Discover how Cortina Watch has spread and shaped the appreciation of fine and high watchmaking across Southeast Asia since 1972.
Over the last 50 years, Southeast Asia’s retail landscape has transformed over and over again. These evolutions have expanded the role of multi-brand retailers into that of a brand curator. Not only do they have to understand the interests and desires of their customers, they must also find relevant brands and products to offer their clientele.
The most successful multi-brand retailers not only help customers gain greater appreciation of the products and brands they offer. They convey their customers’ desires to the brands they represent, shaping the products that are created.
Cortina Watch has been curating fine watchmaking across Southeast Asia for some time now, not only for its customers but the general public as well. Through its events, its ability to forecast and spot trends before they develop, and retail innovation, it’s grown from a single store in Singapore into a regional powerhouse that spans 23 multi- and mono-brand boutiques in Southeast and East Asia.
Bringing new brands into Cortina
Cortina represents numerous watch brands that range from well-established watchmakers such as Rolex and Patek Philippe, to boutique brands such as Corum, H. Moser & Cie. and Parmigiani. The latter is one of the newest additions to Cortina’s portfolio by Mr Raymond Lim, CEO of Cortina Holdings, after a long period of analysis and consideration. He explains, “We are very careful about the brands we represent and retail. Parmigiani is a brand that has strong foundations behind it, and that’s why we signed a dealership with them for Singapore.”
Other independent watchmakers that Cortina has engaged with include Franck Muller, which it now distributes in Southeast Asia. In the last 18 months, it has partnered the brand to develop new exclusive models for the region, as well as a new case size for the Vanguard collection. “As a retailer, it’s our job to communicate our customers’ needs to the brands we represent, so that we are delivering the best products to them,” says Raymond. “With Franck Muller, we observed that there was a demand for a smaller case size in Southeast Asia, which is why we developed this new size. We have the unique ability as retailers to provide relevant market insights to brands. Our relationship with Franck Muller enables us to apply those insights to their product development, for which we are truly appreciative.”
In fact, Cortina’s founder and Executive Chairman, Mr Anthony Lim, was also a savvy adopter of new brands, shaping the retailer’s early success. At its first retail outlet in Colombo Court Shopping Centre, he offered a broad range of brands from affordable digital Seikos to high watchmaking legends such as Patek Philippe. Opening a watch retail at the height of the Quartz Crisis in 1972 was a daring move by Mr Lim, but he saw the potential ahead for fine watchmaking in Singapore and the region at large.
Having spent 16 years working at a retailer before striking out on his own, Anthony Lim understood through experience that a retailer had to stay ahead of their customers. He had to anticipate what products they would covet, and which brands would rise in popularity. He recalls how interest in brands such as Rolex, Omega and Cartier evolved through the decades. “We were very proactive in trying to secure watches for our customers. Sometimes, I’d fly up to Switzerland to meet the brands and build connections so that we could get access to the watches our customers wanted,” he recalls. He also remembers going to Japan fortnightly, just so that they could get sufficient stocks of Seiko watches which were in high demand, but irregularly restocked in Singapore.
Creating events that define watchmaking
When Raymond Lim joined Cortina Watch officially in 1980, the retail scene in Singapore was rapidly expanding. “Before this, Orchard Road didn’t exist. That’s why we opened our retail store in Colombo Court which was close to High Street, where a lot of our customers had their offices,” Anthony Lim points out. “Orchard Road was where a lot of new retail spaces were developing to appeal to tourists, so we added new stores there.”
With the growth of so many retail spots, they realised that they could not be everywhere. Furthermore, customers now had more options to spend their money. Raymond came up with a solution, by creating in-store events that would draw customers’ interest, growing captive audiences for Cortina’s retail offerings. “With the opening of the Raffles City Shopping Centre flagship in 1992, we had a much bigger retail space to work with. That was a major turning point for us,” he adds. “We would bring in the latest models from one brand and invite guests to come and discover their novelties. This allowed us to attract people visiting the mall as well as our loyal customers and grow our business.”
Cortina was also the first retailer in the region to realise the untapped potential of a niche market — the high jewellery watchmaking segment, which was small but rapidly growing at the time. In 2000, Raymond and Jeremy Lim [then CEO and COO of Cortina Watch, now the CEOs of Cortina Holdings and Cortina Watch respectively], established a multi-brand high jewellery watchmaking exhibition in Paragon Shopping Centre, which had transformed from an automobile retail space into a luxury mall. Jewellery Time introduced its customers in the region to the finest high jewellery timepieces presented by brands such as Patek Philippe, Cartier, Chopard, Audemars Piguet and many more.
