Check out The Goodbye Look by Donald Fagan. It’s a catchy little tune about the Cuban Revolution set to the sound of samba. Cuervo Y Sobrinos watches have that same strange dichotomy. “We’ve got Latin soul and a Swiss heart,” MD Massimo Rossi tells me. “Or a Swiss soul and a Latin heart.” Huh?
To understand the Cuervo Y Sobrinos gestalt you need to set the Way Back Machine to 1882, when a young Cuban named Don Ramon Cuervo opened a jewelry store on Havana’s San Rafael Avenue.
Sr. Cuervo operated in a scarcely credible world of political upheaval and economic turmoil. Cuba’s horrific Ten Years’ War finished four years before he opened his doors, slavery was abolished four years later.
The island’s economy had been laid low by the destruction of its coffee industry and American tariffs. Sr. Cuervo’s business survived both the downturn and the Spanish – American war of 1898. In fact, the ensuing U.S. occupation triggered an unprecedented economic boom.
That’s when Cuervo Y Sobrinos began an astounding sixty-year run.
At first, CyS thrived by catering to bauble-buying sugar barons. In 1928, Pan Am began regular flights from Key West to Havana. Cuba’s tourism industry took flight, as did the family firm.
By the 50’s, Cuba was a playground for South America’s Spanish-speaking elite and the world’s rich and famous.
Visiting celebrities – Caruso, Hemingway, Churchill, Gable – spent a fortune on jewels and watches at Cuervo Y Sobrinos’ elegant salon. Mobsters running casinos, associated criminals and well-heeled gamblers? Them too.
The years rolled by, the money rolled in. CyS sold so many luxury watches it ordered co-branded models from Roskopf, Rolex, Vacheron and Longines.
Swimming in cash, the Cuervos decided vertical integration was the way forward. They started their own brand.
The Cuban retailer produced jewelry in Pforzheim, Germany and Paris, and assembled watches of their own design in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland. The good times couldn’t get any better. And then . . . 1958.
When Fidel Castro seized power there was no room for decadence. None. Cuervos Y Sobrinos was shuttered; the Cuervo family was lucky to escape with their lives.
And that was that for forty years.
In 1997, Italian tourist and Spanish watch distributor Marzio Villa resurrected the brand (and its Havana boutique). He developed, marketed and sold Swiss-made, Cuban-inspired Cuervo Y Sobrinos watches to a worldwide audience – with decidedly mixed results.
In 2018, a small team of Swiss investors – watch industry vets all – scooped-up Cuervo Y Sobrinos and put Massimo Rossi in charge.
“Our focus was missing,” MD Rossi says diplomatically, looking back over his ten-year tenure. “We wasted a lot of money on unnecessary activities.”
Mr. Rossi is referring, I believe, to Mr. Villa’s penchant for bankrolling vintage car rallies and sailboat races. And the expansion of the CyS portofolio to seven collections with 200 SKUs. Not to mention developing a selection of expensive writing instruments.
Those days are gone, apparently.
Moving forward, CyS bases its profitability on selling 3k watches per year, even as it gradually reduces the total number of product variations to 80, ranging in price from $3k to $8k.
CyS 3.0 is restricting itself to smaller marketing efforts: local events, social media and continuing its position as official timekeeper to the Cigar Smoking World Championship.
It’s the same survival strategy for many a micro-brand in the shadow of Coronageddon: cut expenses, focus on key markets (America, Japan and China for CyS), amp-up online sales, tighten the product line and stay true to the brand promise.
Which is, let’s face it, cultural appropriation. “We are Swiss,” the 57-year-old Rossi avers with a gentle laugh. “We cannot change our character.” But they have taken the criticism on board.
Launched today: the Señora Sol y Estrellas designed by Cuban-born artist Annick Woungly. The new watch “references the clear skies of Cuba and captures the vibrant hues synonymous with life on this idyllic Caribbean island where sleep is not a priority.”
PC CyS may not be – at least not fully and not yet. Meanwhile, there’s a dedicated fan base happy to subsidize a watch brand promising “Swiss manufacture, Latin heritage.” Hoping Coronageddon doesn’t give Cuervo Y Sobrinos the goodbye look.
Thank you for this article. It’s quite hard to come by coverage of Cuervo y Sobrinos in the English language and this is a shame. The history of watch retailers in Brazil, Cuba, Venezuela and elsewhere outside of Europe, north America and Japan is a fascinating one. I’m not sure how many people today realise the extent to which Swiss watch companies depended on these retailers to help develop their international markets. In terms of comparators as a retailer-cum-watchmaker, Cuervo y Sobrinos was the Cuban equivalent to Carl F. Bucherer.
The one thing I’d take issue with is the suggestion that CyS today is an exercise in “cultural appropriation.” CyS never made any watches in Cuba and its adventures in watchmaking helped to project the island’s image overseas. The company today is very sensitive to this, from what I have observed, and tries to be true to that legacy. In addition, the current production arrangements are simply a continuation of how the company operated prior to its closure. The only – albeit significant – difference is that there is no functioning business today in Havana driving the brand. Perhaps this will change one day.
I understand that CyS will shortly release a 45-minute film on the story of the company. From what I’ve heard, the film will cover its entire history, from its founding in the 1880s to its ventures into watchmaking, to its demise and its re-emergence. Once we have an opportunity to listen to the first-hand accounts of Cuban historians, merchants and former employees of the company, it might become clear just how fond they still are of the CyS name and its legacy.
[…] of the small, exclusive club of prestige Swiss manufactures selected by Havana-based luxury jeweler Cuervo y Sobrinos to produce co-branded luxury wristwatches – others including the likes of Longines, Rolex and […]
Great watches for those who don’t run with the pack.