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Should Watches Follow Fashion?

Is it wise for high-end watch brands to follow in fashion’s footsteps?

Technical objects they may be, but watches are increasingly crossing into fashion territory, with seasonal collections.
Swatch pioneered this in the 1980s with its cheap and cheerful watches in a multitude of colours, with new designs each season. The same has been happening with high-end timepieces for a while now, and it shows no sign of abating.

In the sleepy days of the ’80s and ’90s, when the luxury watch business was a modest and discreet affair, timepiece models had lifespans of decades. But by the time the watch business had reached its peak in the last two or three years, new models were being introduced yearly or even quarterly.
Mind you, these were not new timepieces from the ground up, but just existing designs in ever more snazzy colours and materials.

Unlike fashion houses that introduce new styles according to seasons, watch companies often tie their products to a major event, personality or location. For example, in the lead-up to the 2014 World Cup, more than a handful of brands introduced watches in green and yellow, the colours of the Brazilian flag.

Audemars Piguet has created editions of its Royal Oak Offshore for nearly every boutique it has in the world, while Richard Mille is well-versed at creating small runs for particular customer segments.

Even Patek Philippe, the epitome of a traditional, family-owned haute horlogerie house, now offers its perpetual calendar in brown or blue, when for decades the only options were silver and, once in a while, black.

In the years before 2014, there were more rich people buying more pricey watches than ever before. This unprecedented demand for luxury timepieces fuelled the rise of a rapid succession of newer and better models.

But for companies that sell precious objects based on the premise of their timelessness – fine wristwatches are potential heirlooms, after all – is catering to such fads wise? The answer is no, if the ripple effects of the current lull are any indication.

Since last year, many key markets in Asia have been reporting slumping demand for luxury watches. Audemars Piguet has already shrewdly dialled back on its Offshore limited editions, with its peers taking similar steps.

The irony is that fashion houses are now going all-out in fine watchmaking. Chanel, Hermes and Louis Vuitton have all invested heavily in building production capacity to create respectable timepieces.

It is easy to make light of watches from brands better known for scarves and bags, but significant efforts and sums of money are being put into acquiring the ability to make technically virtuoso timepieces.

Louis Vuitton has sunk tens of millions of Swiss francs in a new factory in Geneva that will open soon, qualifying it for the Geneva Seal hallmark of quality. More importantly, it has the necessary talent, having acquired independent movement specialist La Fabrique du Temps, run by a talented duo well-regarded by collectors and the industry.

Similarly, Hermes has taken stakes or outright ownership in several companies producing watch components – from movements to dials. Chanel got there a lot earlier, having acquired case and bracelet manufacturer G&F Chatelain nearly 20 years ago.

Today, Chanel and the Swatch Group are the only companies in Switzerland able to make ceramic watch cases. G&F Chatelain even supplies watch cases for the mini-spaceship-like timepieces of independent watchmaker MB&F.

The next step is to cross the deep divide between fans of a particular fashion brand and watch collectors. The woman who owns a dozen Birkins will buy anything by her favourite label, regardless of price or function.

Persuading such a consumer to buy a watch by her top brand is easy. The challenge for the fashion brands is to gain legitimacy in the eyes of watch collectors. That is a long way off, but it will happen. Eventually.