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A Late Kick Cheers Watchmakers

New York Times, January 21, 2013

NEW YORK — For Wempe, the upmarket German watch and jewelry retailer, the holiday season was better late than never at its Fifth Avenue store here. Five days before Christmas, the place swarmed with shoppers: a preppy blond couple sipped Champagne and ogled a display of IWC timepieces; a comely brunette in trendy orange Converse sneakers picked up a box marked Jaeger-LeCoultre; a sporty-looking man hefted a Breitling on his wrist.

“The rush was late, but it was very good,” Ruediger Albers, president of American Wempe, said by telephone early this month. “We’re up, in terms of everything.”

Across the United States, store owners reported mostly lackluster holiday sales. Among high-end watch retailers, however, business was looking up. “We had a record December,” said Greg Simonian, president of Westime in Los Angeles.

Year-end figures for Swiss watch exports will be finalized only at the end of January, but “we can already say that 2012 will be a new record year,” said Jean-Daniel Pasche, president of the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry. “We are going to overrun the amount of 20 billion Swiss francs,” or $22 billion.

That bodes well for the brands descending on Geneva this week for the 23rd annual Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie, a buying fair for 16 prestige watchmakers, most of them owned by Financière Richemont, the luxury industry holding company.

The gathering, paralleled by the fourth Geneva Time Exhibition and a string of satellite events organized by independent brands, sets the tone for the year’s major watch introductions.

“Last year, we had the 40th anniversary of the Royal Oak and everybody knew that would be the big news going into the fair,” said Benjamin Clymer, founder of Hodinkee.com, a popular watch blog, referring to Audemars Piguet’s iconic sports watch.

“This year, there’s no real big story,” Mr. Clymer said. Still, he added, he was looking forward to seeing Cartier’s newest timepieces, chief among them a series of mystery watches that drew on the house’s revered mystery clocks, so-called because their hands move without any visible operating mechanism.

“We began in 1912 with Mystery Clock A,” said Hélène Poulit-Duquesne, director of international marketing at Cartier. “The most impressive thing we’re doing now is that we have a mysterious tourbillon.”

French for “whirlwind,” the tourbillon, in which the escapement and balance wheel of the watch are set inside a rotating cage, improves accuracy by counteracting the effects of gravity on the gears of a mechanical timepiece.

“It’s really a dream — the cage is moving, but you don’t know how,” Ms. Poulit-Duquesne said.

Cartier’s new Les Fabuleuses Heures, or Fabulous Hours, high jewelry collection is equally fantastical. Comprising 32 gem-encrusted models retailing from €200,000 to €1 million, or $264,300 to $1.3 million, it includes a watch that also does duty as a brooch and tiara.

But the company’s real talking point this year is the latest Calibre de Cartier, powered by a new in-house chronograph movement, the calibre 1904-CH MC. Priced at €7,600, excluding tax, for a steel version on a leather strap to €36,000 for a full 18-karat gold model, the sporty timepiece represents “the first time we have a watch really dedicated to men,” Ms. Poulit-Duquesne said. “We don’t have any feminine versions.”

To executives at houses like Rolex, Omega and Breitling, with established positions to defend at the top of the men’s watch market, those should sound like fighting words.

Cartier has “the branding, the name, the legacy — and now they have a truly superbly designed column-wheel chronograph,” Mr. Clymer said. “It’s going to be a force, no question about it.”

Cartier isn’t the only watchmaker betting on masculine timepieces for everyday wear. Baume & Mercier is another. Its new Clifton collection, priced from $2,700 to $6,300, “will strengthen our classic round men’s watch offering,” said its chief executive, Alain Zimmerman.