PARIS — When Thierry Nataf, the chief executive, president and creative director of Zenith, unveiled his first haute couture watch for women at last year’s Baselworld Watch & Jewellery show in Basel, Switzerland, he was onto something.
Traditionally, Swiss manufacturers have considered women to be uninterested in complicated mechanical creations, instead targeting them with timepieces featuring a high-fashion quotient and simpler quartz movements. But Nataf’s instinct told him differently.
“It’s fantastic to have outside beauty,” he explained. “But the inside is equally important.”
Playing on that idea, Nataf introduced what he billed as the first tourbillon for women, tricked out with 230 diamonds and retailing for $250,000. A tourbillon, a mechanical innovation of the 18th century that compensates for the effect of gravity on time, is considered high horology’s most sophisticated movement, reserved for avid collectors.
All 25 that Zenith made sold.
Nataf’s gambit underscored a wider trend among Swiss manufacturers, which recently have begun offering more complicated watches for women as an avenue for growth.
Though most retailers express doubts that highly complicated women’s pieces will ever grow beyond a niche, it’s certain that women are exhibiting more interest in horology.
“It’s a major trend,” said Nataf. “Women like mechanical watches. Chronographs, for example, have been particularly popular. Women are spending more on watches generally.”
Nataf said the average ticket for a women’s watch at Zenith has doubled to about $6,000 in the last few years.
Though the women’s business constitutes only 30 percent of Zenith’s current total sales, Nataf wants revenue from men’s and women’s to be split equally in the long term.
As he prepared for this week’s Basel event, where a large amount of orders are written and trends are set, Nataf predicted the strong momentum in high-end timepieces of recent years will continue. Zenith already has held pre-Basel sales for many of its top retailers. Nataf reported positive reaction in China and Japan, as well as in America. He said sales in Europe had improved. The Federation of Swiss Watch Industry last week reported that overall exports of Swiss watches in February increased 9.5 percent, with the average of the last 12 months remaining over 10 percent.
“Judging from [our experiences], I now know that this will be an excellent year for us,” Nataf said.
Not only does Nataf run Zenith’s daily business dealings, he doubles as its creative director, providing ideas to a team of engineers and technicians, who then translate them into products.
Nataf brought no experience of watch design to Zenith when he joined in 2001 after its purchase by LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton. Previously he worked at the luggage company Delsey, where he was vice president and also designed bags.
His lack of design experience in watches, a trade saddled with centuries of tradition, may be his trump card.
When LVMH purchased the venerable 141-year-old house, it was a sleeping beauty, largely manufacturing movements for other houses like Vuitton. Today Zenith is back to concentrating on its own brand and sales have grown in the “double digits” over the last years, said Nataf.
“When I arrived we drew up a 10-year plan,” he said. “We made it in 2005, five years ahead of schedule. And we continue to build momentum.”