By  on October 20, 2008

In a time when consumers look to brands to help define themselves, sometimes an  “It” bag is not enough. Enter the latest category to attain the status stamp of approval from luxury firms — watches. Designer brands are entering the category in great numbers. Salvatore Ferragamo launched a collection with Timex Group in 2007, while Valentino, which was formerly under contract with Sector, launched a watch collection in April, also with Timex. In 2006, Versace launched a collection with Vertime, Timex Group’s luxury division. Brands such as Armani, Burberry and Michael Kors, which are all produced by Fossil, and Roberto Cavalli, which signed with Sector Group, are constantly reinvigorating their lines with new styles and trends.

“Today, every designer should be in the market with everything that can make a person feel more fancy, more special,” says designer Roberto Cavalli, who launched Roberto Cavalli The Diamond Time collection in April, with prices that run from $3,200 to $6,000. “I believe that people like to have a special watch, not the usual watch. Today, it has to be a designer watch.”

Brands such as Dior and Chanel, which have been amping up their watch divisions in the past several years, are seeing sales escalate.

“Dior has been making watches for 33 years, so it has been in the DNA of the brand for a while, but it is definitely picking up now,” says Stephane Barraque, president of Dior Watches. “We really took off when John Galliano designed the Christal watch — that was a breakout for us, and ever since that time, we’re really growing the category and understand the necessity to make the watch business a real and separate entity.”

Barraque acknowledges that, for a company like Dior, watches are an avenue for the firm’s three core designers — Galliano, Victoire de Castellane and Kris Van Assche — to express the aesthetic of the firm in a different way. And the category gives both men and women the opportunity to wear the Dior name.

“Bags are only good for women, and jewelry and clothing is limited,” says Barraque. “But with watches, everybody is inclined to buy them. Watches are products that are recognizable. Someone may look at you and isn’t going to recognize what you’re wearing, except for maybe a bag. But you’re not going to say, ‘It’s a Dior jacket.’ When you look at a watch, you know what it is. It’s an important element of recognition and status.”

Dior recently launched a tourbillon watch, which, like Chanel, places the firm into the realm of haute horology. The tourbillons, which retail at $500,000, are all painstakingly handcrafted by artisans in Switzerland.

Hans-Kristian Hoejsgaard, president and chief executive officer of the $700 million Timex Group, sees the designer market as a huge opportunity for the firm. Since his arrival from high jewelry firm Georg Jensen last year, he has built upon the firm’s existing luxury offerings and raised its international profile. In addition to acquiring the licenses for Valentino and Ferragamo watches, Timex is eyeing more potential licensees to solidify its portfolio. It is building up its Vertime luxury group, which houses Versace watches, and acquired Vincent Bérard, whose watches start at $75,000 at retail, in 2006.

“The whole notion of watches has been taken way beyond timekeeping,” says Hoejsgaard. “It is a real fashion category, an accessory that happens to show time. When you define it from that perspective, it makes sense that fashion brands would move into watches and jewelry. In its own right, the watch sector has had a great run for the last seven or eight years.”

According to Hoejsgaard, Timex Group’s luxury watches encompass 7 percent of the firm’s total business and is building toward the 15 percent mark over the next two years.

Chanel’s first watch, dubbed Premiere, made its debut in 1987. Over time, Chanel timekeeping has evolved into a collection of highly stylized and expertly crafted watches that do a huge business for the storied house. The J12 model, introduced in 2000, is a top seller at Bergdorf Goodman in New York. In 2005, Chanel introduced the J12 tourbillon, which put the firm into the world of true fine jewelry watches. But the firm doesn’t see its foray into the category as an extension of its brand, but more as an homage to the brand’s core.

“The first watch for us, which launched in 1987, is still there,” says Nicolas Beau, director of watches at Chanel. “We are modernizing the line this year at 21 years old. Later we are launching another version of the Premiere watch and the J12, which, born in 2000, will soon be 10 years old. We are confident we’ll be celebrating its 10th, 20th and 30th birthday. We are not into launching watches every season, and our history proves it.”

Michael Kors has seen a huge success with his oversize watches, produced in partnership with Fossil. While retailing at between $110 and $350, the pieces are more for a whimsical fashion statement than expert timekeeping, but they are nonetheless one of Kors’ best-selling accessories.

“A lot of Michael’s success is attributed to the brand,” says Jennifer Fink, brand manager for Michael Kors watches. “But buying a watch makes people feel good. Michael’s philosophy is that people should have a wardrobe of watches.”

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