Wednesday, January 7, 2009
Gedalo Grinberg Orgullo de Quivican
Obituary: Gedalio Grinberg; Cuban immigrant built fortune through savvy marketing of wristwatches
By Douglas Martin
NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE
2:00 a.m. January 11, 2009
Gedalio Grinberg, who at 15 sold his first clock in his native Cuba for $18, then went on to amass a fortune in the United States by helping turn expensive wristwatches like Piaget into widely advertised portable status symbols with mass appeal, died last Sunday in Manhattan. He was 77.
Heather Cohen, a spokeswoman for the Movado Group, from which Mr. Grinberg last year retired as chairman, said he had died of natural causes.
In the early 1960s, Mr. Grinberg started advertising in upscale magazines that the Piaget watches he then distributed were “the most expensive watch in the world.” Though watches were still regarded as utilitarian necessities – and though a few other Swiss watches may have been just as costly – the seemingly perverse campaign worked brilliantly. More success followed.
Sales of Mr. Grinberg's company, which had several names over the years, grew to more than $500 million last year, from $175,000 in 1961, $5 million in 1969 and $130 million in 1993.
Mr. Grinberg said his inspiration was a book by Vance Packard, “The Status Seekers” (1959), which told how Americans strove to communicate special status amid the general abundance of postwar America. In an interview last year with Women's Wear Daily, Mr. Grinberg said he wanted people to believe that a watch on a wrist could be as impressive as a Cadillac in a driveway.
In 1988, Forbes said, “Grinberg helped make Americans conscious of their watches and made the glint of gold on a male wrist a status symbol.” The magazine said that before him, most Americans, unlike Europeans, regarded watches as a gift for high school graduation.
WatchTime, an industry magazine, said Mr. Grinberg had led “a revolution in watch marketing in America.”
He also pushed Swiss watchmakers to meet the challenge of Japanese-made quartz watches. In addition to delivering stern lectures to industry compatriots, he invested in new technology for making ultrathin quartz watches.
His company used the new methods to make the world's thinnest watch in 1980, under its Concord brand. Called the Delirium IV, it was, at 0.98 millimeters thick, the first watch thinner than 1 millimeter.
Mr. Grinberg refined his marketing pitch to reach what he called the “intellectual consumer.” This involved selling watches designed by noted artists, including Andy Warhol, and sponsoring arts programs on public television.
As a result of buying Movado in 1983, he acquired the rights to a famous modernistic watch face with a black dial, no numbers and a gold dot at 12 o'clock, designed by Nathan George Horwitt. Horwitt's prototype is in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, and other museums later added versions to their design collections. Mr. Grinberg enthusiastically marketed it as the Museum Watch, and it has sold in the millions, in dozens of versions.
Gedalio Grinberg was born in Quivican, Cuba, on Sept. 26, 1931. His father owned a jewelry shop, so he was able to secure an alarm clock when a shoemaker asked for one. That led to a little alarm clock business. As a business student at the University of Havana, he expanded it to specialize in watches.
The young Grinberg became a protégé of the Cuban distributor of Omega watches. His enthusiasm was so strong that when he married Sonia Crugliac, he took time off during their honeymoon in Mexico City to huddle with an Omega distributor known for sharp marketing.
In addition to his wife, Mr. Grinberg is survived by his sons, Efraim and Alex, both of Manhattan; his daughter, Miriam Phalen, of Manhattan; his sister, Sara Sunshine, of Queens County, N.Y.; and six grandchildren.
Mr. Grinberg said he was questioned and threatened with death by representatives of the revolutionary government of Fidel Castro, who, oddly, at the same time offered him a job in the regime. Instead, he, his wife and their two children fled to Miami on Aug. 16, 1960.
He knew no English and at first struggled in business. When two other refugees asked him to help set up a Piaget distributorship in New York, he jumped at the chance. Their entire inventory was in one suitcase.
The company, known for years as the North American Watch Co., first distributed other companies' Swiss watches. It then acquired watch companies, including Movado and Concord, to manufacture its own and later developed watches for well-known designer clothing brands such as Hugo Boss.
Mr. Grinberg's charitable giving included donating an 18-foot clock tower designed by architect Philip Johnson to Dante Park, across the street from Lincoln Center, in 1999. The sculpture has four timepieces, two on one side, and one on each of the other two. The Movado name is written in small letters on each clock face.