The story of Giselle Rufer Delance, the creator of Delance woman watch is pathetic. She had to face many heart-breaking and discouraging obstacles on her way to realize her dream because she dared venturing into men’s world uncharted by any woman before her. The episode has now appeared in the form of a semi-biography released in 2014 relatively titled BUTTERFLY IN A STORM. She presented me a copy of the book from which she said I could find some complementary information for this chat with her.
We all have a dream, but the courage and determination to realize it is entirely something else. The giant steps needed to realize it. ‘You can get it if you really want; but you must try, try and try, try and try; you will succeed at last,’ sang Jimmy Cliff.
Mrs. Giselle Rufer, granted Johnson Oduwaiye Africa Link’s editor-in-chief this interview to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the creation of the watch in November 1996. Excerpt from the interview with additional information from her semi-autobiography book.
How did you come about watch-making? Are you in the field?
Professionally, I am an engineer. It just happened when I was employed by ETA, a branch of the Swatch Group, to launch Flik Flak. The brand was for children and the quota for me to sell in the first year was 20,000. The quota for the representatives in Germany and Italy was 100,000 each. At the end of the year I sold almost 100,000 in a small country like Switzerland, and representatives in Germany and Italy barely sold 20,000 pieces.
That must have been impressive for your bosses.
I did not know how impressed the president of company was until sometime later when he summoned me to his office to tell me the company wanted to launch Louis Brandt collection. Louis Brandt was the founder of Omega, and the collection was to honour him. And having seen my performance with the Flik Flak brand he said he would not be surprised that one day I might be the first woman director of the company. He then told me he wanted me to be in charge of the new collection as the product manager. I was flabbergasted.
It was during this time the idea came to me that there were watches designed for men, children, sports, astronauts etc. but none specifically designed for women, except that smaller sizes of men’s watches were produced for women.
I told the president about it, and he liked the idea and asked me to start working on it during my spare time. He wanted me to concentrate on the Louis Brandt collection. As the product manager I built my own team and we worked on the Louis Brandt collection tirelessly and within a short time we submitted the design to his greatest surprise.
And how far were you able to go with the women’s watch?
The progress was comparatively slow because our principal priority was the Louis Brandt collection. I was still working on the concept of the design because I just did not want to produce watch to keep time. I wanted to produce watches to portray and promote the value of women. What a woman represents. Its concept is not just to keep time, but rather to carry heart-felt and philosophical messages through its designs and materials, like different stones and what they stand for.
How many people were working with you on the woman watch?
Three, all women.
Why all women?
Not intentionally. It was the work of fate. When I was looking for special designers and others to work with me, all those who came my way were women.
And when did you start the production of Delance watches?
We were still on the Louis Brandt collection, and the design of the woman watches when the president unceremoniously left the company. That saddened my team, and we were despaired. I was devastated because he had also been like a mentor to me.
As if that was not sad enough the new President suspended some projects indefinitely and cancelled others totally. Not only were my projects affected, I was removed from the projects I had been handling and developing for almost three years.
When I told my immediate boss what happened, he was sarcastic saying he did not see anything worthwhile in the projects anyway, and that I could have spent the three years doing something worthwhile. There and then I resolved it was time to leave the company.
You must have been depressed?
Very depressed, frustrated and hopeless that this happened to me when I had almost realized my dream.
Giselle, said when she told her husband, his response was encouraging, saying she would find another company that would accept to produce her women’s watch. ‘Otherwise if we will have to go back to a two-room apartment you will make your watch,’ he assured her, adding, ‘the most important thing is that we are together.’
Did you decide to create your own company or you wanted another company to produce the watches?
I decided to create my own company, and did more research on what ‘time’ meant. I found that it has connection with love, joy or harmony, and each embodied in spiritual life.
It gave me the true notion of the watch I wanted. A watch that captures the unique spirituality of every woman’s life, the harmony of her being, the joy of becoming all she can be, and the love she has for herself, her family, her friends, and the world around her. A watch that allows a woman to make it her own, and yet embodies the feminine magic of all women.
