The watchmaker who defied Castro and befriended Warhol

Movado's Gerry Grinberg escaped Cuba’s communist rule to save the Swiss watch industry.

Neil Churchill July 5, 2016

To butcher an Isaac Newton quote, the watch world has always seen further by standing on the shoulders of its giant pioneers.

Single visionaries, both past and present, can be thanked for the most notable achievements and milestone moments in the history of horology. From Peter Henlein’s ‘clock-watch’ to Breguet’s wristwatch, Louis Moinet and his chronograph to Gérald Genta’s timeless designs, the watch world would not be where it is were it not for some exceptional individuals.

Even today, similar pioneers continue to move the industry forwards – think Richard Mille and Hublot’s Jean-Claude Biver.

Another name to rank alongside the greats of the past is Gedalio Grinberg, better known as Gerry. Grinberg was chairman of the Movado Group, which today owns no fewer than 10 watch brands including Concord, Ebel, Hugo Boss, Lacoste and Tommy Hilfiger.

Born in 1931, Grinberg is credited for taking on the booming Japanese quartz that was damaging the Swiss watch industry in the 1970s, and beating it at its own game. But it is his life story, especially his brush with Fidel Castro and friendship with Andy Warhol, that really makes him stand out amongst his legendary watchmaking peers. 

It started, as days often do, with an alarm clock. Aged just 15-years-old, Gerry started selling alarm clocks to a local storeowner, after purchasing them at wholesale price from a friend’s father who stocked them. From there he jumped into watches and continued his local trade.

Soon he was selling 30-40 watches per month, which led to a job with the local distributor of Sheffield watches. "My clientele was word of mouth,” he said. “Evidently I was a good salesman."

After moving on to Juvenia watches and while studying business at university, Grinberg was picked up by Fabian Weiss, Cuba’s most successful watch dealer and the country’s distributor for Omega. He taught Gerry how to manage a watch business, nurturing him into his protégé. But it was Omega’s managing director in Switzerland, Adolph Vallat, who taught Grinberg how to market a watch, a knack that Grinberg came to master. "I was brainwashed by the management of Omega," Grinberg said.

After visiting Cuba himself and seeing the success of Omega, Vallat told Grinberg and Weiss that he intended to acquire the watch company Piaget, and the two should start distributing the lesser-known brand in Cuba. Soon enough, they did just that, running it as a side business to their Omega line.

But that’s when everything changed for Grinberg. "We developed Omega very nicely," he recalled. "We were navigating very well. Until Castro came."

One afternoon in August, 1960, while meeting Weiss’s son, José, and an American acquaintance at a café, secret police stormed in and bundled all three of them away. 

Interrogating him in an empty room, Castro’s men accused Grinberg of working for the CIA. They said he possessed anti-Castro leaflets issued by the Catholic church; Grinberg was Jewish. They threatened to kill him, saying he would be executed that night.

After eight hours, Grinberg was released. He never knew why he was targeted, although he had previously turned down an offer to work in Castro’s government. Castro had wanted to nationalise the movie business, as it was the medium of propaganda, and then the newspapers. Grinberg refused to leave Weiss and the watch industry.

A few days after the ordeal, Grinberg made plans to flee Cuba for Miami. On arriving at the airport, an old friend and an army major approached Grinberg and ensured his family was escorted safely onto the plane. Some time before the Castro revolution, Grinberg had assisted that friend in a similar situation; the debt had been repaid.

Starting a new life in Miami, Grinberg tried his hand at selling used cars at auction and delivering food to Cuban exiles. Neither was successful, and it wasn’t long before he was back in the watch trade. Joined by Weiss and his son José, the three of them were asked by Piaget to begin distribution for its watches in New York, where the brand was unknown. 

Working out of a small office on Rockefeller Plaza, the three Cuban refugees kept their stash of Piaget watches in a suitcase, which Grinberg stored in the Chase Manhattan Bank every night, picking it up in the morning and selling the watches store to store.

It wasn’t easy. Piaget’s price point was $1,000 in a market where $200 Omega watches were considered expensive and $18 Timex watches were the fashion. "Everybody used to tell me, ‘I don't want your watches, they are the most expensive watches in the world!’," Grinberg said.

Piaget also had zero brand recognition, and when Grinberg tried to place an advert in The New Yorker, the magazine rejected it, saying the brand was not good enough. 

The turning point was a meeting with one of the most renown jewellers of the time, Claude Arpels, of Van Cleef & Arpels. Grinberg has just developed a line of Piaget watches that featured coloured stones, which the jeweller specialised in. The two met, Arpels took a liking to Grinberg and they reached an agreement to put the new Piaget watches in store windows, along with some advertising, prepared by Van Cleef. "That put Piaget on the map," Grinberg said. "Sales went from $205,000 to $433,000 in one year."

