How one Greenville entrepreneur is quietly disrupting the luxury watch industry

Bob Barreto, founder of Famiglia Vaglio. Photo by Will Crooks.

When it comes to wristwatches, Bob Barreto isn’t a fan of flashiness.

“Some people get turned on by giant Hublot watches that are decked out in black and gold. That does absolutely nothing for me,” he says. “I like luxury, but I’m also a big fan of vintage. That’s the look I’m going for with my watches.”

Barreto is the founder of Famiglia Vaglio, a Greenville-based startup that designs, manufactures, and sells luxury men’s watches. Earlier this month, the company released its inaugural line of Swiss-made timepieces: The Eterno, the first in a series of exclusive collector watches, and The Pilota, a sports watch.

It’s a big departure for Barreto, who has spent much of his career working in business development and financial roles at Fortune 500 companies, such as Wells Fargo and Waste Management. He also currently serves as president and CEO of GBS Building Supply, a regional lumber and building supply company.

But his love for luxury watches is deep.

Barreto says at one time he owned several dozen watches; now he has narrowed his collection down to half as many. He purchased his first “real” timepiece, a limited-release Longines Tank wristwatch, not long after being promoted to executive vice president of Iron Mountain Records Management in the 1990s.

“It was the first time I had spent that kind of money on a watch, but it definitely wasn’t the last,” he says.

In 2004, Barreto relocated from Washington, D.C., to Greenville to start his “retirement job” as managing partner of The Norman Resource Group. He also started tinkering with automobiles as a “hobby.”

When he ran out of garage space in 2012, Barreto turned to another mechanical pursuit: building his own wristwatch. Soon after, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, an incurable neurodegenerative disorder that primarily affects the motor system. It usually starts with a tremor in one limb and gradually spreads throughout the rest of the body. For Barreto, the tremor began in his hands.

“I was extremely frustrated after the diagnosis, because my hands were no longer strong enough or steady enough to build a watch,” he says. “I figured the next best thing for me to do was to start my own watch company.”

Photo by Will Crooks.

But the transition from watch collector to company owner wasn’t an easy one.

“I spent a year or two just learning about the materials. I even attended some glass-blowing classes to learn about the different types of glasses and sapphires,” Barreto says. “But I still think one of the biggest challenges was finding someone in Switzerland who could actually manufacture the watches for me.”

Barreto eventually selected a custom builder in Geneva, but he still needed a design, so he teamed up with Sandy Bowers, a Greenville-based brand consultant and graphic designer.

“The entire process took us about a year, but we actually got the first designs on paper in just two hours,” Barreto says. “I usually have a good idea of what I want. It’s just a matter of verbalizing it and getting it to Sandy. We work well together.”

The Eterno, which means “eternity” in Italian, was his inaugural design and is an automatic mechanical timepiece housed in a 40-millimeter case crafted out of 316L stainless steel with a scratchproof sapphire bezel. The watch, which costs $585, also features visible movement, a leather strap, a double butterfly buckle, and water resistance to a depth of about 130 feet. It is limited to 500 pieces.

The Pilota, which means “pilot or race driver” in Italian, is matte black throughout and encased in a 40-millimeter case that’s crafted out of 316L stainless steel. The watch, which costs $195, also features a quartz movement, K-1 glass crystal, a double butterfly buckle, and water resistance to a depth of about 130 feet.

Vaglio watches are defined both by the high-quality materials used to build them and classical design, Barreto says. “These watches are the product of our passion for things mechanical, years of curiosity, and a desire to build an enduring legacy.”

Famiglia Vaglio, a Greenville-based startup, recently introduced its inaugural line of luxury men’s watches: The Eterno (left) and The Pilota (right). Photo by Will Crooks.

Barreto expects $500,000 in sales this year, but it won’t all be going back into his pocket. Famiglia Vaglio donates a portion of each transaction to charitable organizations such as the American Cancer Society and the Parkinson’s Foundation. That also includes the Greenville Area Parkinson Society, a nonprofit that offers support, education, and advocacy to Greenville County residents battling the condition.

