years – without any more problems. No repairs, no winding, no anything. And it’s always correct to the second.”

Then what’s up with watch collectors who usually want really expensive and mechanical watches? 

“To buy watches as a collector – that’s sort of like when you buy diamonds. When someday everything – all the many noble and luxury brands come onto the market and it comes to the big crunch – you can mention that – then they certainly will be of no more value.”

Do you mean that? Is that your opinion?

“Yes. What should people pay for such a watch that is on the market in such quantities?”

Well, five years ago I myself bought an old watch from a notable manufacturer that I can sell today for at least double…

“All right. Then you must take the opportunity and sell, because the time will come – you can see where the economy is going. Then everybody will come out with all of their stuff. The only thing in which you can invest is land. That’s going to be horribly expensive, but nobody can take it away from you. It belongs to you. And land doesn’t “grow” like mass produced watches do. On the contrary. There is proportionally less and less of it per person with the increasing world population. With watches it’s the other way around. There are more and more of them per person.

Do you still stay informed about watches? Do you read watch magazines?

“No, I hardly read any more. Only when I hit upon it by chance. I know how much humbug and falsehood is written. And when I see what kind of sludge is cobbled together about watches… I can’t read it any more. I see through it and know what it is. Really, the prices have no bearing any more!”

You mean watches from famous manufacturers that often readily cost between 2,000 and 3,000 euros?

“The watches in this price range are much, much too expensive in relation to their actual value.”

Mr. Sinn begins to list the average prices for watch parts. He cites prices for factory work, steel cases, dials, hands, etc. One sees that he has decades-long experience and apparently still good contacts and conditions.   

Since the end of 2011 you have been selling wristwatches, pocket watches, clocks, and stopwatches from your own collection on www.Helmut-Sinn.com

“A lot of my Sinn watches are already gone. Some very valuable collector pieces are still there, but also beautiful and rare watches that you can get at a good price – some far below 1,000 euros. Among the wristwatches are collectables from Heuer, Omega, Hamilton, and Lemania. In the pocket watches and stop watches collector pieces from Sinn, Omega, Longines and several other good brands. Whoever likes navigational watches and clocks will find classics from Junghans – and naturally from Sinn.”

Some watches have a remarkably high value… What do you do when these watches cannot be so easily sold?

“Now I have for the first time just sold a part of my collection in the price rage that is acute today.  Sometime I will again make a balance and see what I still have and for how much I want to sell them. Or I exchange them, maybe for something else that pleases me. I have already received offers. But there I am thinking of something else. Maybe a world tour – by air. But not as a pilot like earlier, but with an airline that will take me along.”

I read in the Frankfurter Allgemeinen Zeitung newspaper that you are now writing a book. What will it be about and what may we expect?

“It will be a biography. Naturally the chapter of my not-so-pleasant baling out from my own company will be a subject. At that time all of the money that I had was lost through the many lawsuits, and I even had to borrow funds. There is a lot to tell and to work up… But in my book I will elaborate everything… And a whole lot more.”

We are pleased about the book and further insights into your life. Thank you for your time and for the interview, Mr. Sinn.

by Theodossios Theodoridis

  • http://www.briangreen.net Brian Green

    Great interview and fascinating to read.

  • http://URL Kevin Martin

    Very informative. Was aware of some of this but not all the details.

  • http://URL Ferdinand

    I must say I absolutely love the Sinn articles of the past days! Especially this interview and the 103 review. Keep up the good work!

    About the interview: I am somewhat curious about these (omitted) prices of watch parts. Is there any possibility this part can be posted as well? Or is this somewhat of a “touchy” subject?

    • http://URL Ryan

      I second that…

  • Pingback: Sinn Spezialuhren - Side 24

  • http://URL jay

    I like this guy. Far removed from the meaningless crap that often populates corporate ‘mission statments.

  • http://URL Phil Max

    Excellent interview! I’d love to read Mr. Sinn’s book; when it will be published?

  • Tery

    Hi there,

    Referring to the exerpt from your interview:

    “Mr. Sinn begins to list the average prices for watch parts. He cites prices for factory work, steel cases, dials, hands, etc. One sees that he has decades-long experience and apparently still good contacts and conditions. ”

    Do you happen to have the specifics to the prices that Mr Helmut Sinn spoke of? I am extremely curious to know what are the prices he mentioned and for which parts – to get a sense of the type of markups the watch industry is playing with..

    Much appreciated!

    If you want, you can email me at beerguzzler08@gmail.com.

    Thanks

    -tery-

  • http://bayareafind.com Pepepi Losem

    Great blog. Nice to read. Well did the job. Congrats!! Just go replica watches for amazing collections.