“We needed a signature event that would drive public awareness of our brand. While jewellery watches were not yet trending, in the ’80s and ’90s, we saw that jewellery watches were growing in popularity,” he notes. “It wasn’t limited to ladies either; more men were wearing jewelled timepieces or seeing them as an investment. So we developed the exhibition, and over the years, grew and improved on it with each iteration.” The event was a success both publicly and financially, as customers from all over the region would attend to see these unique creations. It allowed brands to introduce gemsetting as a craft in watchmaking and present these rare timepieces that were not frequently shown, and welcomed female collectors to Cortina. It also established the brand as an authority in high jewellery timepieces, a position it continues to hold today.
More recently, Cortina has sought to create new localised watch events in other markets such as Taiwan, to enhance the public’s familiarity with fine watchmaking. It also embraced digital events, hosting a virtual manufacturing tour of H. Moser & Cie. with the brand’s CEO, Edouard Meylan in 2021 where he gave a guided tour of their production facilities to guests watching from their homes.
Raymond points out that brands today are more inclined to host independent monobrand events that drive awareness of their heritage and products to the public, enabling them to tell their own story. Cortina has continued to adapt with the times, hosting recent exhibitions with TAG Heuer in Suria KLCC showcasing the watchmaker’s milestones and close association with racing. In Singapore, it has organised several monobrand exhibitions with partners such as Chopard, Blancpain and Franck Muller this year. “These events are designed to reach specific audiences that are interested in certain types of products and watches, such as the Fifty Fathoms by Blancpain or the Happy Sport by Chopard,” Jeremy points out. “Our customers today know what they are interested in. They want to be engaged when the event or programme is something that connects with them.”
Reinventing retail, again and again
Going where your audience is has been the basic rule in retail. For Cortina, that has been a guiding premise for the development of their retail operations. Its expansion into Lucky Plaza on Orchard Road during the ’80s followed the development of the street into a shopping destination for tourists. “The Raffles City store was designed to reach more local customers, and our outlets on Orchard Road at the time were meant to attract tourists,” explains Mr Anthony Lim. “In Kuala Lumpur, we first opened in Sungei Wang in the early ‘80s because that was the place with the most traffic.”
Cortina has carefully curated retail spaces in malls like Suria KLCC, Gurney Plaza in Penang or Central Plaza in Bangkok. “Our retail spaces across the region are meant to serve our local customers, so we need to select places where they would want to go and spend time at,” explains Jeremy Lim. “We want to be able to develop a deeper relationship with our customers over time, to be able to serve the products they desire. That means designing retail spaces where they feel comfortable having a conversation while learning more about the brands and products we carry.”
Their store designs today are influenced by learnings from past projects such as the Espace, a conceptual retail idea that shows how the brand embraces retail innovation. The Espace was an 8,000 square foot retail space in Millennia Walk, featuring modular shop-in-shop experiences for individual brands that could be customised for their needs. “It started by coincidence,” explains Raymond Lim. “At the time we were getting a lot of requests from brands for more store space, but we had limitations in each store. We could not provide sufficient representation, so when an adjacent unit to our Millennia Walk store was made available, I proposed that we come up with a new way of representing brands that would give them autonomy and individuality. It took some time before we completed the design and concept, which worked out well.”
The concept store won the “Best Retail Innovation” award from the Singapore Retailers Association in 2001, and Cortina went on to implement the idea in Malaysia and Thailand. Over time, the insights gained from these boutiques have been mainstreamed into its stores. “What we realised is that by having fewer brands in each store, and creating a stronger brand identity and experience with our partners, we can immerse customers further and foster that connection to the brand and its products,” Jeremy clarifies. “So our new stores are designed in precisely this manner, with more impactful branding and where customers feel comfortable so they can discover each brand in-depth.”
Along with its multi-brand retail spaces, Cortina also operates several mono-brand boutiques from TAG Heuer to Rolex and IWC across Southeast and East Asia. But most importantly, it manages a string of Patek Philippe boutiques across all six countries it’s in, from Indonesia to Taiwan. Located at the most exclusive malls in each country — Taipei 101, Plaza Indonesia, The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands and more — these boutiques offer customers a consistent experience no matter where they are shopping.
Read more about Cortina and its story through exclusive interviews with the executive chairman, CEO and COO of Cortina Holdings here.