Through the partnership, Grinberg gained access to fashion magazines and began advertising Piaget as ‘the most expensive watch in the world’, tapping into America’s emerging market for luxury goods. “We became the 'in' watch. The demographics were there. The whole thing at that time was status.” 

It was a real breakthrough moment, both for Grinberg and the relationship between watchmakers and jewellers. Piaget’s sales leapt from $165,000 in 1961 when Grinberg took control, to $6 million just four years later. In 1965, the Weiss family sold their interest in the company to Grinberg, and Gerry founded North American Watch Corp, building Piaget into a $30 million company.

Grinberg soon added another brand to the group, Corum, which although it never developed a wide following in the US, was favoured by the country's most powerful men including Richard Nixon and Ronal Reagan, who both purchased Corum Gold Coin watches from Grinberg. 

It was around this time that Grinberg received a phone call from Andy Warhol. The artist had seen an advert for the Corum Ingot watch (second photo above) and wanted to add it to his collection. The two made a deal: Warhol got his watch and Grinberg, who collected art, got a Warhol lithograph.

The transaction was the start of a friendship that lasted until Warhol’s death in 1987. "[He] was a genius," Grinberg said. "He was also a down-to-earth, clever guy. He was networking. He knew I met a lot of people. Through me he sold a few paintings. And we became friends."

Grinberg ended up owning around 20 works by Warhol, many of them hanging on the walls of his New York apartment, and is mentioned several times in the posthumously published Andy Warhol’s Diaries.

Warhol often had a seat at Grinberg's gala dinners for New York's wealthy and powerful, and it was the artist's idea of hanging several watch faces off the same bracelet that inspired the Andy Warhol Times/5 watch, the first in what would become Movado’s Artist Collection, a series of limited edition watches designed by contemporary artists. 

All of the five dials feature a photo taken by Warhol of New York’s west side. "He loved New York," Grinberg said. "The days when everybody else would be out of New York, like the Fourth of July, he used to be here, with his camera, taking pictures. I used to be with him." 

Despite his A-list dinners and hobnobbing with New York’s political elite, it was what he did in the 1970s that really cemented Grinberg’s name as one of the great horologists.

The Swiss watch industry was facing an unprecedented challenge from Japan. While it was the Swiss who developed the revolutionary quartz movement, it was the Japanese who monopolised it, stealing market share from the dawdling Swiss. Thousands of jobs were lost. It was, and probably still is, the biggest crisis the Swiss watch market had ever seen.

Frustrated at what was happening, Grinberg flew to Switzerland to issue a rallying call to the industry, warning them of Seiko’s emergence in the US and the threat from its quartz watches. 

Teaming up with Ernst Thomke, founder of the Swatch Group, the two men decided to create the thinnest quartz movement in the world, designed to beat the Japanese at their own game; ultra-thin, ultra-accurate quartz watches. Grinberg even invested two million Swiss Francs from his own pocket towards the development. 

While the new movement was used by Longines and Eterna watches in Europe, in the States it was launched with Concord, Grinberg’s most recent acquisition. He had attempted to buy the Movado watch company in 1969, but after the owners refused to sell he bought Concord instead, a little known Swiss brand.

Ten years on from that acquisition, Grinberg launched the Concord Delirium, the thinnest watch in the world at just 1.98mm thick, and one of the most important of the 20th century. In comparison, Seiko’s closest competitor was 2.5mm thick. The battle went back and forth until the Delirium IV was released, with a thickness of just 0.98mm, although it suffered technical problems as a result.

But the original Delirium had achieved what it set out to do, with help from an ingenious advert. Grinberg decided to run a full-page ad in the New York Times for a month, showing the Delirium passing through the prongs of a fork. It was a stunning image that not only helped to galvanise the Swiss quartz and its industry, but also boosted Concord’s presence in the US. 

With the money made from Concord’s new popularity, Grinberg was able to reapproach Movado – a brand that only came onto his radar in the 1960s when the designer for its iconic Museum watch sued Piaget for copying its design. The lawsuit was unsuccessful, but it put the brand on Grinberg’s radar.

After biding his time, Grinberg successfully bought the company in 1983, and put the Museum watch front and centre of the brand. With a marketing campaign targeted at a younger audience, the move worked. Sales rocketed from $4 million when Grinberg took over, to $50 million by 1987. The brand went on to become the flagship of Grinberg’s renamed watch company, as it's called today, Movado Group Inc. 

Gerry Grinberg died in 2009. The company, where his son Efraim is now CEO, describes him as ‘a man of passion, vision and inspiration'. Today, every one in five watches sold in the US within the $500-$3000 range is a Movado.

Grinberg remained involved with the business up until his death, and never lost his passion for watches.

He often spoke of his love for his adopted country. Speaking to CNN, he said: "Here I am a Cuban from a Jewish background, with an accent, and I never feel like a foreigner in this country. It's a country of opportunity. What happened to me here could not happen anywhere else in the world." 

Extracts and quotes sourced from the Movado Group's website.