Vacheron Constantin Les Aérostiers Versailles 1783

GENEVA — The post-crisis battle lines for the luxury watch industry have been drawn.

After years of waffling — to varying degrees — high-end watchmakers have emerged as new converts, scrambling to shore up their digital credentials.

The fresh resolve to embrace the digital world was on full display at the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie, or SIHH, the industry’s first event of the year. Other efforts to win over demanding luxury buyers included an emphasis on value for money, more focused product ranges and the less-grounded pursuit of new sources of inspiration — which this year included car motors, mountains, hot air balloons and even sex, with one rather risqué watch collection creating buzz.

Vacheron Constantin Les Aérostiers Versailles 1783

Vacheron Constantin Les Aérostiers Versailles 1783  Courtesy

While showgoers brought new optimism — the industry is finally back in positive territory after the declines of 2015 and 2016 — tougher comparable figures are on the horizon. Executives said they have moved past the period of retrenchment marked by layoffs, culling stocks and redirecting strategies. Fair organizers, who increased the trade show’s space by 20 percent this year, said visitor numbers broke a record at nearly 20,000, up from 15,000 last time.

But beyond the fair’s endless flow of complementary Champagne and extravagant watch mechanism displays were signs of the fight shaping up ahead — which looks set to happen online. The growing importance of digital was further reinforced only a few days after SIHH when Compagnie Financière Richemont — whose brands dominate the watch exhibition — revealed a 12.77 billion euro bid to acquire the shares of Yoox Net-a-porter Group it does not already own.

With Internet sales projected to account for a large chunk of growth in the coming years, luxury industry players find themselves in a rush to bulk up their expertise.

“In the watch industry we’ve been very late to start,” said Ulysse Nardin’s chief executive officer Patrick Pruniaux, who attended the show for the first time as boss of the Kering-owned watchmaker.

The idea of physical stores and the digital sphere as separate entities is a distinction that no longer exists in the minds of consumers, asserted the former Apple executive. He recalled launching TAG Heuer’s online business in the U.S. a decade ago.

“It was a big failure at the beginning…but also a learning curve,” he said, describing the bygone view that launching a web site was enough to draw customers.

“We have to catch up,” Pruniaux said of the luxury industry today, noting he expects this will happen quickly given the sector’s financial power and the recent acceleration in the push online signaled by a slew of new recruits.

At the most senior level, luxury behemoths Kering and Richemont in the past months have both hired new executives to drive digital initiatives, broadening the scope of previous such positions and adding them to executive committees.

Ulysse Nardin does not have a store network and its products are not available online. While there are no plans to open stores, according to Pruniaux, the watchmaker is currently considering selling products on its own site as well as multibrand sites — another distinction he predicts as irrelevant soon, within a year or two.

For its second time exhibiting at SIHH, Ulysse Nardin sought to draw in fair crowds with a diving-themed display with artwork from Damien Hirst. The ocean-bottom pieces included a coral-covered Mickey Mouse figurine belonging to the Pinault family set amidst giant screens of tropical water scenes — reflecting the label’s nautical roots.

The brand raised eyebrows for its Classic Voyeur watch featuring two naked couples in 18-karat pink or white gold, in different positions that move. The $300,000 piece, also equipped with chimes, was celebrated at a “Hot Horlogerie” after party where a trio of models in skimpy black leotards posed with guests on a red, lip-shaped sofa.

Another new ceo to the show was Piaget’s Chabi Nouri, the first woman to head a watch and jewelry brand at Richemont. Nouri said that the idea of a digital strategy is already fully integrated into everyday considerations at the company, which launched its first e-commerce activity in the U.S. five years ago.

“It’s not a subject, it’s already part of everything we do…it’s a nice way of communicating, also a very interesting way to sell; it’s part of how we all live,” said Nouri, adjusting the Possession bangles she wore in various colored stones. The label, which aims to project an upbeat, colorful lifestyle, set up a juice bar at its stand, surrounded by a pool fed with cascading sheets of water and decorated with green, tropical plants.

“The way we propose and sell jewelry and watches will be different, that’s why today our booth is a way to express our identity but also an atmosphere — the light, the freshness, the vegetation,” said the house’s watch and jewelry marketing director Jean-Bernard Forot.

The brand introduced a new steel model of its Possession watches for women at a “welcoming” price of around $3,500 — significantly lower than the previous entry level of around $9,000 — while maintaining the bulk of the collection at higher price ranges.

Piaget decided last year to expand the role of digital director, originally established eight years ago in the communications department. The job is now filled by a former L’Oréal executive and includes activities like store experiences and even production, as well as a seat on the executive board.

“We’ve decided digital is a revolution, not for communication only, but in a more global way,” Forot added.

Part of the brand’s strategy to widen its appeal to younger crowds has included live-streaming normally closed-door high jewelry events on Instagram, starting two years ago, noted Nouri.

IWC Schaffhausen celebrated its 150th anniversary at the show, bringing 27 limited-edition models as well as a wristwatch with the original hour and minute displays from Pallweber pocket watches in the late 1880s. The label threw a party with a crowd of 800, attended by a lineup of celebrities including Cate Blanchett, Bradley Cooper, James Marsden and Andrés Velencoso. The Portofino model was its least expensive, priced at around $5,000.

