It's no secret that the last decade has been one of ups and downs for the luxury watch industry, thanks to financial crises, economic booms, and changing spending habits. And while a return to former highs may be impossible, the consensus is that the world's watchmakers will have to make significant changes to guarantee continued success.
One challenge is figuring out how to attract new, younger buyers. Luring a millennial to spend three months' salary on a handmade timepiece is doubtlessly tough in the age of "experiences, not-things" (not to mention the Apple Watch.)
At this year's edition of the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie
(SIHH) in Geneva, the invite-only watch trade that skews toward the higher end of the high-end watch business, the world's top luxury groups and independent watchmakers have been given the stage to prove they're up to the challenge.
One way that brands seem to be attempting to get new buyers into boutiques is offering products that offer better value at lower prices. These watches incorporate features found on more expensive models, are designed with the utmost thought, and encourage the customer to learn more about their purchase even after the sale is done.
Take, for example, Baume & Mercier, one of the more accessible brands exhibiting at SIHH. This year's flagship release is the Clifton Baumatic
, which is at first glance just a simple three-hand watch with a date display and a sort of retro 1960s style. However, the automatic movement inside has a five-day power reserve, meaning you can take it off on Friday night and when you go to strap it on before going to work on Monday it'll still be spot on.
Add to fact that the movement uses a silicon escapement (the part of the watch that ticks out the time) and carries the COSC chronometer certification for accuracy and performance, and you have something that looks a lot more like a $10,000 watch than a $2,790 watch, which is what the Clifton Baumatic will retail for when it hits stores in September.
Elsewhere at the fair, brands are offering models traditionally made of precious metals in more affordable stainless steel. This way, buyers have the option of paying for watchmaking instead of gold, and are getting a slightly more casual product in the process.
Vacheron Constantin, a Geneva watchmaker known for its often-complicated dress watches in precious metals, launched the FiftySix
, a collection of watches with more graphic styling, configurations ranging from time-and-date to a triple calendar with moon phase, and the option of a stainless-steel case in place of pink gold.
Prices start at $11,700 -- approximately half the price of most of Vacheron Constantin's entry-level timepieces. This opens the brand up to a completely different customer, creating the possibility of developing life-long fans much earlier.
But they're not the only ones taking this approach. Jaeger-LeCoultre has launched the Polaris collection
, a set of five models inspired by an important dive watch in the company's archives, which give it a tough-wearing sports watch to sit alongside the more elegant Master collection.
Likewise, Cartier launched its Drive de Cartier Extra-Flat
in stainless steel ($5,600) after only offering it in pink and white gold upon its debut last year. And, to celebrate its 150th birthday, IWC unveiled a Jubilee collection
that includes limited-edition $4,700 chronographs alongside the $249,000 tourbillon models.
The best thing about this trend though is that it probably isn't a trend at all. Thanks to the rise of blogs, forums and social media, customers are more educated and demanding than ever, and it looks like the watch world is finally taking notice.
Watchmakers must work hard to attract 21st-century consumers and to make the case for why the mechanical watch is still an object worth getting excited about. And it looks like they're up to the task.