PARIS — Despite a sluggish luxury watch sector, the Louis Vuitton timepiece department has encountered a problem familiar to its leather goods area: demand outstripping supply.

One year after the launch of its signature Tambour, the firm reports waiting lists of more than 3,000 in Japan and 1,000 plus in Europe for the chunky style, inspired by early drum-shaped timepieces.

“Yes, we have more than 310 doors, but we can only sell in 80 of them because we can’t produce more without sacrificing quality,” Albert Bensoussan, director of the watch division at Vuitton, said in an exclusive interview. “The fact that people are agreeing to wait a few months for a watch from us is a very good sign.”

He said the average retail price of Vuitton watches, which range from about $1,450 to $9,500 for exceptional pieces, have already catapulted it into the top 20 of luxury watch brands. It is believed Vuitton sold more than 6,000 units in 2002 and is on track to sell about six times that amount this year.

To be sure, Vuitton went against the grain last year when it introduced a single, decidedly masculine style with a chocolate brown face — a notoriously difficult color to sell. But Vuitton had a hunch the steel watch would appeal to men and women, which is borne out in sales trends. Bensoussan said buyers are split evenly between the sexes. “One watch out of two we sell is in a man’s size, and of those, about 10 percent are worn by ladies,” he added.

Bensoussan said Vuitton plans to keep the line tightly focused. In November, it’s introducing a handful of slight variations on the Tambour, including one with a sand-colored dial and chronographs with dual time zone and alarm features. Another style, part of the famous accessories collaboration between Vuitton creative director Marc Jacobs and Japanese artist Takashi Murakami, boasts a bejeweled face and a multicolor monogram strap. Also in development for 2004 are styles with metal bracelets and ones targeted to the yachting crowd.

Bensoussan noted Vuitton plans to expand its distribution of the watch up to about 120 doors in 2004, but keep it exclusive to its network.With 20 years experience in the Swiss watch industry, Bensoussan blamed “inner complacency” and a lemming mentality among makers for the sector’s current malaise. He said manufacturers tend to rush to the same shapes, designs and technical features all at once, leading to sameness and customer ennui. “As brands, we have to fight against this,” he said.

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