Jaeger LeCoultre, another Richemont house, eagerly tapped into the value-for-money thrust paraded at SIHH this year, launching a new line of its Polaris model in celebration of the model’s 50th anniversary, starting at an entry price level in the range of $6,600. The brand started using a chat bot on Facebook a year ago and began selling on Net-a-porter and Mr Porter last November.

A more exclusive Polaris Memovox version, limited to 68 pieces, were sold on the brand’s own web site during SIHH at a faster rate than the house had expected, especially in the U.S., according to deputy ceo Geoffroy Lefebvre.

The brand is tailoring messages to appeal to younger audiences through new formats such as short videos and in a broader selection of social media channels.

“We’re increasingly using media such as Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, etc., but still carrying the same message consistently across the board,” said Lefebvre. A new app shows people what various editions of the new watch look like on their wrists and is expected to drum up interest in the brand but not necessarily drive sales, he explained.

“It shows we’re not an old, dusty manufacturer. [It] drives interest and drives traffic,” he said, swiping different watch options displayed on the phone pointed at his wrist.

HyperFocal: 0Montblanc 1858 Geosphere

Montblanc 1858 Geosphere  Courtesy

Montblanc was another Richemont brand stressing accessibility. As with other watchmakers, the downturn prompted the label to simplify its proposal. Now focused on classic and sport lines, Montblanc brought its 1858 collection, meant to project a mountaineering spirit.

The 1858 Geosphere features a world time complication with two domed hemisphere globes rotating on a 24-hour schedule; red spots mark seven mountain summits — but not the Mont Blanc, which isn’t quite high enough.

Several years ago, the brand repositioned itself to include watches in the range of $2,000 to $5,000 at a time when other high-end watch makers sold pieces mostly over the $5,000 range. This made value for money a “key differentiating factor” for the brand, explained Montblanc ceo Nicolas Baretzki.

Audemars Piguet, which has an entry price for women’s watches at $12,000, is approaching one billion dollars in annual revenues and plans to launch its own e-commerce business by the end of 2018.

“We will sell on the Internet by the end of 2018, but on a small scale because we have to learn — not learn if it works or not, [rather] learn the whole logistics around it,” said ceo François-Henry Bennahmias, citing delivery, sales tax and import duties. He ruled out selling the label’s watches on multibrand sites and declined to reveal details about the team working on the project since last March, saying only that he hired two young Americans who were clients of the brand.

Van Cleef & Arpels was also preoccupied with getting logistics up to the standards of the house when it starting selling products over the Internet five years ago, noted ceo Nicolas Bos.

“We don’t really think of it as an alternative distribution channel but more as a complementary service to our retail network,” said Bos.

One of the industry’s more digitally savvy labels, Richemont’s star brand Cartier, meanwhile, continues to make inroads online. Having launched e-commerce a decade ago, starting in Japan before moving to the U.S. and the rest of the world, the brand last year used a pop-up collaboration with Net-a-porter to launch a new Panthère model.

The house continues to increase its spending in the digital sphere and is working on reinforcing data capabilities, said Cartier’s international marketing and communications director Arnaud Carrez.

Among its SIHH launches was a new stainless steel model of the historic pilot watch Santos with a price tag of $6,250, a “very competitive price,” according to Carrez, who noted that value for money is a key priority for the brand. While carefully monitoring inventory after extensive stock buybacks a year ago, the brand is in a “very healthy situation” now, he added.

While recent years have been challenging for the watch industry as a whole, Carrez noted, the silver lining was that the downturn forced brands to reconsider pricing.

“I think the good thing is that it was a wakeup call for the brands — the watch market was quite blind, closed, thinking the sky was the limit in terms of products, in terms of pricing,” he said.

On the higher end of the luxury scale, watchmakers pulled out all the stops. Vacheron Constantin, a label that is eyeing the U.S. market, showcased its Métiers d’Art collection, Les Aérostiers. A celebration of the early hot air balloon flights, the watches feature miniature scenes made from hand engraving, and a price tag of $135,000.

With Chinese accounting now for a large proportion of luxury consumption worldwide, much of the talk at the fair centered around how to appeal to discerning consumers from the country. Many executives made the point of explaining that they did not seek to make specific products for the Chinese market.

“We’ve seen in 2017 Chinese customers traveling more and confirming the interest for luxury goods,” said Hermès managing director Guillaume de Seynes. The house was happy with its choice to join the SIHH lineup after its first experience with the show, he added.

“We have always been very careful in not producing a collection especially for Chinese customers,” said Flavien Gigandet, an executive committee member of independent watchmaker Parmigiani Fleurier. The brand, which is not ready to sell its high-end timepieces online, tries to keep a balance of revenue from different regions.

“We had Chinese buying internally rather than traveling, and today we see that it’s continuing to grow in China but also that tourists are restarting to buy in a significant manner elsewhere,” noted Jean-Marc Pontroué, ceo of Roger Dubuis. The brand sells to “youngsters over 40” he explained, noting a certain level of buying power is necessary in order to be able to buy watches it sells for more than $200,000. Roger Dubuis recently teamed up with Lamborghini, inspiration for the Lamborghini Squadra Corse model, which features rubber straps made from the tires of a winning Formula 1 car and internal mechanics meant to emulate  parts of the sports car’s motor.

The brand aims to appeal to a new generation of clients who are often entrepreneurs, including from Silicon Valley, by showing people “a world that their father and grandfathers didn’t know,” said Pontroué.

“This is key,” he added.

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