Making his vision happen took four years and $4 million, some of which was Crocco's, the rest borrowed from banks. Crocco spared no expense creating the right product. He built a small factory and hired a battalion of top Swiss designers to execute his ideas.
In 1980, Crocco's creation was born, and MDM Geneve was formed. He dubbed his watch the Hublot (it means "porthole" in French) and introduced it at Switzerland's prestigious Basel watch fair. "The watch's nautical theme implies adaptability," says Crocco.
"Most handcrafted luxury watches are heavy and meant to be worn only on special occasions," explains Michael Goldstein, vice president of MDM America Inc. "But the Hublot's most distinctive feature is that it can be worn at state dinners or the opera, yet is also suitable for playing golf and deep-sea diving. This made it unique."
Guaranteed to be water-resistant to a depth of 165 feet (and up to 1,000 feet for professional divers' watches), the Hublot was made to take a beating. But the watch's most distinctive feature, according to Crocco, is its band. It's not made of gold, silver, leather or exotic skins like lizard or ostrich. It's made of rubber.
The idea struck Crocco on a flight from Paris to Geneva. "Absentmindedly, I began to color in my watchband with a black [felt-tip pen]," he says. "When I realized what I was doing, I loved the effect. I knew a black strap would smartly complement the black dial of several of my models and also contrast strikingly with the dials of other models without competing with the timepiece's lines."
Yet Crocco quickly discovered great ideas are easy to come by but difficult to execute. He estimates it took almost $1 million in research and development costs to come up with the perfect rubber watchband. In the end, though, it was money well spent. The results were startling and revolutionary.
Crocco developed a tempered rubber that is virtually indestructible. "Unlike conventional metal and leather bands, [the Hublot band] is resistant to chemical deterioration," he says. "It absorbs body oils and conforms to the shape of the wearer's wrist. And it has zero weight, making it ideal for sports and virtually any activity."
The biggest challenge: inserting steel plates into the ultrathin strap to hold the watch securely. When all was completed, the lightweight timepiece and sleek black rubber watchband added up to an exquisite watch that retails for $2,500 to $60,000. Precious stones knock the price up considerably.
Clearly, Crocco was breaking the rules-and at first, many snobbish watch dealers thought the rubber watchband was heresy. Eventually, however, the watchband came to be viewed as a key to Crocco's personality, a symbol of the reason he went off on his own. Wrote one journalist, "The rubber strap captures Crocco's penchant for originality and endurance, his contrary nature and his zest for bucking tradition."
Unique as the finished product is, Crocco was ready to pull his hair out when no one showed up the day he debuted his watch at the 1980 Basel watch fair. "I was nervous, to say the least," he chuckles. Like any anxious entrepreneur who has just invested years of his life and a pile of money, he began entertaining second thoughts. Was his watch too far-out for the world's top watch dealers? Or maybe the Hublot was too far ahead of its time.
Thankfully, Crocco's anxiety was short-lived. The second day of the fair, a few people trickled in. By the third day, Crocco's little booth was buzzing with activity. It took a while for dealers and buyers to discover the Hublot, but once they did, the elegant timepiece became an immediate topic of conversation.
"That was the beginning of the story," Crocco says. Orders followed as the Hublot turned in a stunning debut performance. But the real work lay ahead. The next and most critical step was marketing the product. Although first-year sales hit a respectable $2 million, Crocco wanted more. "It's a good feeling knowing you have a unique watch," he says, "but if you can't break into the luxury watch market, you're doomed."