“Our goal is to not only raise money for charities but also raise awareness about Parkinson’s disease,” says Barreto, a GAPS board member. “I don’t think the public is fully aware of the impact it has on people. It doesn’t just cause tremors.”

As the disease advances, it can cause patients to experience constipation, sleep disorders, and cognitive impairment, among other symptoms, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. An estimated 1.5 million Americans are affected with Parkinson’s disease.

The Challenge: Financing a small manufacturing operation

Barreto, like many small manufacturers, could face some fundraising challenges further down the road, especially considering his decision to manufacture watches in Switzerland.

For more than 300 years, watchmaking has been one of Switzerland’s most identifiable industries. Recent studies from St. Gallen and Zurich universities show that consumers are willing to pay up to 20 percent more for “Swiss-made” watches.

But the country’s watchmaking industry has struggled over the years.

In the 1970s, Switzerland’s watchmakers were almost put out of business when they refused to manufacture battery-powered quartz watches, which are much cheaper and far more reliable than most mechanical watches.

While Japan and Hong Kong dominated the quartz watch market, many watch companies in Switzerland closed by the end of the 1970s. The number of workers in the industry plummeted from nearly 90,000 in 1970 to 47,000 by 1980, according to the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry, a manufacturers group.

The Pilota. Photo by Will Crooks.

In 1983, Swiss ASUAG decided to produce its own inexpensive line of quartz watches – Swatch. In less than two years, more than 2.5 million Swatches were sold. But quartz wasn’t embraced by all Swiss watchmakers.

Many companies, including Rolex and Patek Philippe, decided to market their expensive mechanical watches as luxury items steeped in tradition and Old-World charm, not as devices for keeping time. Sales rebounded over the years; exports have more than doubled since 2000, rising even in the years after the economic recession.

A recent report released by the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry shows that exports to the United States totaled 1,689,000 Swiss francs ($1,702,000) from January to October, down from $1,784,000 million in 2016. The U.S., however, was named the second-biggest export market in the first 10 months of the year.

Globally, the figures showed that Swiss watch exports rose at the fastest monthly pace in more than four years in October. Shipments increased 9.3 percent to 1.85 billion francs ($1.87 billion) in October, the sixth consecutive monthly increase.

Though the Swiss watch industry has recovered, it is facing a growing threat from smartwatches. Consulting firm Strategy Analytics Inc. reports that global smartwatch shipments reached 8.1 million units in Q4 2015, compared with 7.9 million Swiss watch shipments. It is the first time that smartwatches have out-shipped Swiss watches on a global basis.

But as with quartz four decades ago, many Swiss watch companies have been slow to respond to the recent industry shift. Only 25 percent of watch executives actually consider smartwatches a competitive threat, according to a 2015 survey published by Deloitte, a New York-based accounting giant and professional services firm.

The Eterno. Photo by Will Crooks.

Barreto says it’s misleading to compare Swiss watches to smartwatches, because they’re entirely different products. While smartwatches are meant to act as extensions of smartphones, Swiss watches are driven by fashion and a sense of tradition.

“A high-quality piece owned for a long time tends to build memories of who bought it for the wearer, where it’s been worn, and the things experienced while wearing it,” Barreto says. “I wear my grandfather’s watch for good luck, a watch my daughter purchased for me when I miss her, a watch from my wife on special occasions, and a watch I bought with my son when I need a laugh. There’s something special about wearing a quality timepiece.”

As for the future, Barreto plans to retire from GBS Building Supply this spring to focus on Asterisk Land Partners, a real estate development company that he launched four years ago with his son, Bobby.

He’s also already designing a new collector watch for Famiglia Vaglio’s 2018 line.  “My motivation is pure. I want to set an example for my family and my fellow diagnosed friends to keep moving forward and never give up in the face of adversity,” he says. “Quitting is not an option. Everyone has more to offer.”

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