By  on April 3, 2008

A lot of Swiss manufacturers scratched their heads when women started to buy fine timepieces designed for men a few years back.

It surely had something to do with fashion, which was out of character in an industry known for egghead engineers and men passionate about their watches that, for some, was their only accessory. But as women continued to buy expensive watches with zeal, many firms began to wonder if the fairer sex might represent the next great consumer frontier.

"It's a revolution," said Stanislas de Quercize, president and chief executive officer of Van Cleef & Arpels. "Women are interested in watches like never before."

Demand for the most expensive women's watches grew fastest in the U.S. last year, according to LGI Network LLC, a market intelligence firm that specializes in tracking luxury sales. Sales of women's watches retailing above $25,000 grew 15 percent, representing 21 percent of the entire market. Sales of women's watches between $3,000 and $5,000 increased 7 percent and during the last two years, sales of women's watches over $25,000 have advanced 35 percent.

Data like this suggest that women are ditching cheaper quartz models in favor of sophisticated mechanical pieces. Although the industry has yet to accept that idea — many manufacturers think women's interest in mechanics will prove but a flash in the pan — several key players have seized the moment to introduce serious pieces with women in mind.

Patek Philippe created a perpetual calendar wristwatch for women, Zenith introduced tourbillons — one of horology's most sophisticated movements — and Tag Heuer has reported strong business with its chronographs for women.

"We should adapt better to women and not the other way around," said Jean-Claude Biver, ceo of Hublot, which this year is introducing a smaller sized Big Bang directed at women. "[Women] have their requirements, taste and representation of what a watch should be."

De Quercize of Van Cleef & Arpels said, "Women today want mechanical complications, but they want complications that are made for them."

Van Cleef last year introduced so-called poetic complications on wristwatches, which include the likes of a rotating sun and moon, as a way to give a feminine twist to intricate mechanics.

"The watch industry has been very macho and has mostly considered women as an afterthought," de Quercize said. "Women won't tolerate that approach anymore."

Nonetheless, many firms have built an important female clientele by merely blinging out their existing men's models with diamonds and other glitzy stones or by adding a colorful strap in an exotic skin. Corum, for example, doesn't make a single women's watch. But Severin Wunderman, the brand's owner, estimated women account for a significant amount of business.

"Our women's sales are all men's-size watches, especially the diamond pieces and the artisan enamels," he said.

This approach resonates with some retailers who think unisex designs continue to sell better than watches designed particularly for women.

"While there are fantastic, complicated women's offerings from Zenith, TAG, Patek and now Hublot, I'm still unsure if there is a great demand in this segment," said Andrew Block, executive vice president of watch retailer Tourneau. "We see the women's market this way: Women are buying large watches, which happen to be labeled 'men's' by the brands. We feel that the brands should eliminate gender when categorizing their models and refer to them by size instead. By using small, medium and large descriptions, they open up the market to both genders."

At Piaget, about 60 percent of total sales are to women.

"Women have been buying men's-size watches more and more," said ceo Philippe Léopold-Metzger. "Women in most instances are not interested in mechanical watches. They do prefer quartz if they have a choice. This is likely to change in the future, but only progressively, and primarily in Asia."

Jewelry companies have the best track records in attracting women to watches. A brand like Cartier accounts for a large chunk of the segment's overall sales.

"We are jewelers," said Bernard Fornas, ceo of Cartier International. "We make bijoux that tell time. It's an alchemy between us and our clients that works."

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