GENEVA — It’s never completely “out with the old” in the watchmaking world — not in an industry that makes a business of digging through archives. But “in with the new” felt like the mantra at the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie, or SIHH, here this year.
Gone is the myth that people won’t buy stuff for $100,000 or more over the Internet. “In” is an embrace of online marketplaces and content generation — composing hip-hop music and sending a Spitfire plane back into the skies — and generally pulling out all the stops to get closer to consumers.
As the industry dives in full-throttle, potential pitfalls were also laid bare, with the release of a new model from Audemars Piguet, the Code 1159 generating buzz for taking a beating on social media — criticism was fast and furious.
Change was afoot from the outset of the fair, with organizers revealing this would be the last time SIHH will take place in January — next year it moves to April, just before Baselworld. The logistical change allows the fairs to tap into each other’s traffic, and eliminate the need for international visitors to make two trips. Underlying the calendar shift, though, are signs of deeper transformation.
In one of the starkest examples, SIHH heavyweight Compagnie Financière Richemont, which dominates the show with a stable of brands that include Cartier, Piaget and Vacheron Constantin, has ditched its site-by-site digital strategy altogether and bought the whole of Yoox Net-a-porter. It also forged a partnership with Alibaba, which it unveiled in October.
Individual brand web sites were not growing sufficiently, and the company is leaning on its new acquisition, YNAP, to secure itself a position among actors disrupting the industry, according to sources with knowledge of the matter. The move marks a change in strategy, and Jean-Jacques Van Oosten, who was recruited to spearhead the company’s digital strategy, exited the company only a few months into the job.
The YNAP purchase came as executives thought hard about how to bring their traditional watchmaking business up-to-date in terms of customer relations and realizing they had been overtaken by fashion and soft luxury sectors. Hard luxury is coming around to online buying, these sources said.
The transaction closed in June last year and plans are being drawn up to hand over management of web brand flagships to the online operator.
Meanwhile, the partnership with Alibaba in China, where Richemont runs nearly 200 stores, will combine the luxury group’s retail experience and YNAP’s industry expertise, which includes content creation, with Alibaba’s vast trading platform and payment systems.
On a smaller scale, but also symbolizing new approaches from luxury watch companies, Parmigiani Fleurier has teamed with Ryan Leslie, a musical artist and technology entrepreneur. It also struck a deal with record label Roc Nation to distribute an EP of songs by Leslie, which includes a catchy and sentimental hip-hop number that kicks off with “Parmigiani Fleurier, that’s the wristpiece….niiice,” before launching into a song about settling down with his girlfriend.
Leslie was on hand at SIHH, taking to the fair stage to give a TED Talks-style speech about how he engages with thousands of his followers through direct text messages.
Engaging with consumers is key, stressed Patrick Pruniaux, chief executive officer of Ulysse Nardin, who came to the fair representing Girard-Perregaux as the other Kering-owned label as well.
“Everyone was talking about the arrival of the Millennials, and now they’re here,” he said. With many of them starting their discovery of a brand in the online universe, “you have to make sure the experience given by the brand is equivalent to what consumers would see in other industries like the car industry,” he added. Ulysse Nardin showed its X collection, which includes Freak and Skeleton models, made with a carbon composite made with recycled materials from the aerospace industry.
The executive was handed the reins to Girard-Perregaux just four months ago, but talk at the fair was that he’s tackled the job energetically. Mindful not to dilute the historic label’s identity, Pruniaux wants to sharpen its message.
Girard-Perregaux emphasized its titanium Laureate models widening the watch for more oomph and offering a sportier version in the form of a chronograph. Channeling its historic emphasis on the cosmos — an important theme at the fair this year — it also brought the “Bridges Cosmos” model, with day-and-night faces.
At Hermès, the cosmos theme was a touch dreamier with rotating moon discs and a delicately sketched Pegasus. The label also brought a new women’s watch, the Galop d’Hermès, designed by Ini Archibong.
Watches, along with perfume, are two of the only products distributed outside of the luxury house’s own store network, offering an entry point into the high-end label. Guillaume de Seynes, the company’s managing director, said the company has partnered with Bucherer in Switzerland for distribution of its watches.
Audemars Piguet, meanwhile, is planning to take distribution wholly into its own hands in the U.S. within the next several years, according to ceo François-Henry Bennahmias.
“In the next three years we want to be one way or another, in control of every single sell of an Audemars Piguet watch…we have to be in charge,” he said.
At Cartier, the panther held court, both literal and figurative, its face drawn out by a watch with diamonds that move when the watch is tilted. The women’s Panthère model came with a wider bracelet this year and a smaller face, in one rendition.
International marketing and communications director Arnaud Carrez spoke of the rollout of the company’s new store concept, following the recent opening of its Bond Street location in London.
“It’s…among the first boutiques to express the new style, new image of Cartier,” said Carrez.
At Piaget, last year’s fountain scene morphed into a sandy beach, as the label continued its “sunny side of life” campaign.
When it comes to digital channels, it’s also multibrand marketplaces that are of interest for watch labels, noted ceo Chabi Nouri. “It’s great to have this kind of channel not only for the convenience, but also for today, as there are multibrand stores that have a specific angle and a specific approach to fashion or hard luxury and that is quite interesting,” she said. The label took part in a jet-setter’s trip organized with Net-a-porter, spending a few days with “ambassadors and friends” of Piaget to live the “full Piaget experience,” she said.
“We try to also convey that and express that to our prospects and clients and visitors — what Piaget is about — through these types of pairings,” she added.
IWC Schaffhausen, meanwhile, is turning a different kind of flight into the experience itself, and dusted off a Spitfire plane dating back to the World War II era with plans to fly the vintage aircraft around the world. The label, which introduced the use of pilot watches to civilian use in the Nineties, brought its Spitfire model, a subcategory of the pilot’s watch, to the fair.
“We share the history of pilots [watches] with many other brands, producing watches for military organizations, but we are very strong at reinventing ourselves, not just relying on the history, but breaking in something new, something contemporary and the way we communicate,” IWC’s creative director Christian Knoop. In front of him sat the plane itself, serving as a major draw to the fair.
“We’re not only talking about history, but something which is going on right now with a great passion for engineering and design,” he said.
“We have to evolve with the industry, with the structure of the business itself, with new forms of consumption, new forms of communication, so it’s true that a fair like SIHH that was a private, professional fair for 25 years, can no longer be a private, professional fair, it has to open itself and take part in the change,” said SIHH managing director Fabienne Lupo.
In the color department, highlights included an infusion of sparkly blue aventurine and army green, which featured on Montblanc’s 1858 Geosphere, as well as Richard Mille’s candy-colored pastel models.