By  on March 19, 2007

The Swiss watchmaking community is closely guarded and bonded by the steadfast tradition of making timepieces.

Although Geneva-based brands such as Patek Philippe, Vacheron Constantin and Rolex follow in the centuries-old way of work, in the past decade or so, fashion brands have injected the fine watch market with a dose of what they do best — color, design and, well, fashion.

Chanel has had success with its ceramic J12 collection of timepieces. Hermès, which has been creating watches since 1928, has a classic with the Cape Cod Double Tour. And Marc Jacobs, who launched watches last year, has had success with styles such as a diamond-studded, vintage-inspired watch on a grosgrain strap. Gucci's Frida Giannini also has been taken by the category, and is to introduce a collection of

18-karat gold watches.

Even Ralph Lauren has gotten in on the act. Last month, Polo Ralph Lauren and Compagnie Financière Richemont joined to create the Polo Ralph Lauren Watch and Jewellery Co., which will design, create and distribute luxury watches and fine jewelry under the Polo and Ralph Lauren brands.

Powerhouse Louis Vuitton is celebrating five years in the fine timepiece business and threw a fete in its honor on Thursday at the its Fifth Avenue flagship. In 2002, the firm opened a factory in Switzerland and launched watches with multiple complications and jeweled details.

Vuitton's watches are serious timepieces, said Daniel Lalonde, president of Louis Vuitton North America, who is a timepiece aficionado, coming from the company's watch and jewelry division where, among other things, he helped bolster Tag Heuer's North American business. Lalonde took on his current role in January.

"[In the beginning,] we were after consumers who knew the brand and people who are interested in watches and attracting new consumers, as well," he said. "We're very serious about watchmaking."

Lalonde said the firm's U.S. watch business is an important and fast-growing category.

"We see a lot of potential," he said. "It's a relatively new and emerging category for us."

Lalonde indicated that, although the firm's early watches were targeted toward a male consumer, there is room to grow the women's business, namely with diamond-decorated watches.Now the company is launching its first complete 18-karat gold ladies' collection, with the Tambour 18. There are six styles that are named after sweets, such as toffee apple and marshmallow. Each has the Vuitton signature monogram flower on the dial decorated whimsically with diamonds. One notable style is the limited edition Tambour 18 Fizz that incorporates a profusion of diamonds — 6.45 carats — in a night-sky theme at $130,000. Other watches from the collection start at $15,000.

Vuitton hasn't neglected its focus on complications. The new Tambour XL LV Cup Regatta Automatic Chronograph Black has a 10-minute countdown flyback function on a sporty dial.

The watches are sold only in one-third of the firm's 115 U.S. boutiques and there are no plans for wholesale distribution.

"We're probably one of the most selective watches in North America," said Lalonde, who intends to keep it that way. "Part of our DNA is that when we get involved in a new category, [we try to] own our distribution in everything we do."

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