Watchmakers Turn to Women

As growing demand from emerging markets fuels the women’s watch arena, brands are courting female customers with increasingly sophisticated offerings.

Long limited to quartz or battery-powered watches, women’s ranges are now expanding to include mechanical pieces as technical as anything available to their male counterparts.

“There’s a whole trend of women wearing some of the styles that normally a man would wear,” said Fflur Roberts, head of global luxury goods at Euromonitor International.

Watches in general are seen as an investment as opposed to maybe a bag, which is fashionable for a season, or some very trendy piece of clothing. They’re looking to buy something that holds its value,” she added.

RenA[c] Weber, analyst at Vontobel, said that although it is hard to quantify the absolute value of watches bought by women since they also purchase timepieces designed for men, women now buy an estimated 20 percent of all mechanical watches sold worldwide, versus 15 percent five years ago.

“In Europe or the U.S., there was not a lot of interest in mechanical movements from the women’s side, but now, as Asian markets, and especially China, get more important, they also have an interest in mechanical movements,” he said.

Looking ahead, Weber expects to see strong growth in timepieces embellished with diamonds. “Again, this is also driven by Asian demand,” he said. “The women’s watches will on the one hand feature more mechanical movements, and there will also be more offerings in terms of diamonds.”

It’s no accident that when Omega unveiled its Ladymatic range, its most important launch of 2010, it picked Shanghai as the location.

Omega chief executive officer Stephen Urquhart said the line, which uses Omega’s patented Co-Axial escapement technology, reflected “a growing awareness among women that there is more to a watch than its appearance.”

The Ladymatic ranges in price from $6,400 for a model with a steel case and leather strap, to $36,800 for the version with a gold bracelet and diamond bezel.

“I think this is the first time ever, and I say this in all modesty, that a brand has brought a watch to the market that states, with great substance, that a woman can buy a watch with a movement as good, durable and reliable as the best men’s watch out there,” Urquhart said.

Patek Philippe, whose grand complications take up to 18 months to deliver, is also expanding its women’s offerings. Among the novelties it presented at the Baselworld watch fair last March was a ladies’ wristwatch with minute repeater, which retails for 350,000 Swiss francs, or $381,556 at current exchange, and a ladies’ split seconds chronograph, costing 435,000 Swiss francs, or $473,393.

“The demand is there and it will not stop,” said Patek Philippe chairman Thierry Stern. “For me, it’s logical, it was not a surprise. Why should [women] always wear a quartz movement? It’s stupid to think like that. I would say it’s old-fashioned.”

Others said that while they were taking note of the phenomenon, they did not expect growing demand for mechanical watches to reshape the women’s segment.

“It’s in the infancy stages. We are getting ready, but we think there is going to be a gradual change,” said Philippe Leopold-Metzger, ceo of Piaget. “We are convinced that women will continue to be interested in the concept of jewelry watches, and in decorative pieces over performance.”

With its large selection of diamond-pavA[c]d pieces, Piaget appears ideally positioned to capture new business in Asia. It is also developing new products specifically tailored to that region, such as its upcoming Dragon & Phoenix collection of jewelry and watches celebrating the Year of the Dragon in 2012.

The Chinese market for women’s luxury timepieces is set to grow by an average of 12.1 percent a year between 2010 and 2015, according to a forecast by Euromonitor International. This compares with forecast average annual growth of just 1.1 percent in the U.S. over the same period.

Indeed, Leopold-Metzger said he was concerned about mature markets like Europe and the U.S., where Piaget is facing competition from fashion brands such as Chanel and Christian Dior, which are heavily advertising their more accessibly priced ceramic watches.

“We will probably lose a little bit of market share, but we are not planning to change our strategy. Our philosophy is based on exclusivity, and we are not going to start producing steel watches set with diamonds in order to compete in that price range,” he commented.

Competition for the female dollar is certainly heating up in slower-growth regions like North America, where the overall retail outlook remains fragile as stock market swings play havoc with consumer confidence.

Johnny Wizman, president and ceo of Luxury Montres LLC, the exclusive North American distributor for Bedat, said overall U.S. demand for watches has been softer than expected since Baselworld, with sales year-to-date broadly flat versus 2010, versus earlier forecasts of a 10 to 15 percent increase.

Nonetheless, he believes that updated versions of Bedat’s best-known designs are addressing a gap in the market, especially with bigger brands such as Chopard and Cartier streamlining their North American retail distribution. This has allowed Bedat to open up smaller markets such as Calgary, Canada, or Napa Valley, Calif.

“Most of the best-selling women’s watches out there are really in a sense men’s watches shrunk down, diamonds put on, colored straps, and those are some of the best-selling watches,” said Wizman. “We have zero focus on men’s products. There is a huge void which we are filling.”

James Seuss, ceo of U.S. multibrand watch retailer Tourneau, is among those specifically targeting female consumers this year.

“The watch world has concentrated in the past so much on men’s pieces,” Seuss said. “We’re really looking to see, whether it’s Patek Philippe or Rolex or Dior or Chopard, what are those great women’s stories and how can we communicate it and get women really involved and interested in the watch world?”

He cited Hublot, one of the sponsors of New York Fashion Week, as another brand that has introduced compelling options for women with its oversize Tutti Frutti models, which come in a rainbow of shades.

Hublot ceo Jean-Claude Biver said the line was “practically unsellable” in China, where consumers have more conservative tastes, but was flying off shelves in South America and the Middle East.

“Nobody else is doing anything like it. We’re in a sort of unique selling proposition that women like,” said Biver, who believes that women buy more timepieces than men and also influence their partner’s choice of watch. To wit: Biver relies on his wife’s advice when it comes to picking new colors for the Tutti Frutti range.