By  on April 9, 2007

MILAN — Frida Giannini keeps to her fast-paced schedule with the object that takes the longest for her to design and produce.

"It takes up to two years to design a watch," said Giannini, Gucci's creative director. "It's a drawn-out process and quite different from designing a shoe. In terms of trends, when you work so much in advance, you have to second-guess and dare."

She would know. Giannini has infused a luxe-driven fashion angle into the watches and increased coordination with other categories since the watch business was integrated into the Gucci brand in June 2006. Before then, it was under the Gucci Group Watches umbrella, a multibrand organization that managed the category for Gucci and other divisions in the group.

The goal is to turn the Gucci watches into a key category for growth.

"The idea was to empower Frida so that she could channel her inventive [talent] into the watches, as she did with all the other product categories she's responsible for," Gucci chief executive officer Mark Lee said in an interview.

Gucci will unveil a new style called Signoria at the Baselworld watch fair that begins Thursday in Basel, Switzerland. Named after the historic Florentine piazza to evoke tradition and aristocracy, Signoria features a quartz movement and a round case wrapped by a bit-adorned wristband.

It's available in steel or yellow gold with the option of diamond sprinklings; the face can be in malachite, tigereye or hawk's eye.

Retail prices range from 950 euros, or $1,195 at current exchange, for the steel version, to 11,500 euros, or $15,000, for the diamond one.

On the fall runway, Giannini used a burnished gold version to complete her Lee Miller-inspired clothes that melded a Forties feeling and modern accoutrements. There is the possibility this model will be sold as a limited edition.

Lee is plotting a growth strategy for the brand's watches that includes the revision of distribution, positioning and price points, as well as whittling down the current 250 styles, especially the silver ones, and boosting underperforming geographical markets.

In the wake of the double-digit growth registered in all Gucci product categories, Lee is keen on spotlighting the watches."We want to position the watches on the high-end level of the sector," he said. "Right now, the business is very small, but it has huge potential."

Neither current sales figures for watches nor projections were available.

Giannini's first solo effort was Twirl, which had the double-G logo pierced on a stainless steel or yellow gold bangle bracelet. The style, which bowed for spring 2006, gets its name from its rotating case; there is also a diamond-adorned version.

Pantheon, a men's chrono­graph that was launched in January, is Gucci's first automatic watch.

The three styles of watches will have a dedicated ad campaign starting in the second half of 2007.

"It was a lot of work to elevate the quality of the Gucci timepieces, but it had to be done because we were often associated with Longines and Casio. Our target is very different," said Giannini, whose personal watch collection includes vintage styles by Rolex, Cartier and Jaeger-LeCoultre.

Casio isn't exactly a perfect fit for a brand that paved the way for designer timepieces in the Seventies with styles such as the Horsebit bangle bracelet that are still in production. Giannini noted that people would shell out up to $18,000 for vintage Gucci watches from the Sixties and Seventies.

"They are considered pieces of art," she said.

All the Gucci timepieces are assembled in a factory near Neuchatel, Switzerland.

"We have a solid structure with 175 people that gives us expertise and resources in all the aspects of watchmaking," Lee said. "We have a legitimacy in watches that we earned over more than three decades and we have the unique power to benefit from the Gucci lifestyle package."

On the to-do list is shedding unsatisfactory sales points that carry the watches and adding more directly operated Gucci stores.

"We're still in a transition stage and we want to clear the portfolio on the lower end to focus on the iconic styles upon which we will anchor our business," said Lee.

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