I contacted some members of my old team and got a few new hands capable of the designs I wanted. It was difficult to find a suitable name for the company. But my step father suggested my late father’s name DELANCE which coincidentally was my own artist’s name when I was young.
After the designs of DELANCE Watches were ready I contacted a bank for business loan to start production but was refused. This was after submitting all the requirements, including the fact that my husband was in the business with me, and would be a member of the Board of Directors. The excuse was that I lacked business track record. The loan, the bank manager said, could be reconsidered if I could found a partner, a man who had built a successful watch company.
“Will you give the loan, if I find a woman who has built a successful watch company?” I asked.
Instead of answering my question, he told me if my watch was going to attract good market major watch brands would have invested in such watches. He then ‘advised’ me to use my talents for something worthwhile.
I told my husband that the refusal to give me the loan was because of my gender.
One would have thought it would be the other way round
I had taken and invested 50,000 Swiss francs from my retirement fund for the work done so far. My husband then wondered how and where I would be able to get more fund to execute the production of the watches.
“Do you want me to give it up?” I asked him.
‘You can consider it,’ he replied. Then added that his family was afraid should the business failed and go bankrupt, it would stain his family’s name.
“So it is about your family? I know they never accepted me, they don’t like anything I do,” I told him. This strengthened my determination to pursue my dream without him.
She stopped discussing about the company with him, and had withdrawn, another 50,000 francs, which was all she had left in her retirement fund to produce some pieces of the watch, and ready to launch the company at the International Watch Exhibition in Basel.
Did you tell him about the launch? And how did it go at the fair?
I did not tell him. It was like a dream seeing myself at the fair, and in my own booth with my own created Delance Woman Watch. My brother had to reassure me that I was not dreaming, that the dream had finally come true and he was proud of me his ‘little sister.’
Visitors and distributors trooped to my booth, the latter were interested in distributorship. I recognized the name of one of them, a large distributor from the US. The watch was the talk of the fair, very impressive.
In spite of the positive responses about the watch, the prophets of doom still believed the company was doomed for collapse within a year. Like one of the many senior executives from some major watch brands she ran into who told her: ‘So, Giselle, it seems as though everyone is talking about your watch. Well, enjoy all the interest now Honey. Delance will be dead by this time next year.’ The others laughed’
I looked at each of them in the eye and said: ‘Whatever will be, will be.’ And I walked away. After the exhibition, articles on Delance woman’s watch, created by women for women started to appear in the media. I was interviewed by journalists and gradually Delance entered the men dominated industry with novelty. In addition, I started to receive invitations to speak at women’s conferences.
What was the global exposure like?
The exposure came through my speaking at conferences, and through exhibitions I attended. Being a customized product, quantity production is not encouraged. A year after I met the large distributor at Basel exhibition I was able to secure an appointment with him and the result was an order for some hundred pieces.
The contract was made and signed, and he paid half the cost upfront. But the story was to turn sour a bit. After some silence from him and the rest of the payment, I rang him up several times but there was no response. One day he called me back to tell me he had sold the company. When I asked him for the rest of the money and about the watches, he said it was part of the purchase, and that the company took over all his liabilities. He gave me the company’s address.
But when I contacted the company they told me it had been decided not to distribute the watches. And any further questions should be referred to their legal department. The man at the other end then hung up on me.
Did you take any legal action against the company?
I was advised against doing so. The company is huge and powerful. In the first place the tussle would take years and legal fee may be out of my reach. I learned later that the company had bought the distributorship purposely to remove my watches from the US market and to put me out of business.
Just as I was thinking that thing could not get any worse, my gold supplier went bankrupt. I had paid for 15 kilos of gold which the company had not supplied.
These problems had started to tell on her marriage, creating strained relationship between the two leading to the man’s involvement in extra-marital affairs. Her own friend blamed her saying: ‘It is your fault. You are so occupied with Delance that I’m sure he does feel neglected.’
She responded: “When he was travelling and working so much, and closed from work very late I supported him to realize his dream. I felt he should support me now that it is my turn. And I did not accept any of the men who flirted with me.” But the friend insisted that men were different, and it was women’s job to support them.
What did your husband say to all these problems?
I hardly discussed anything pertaining to the business with him.
I started to rebuild the company and tried to rebuild my marriage as well but I found the latter more difficult and even though he had shown some remorse and took reconciliation moves I did not give him the chance. I sometimes considered forgiving him, but thought about the trust. Could I trust him again?
As I could not afford to hire workers I was alone. I buried myself in the company, did most of the tasks beginning with administrative work through running the company, promoting the new brand on to travelling with some of the watches to women conferences where I was invited to speak as well as attending trade fairs in Europe. The Delance women watches started to resurge and gaining more popularity. Women had started to identify with it like a club for women. Men started to see it as an ideal present to their wives, or loved ones.
Another opportunity presented itself. I was invited to speak at Basel Watch Exhibition - a good opportunity, I thought - to promote my new collection. A few weeks later I received a letter cancelling the invitation. The reason was because one of the largest exhibitors to speak at the fair told the organisers that they had to choose between him and myself.
Geselle said she was very happy to get a distributor in the US during one of her invitations to speak in the US. As soon as she returned to Switzerland she contacted her lawyer to get the contract agreement drawn. The distributor had told her of a client she was going to have lunch with in the World Trade Centre and they were going to have lunch at the Windows On The World, the restaurant on the 106th and 107th floor of the North Tower. That was the day the twin towers were attacked. She made several calls to her during the following days but never got her, nor did the distributor return her calls.
There was no improvement in the relationship between Giselle and her husband, so one day he told her he wanted to get his own flat as he could no longer bear living together with her any longer. Her friend told her at a point after the husband had packed out that Delance made a better husband for her citing: ‘When you talk about designing watches you light up.’
But she replied: “That’s just part of me, the other part still misses him.”
Now that she was alone, she was able to focus on the Delance, and her philanthropic works which took her to every corner of the world speaking at women’s conferences. At one of such conferences in Washington D.C. she and Hilary Clinton were guest speakers. Hilary was a member of the growing celebrities who own a Delance watch.
Giselle has a daughter in Canada. It was during a visit to her that her daughter spoke of how amazing she was. This was just as she was getting set to return to Switzerland. The daughter expressed her delight that she was at last able to realise her dream.
“Yes, in doing so, I lost your father.”
‘No mother you didn’t. Daddy lost you….’
On her return to Switzerland Giselle found the biggest bouquet of 58 Baccara roses, with a note wishing her happy 58th birthday. It was from her husband. She was confused, but managed to call him and to thank him. He did not sound well.
“So I asked what’s wrong”
“I am sad and disillusioned,” he replied.
She asked if he would like to come over to talk about it.
‘I’m not well. I haven’t been well for years,’ he told me.
“I don’t think any of us has been,” I told him, then asked “What can I do to help?”
Without mincing words, he said he wanted to come back home, he could not find happiness having realized how much he loved her.
“I told him I’ve never stopped loving him even when I hated what he did. And that I didn’t think I could stand it if he had to leave me again. Also I was not sure I wanted to open up the wound.”
They continued to see each other and talked about everything. Honest communication had been the missing link in their relationship, each of them was working very hard to please the other. It was with this misapprehension they had endangered their marriage.
Soon they reconciled, together they run Delance, and share each other’s joy.
Giselle flanked by Moundi club’s members
Giselle went to Cameroon, at the invitation of BPW Mfoundi Club, an organization dedicated to promoting entrepreneurship and business among African women. In her message she narrated her own story to encourage the club’s members and the audience: “It took me a very long time to realize my dream of Delance – years of struggles and defeats. In this process, I have experienced the highest of the highs and the lowest of the lows, laughing, crying, pain and joy – extraordinary joy……. But like the butterfly that struggles so desperately to escape from its cocoon, my struggle has been worth every discouraging day. They simply make the joyful and rewarding days.”