Nicole Kidman and Stephen Urquhart, president of Omega, at the "Omega Her Time" exhibition in Milan. The brand, realizing the popularity of fashion watches, has been trying to increase its sales appeal to women.

Nicole Kidman and Stephen Urquhart, president of Omega, at the "Omega Her Time" exhibition in Milan. The brand, realizing the popularity of fashion watches, has been trying to increase its sales appeal to women.

Chasing the Female Watch Buyers Who Got Away

New York Times, Nov. 12, 2015

Timepieces, like shoes and toys, are marketed mainly by gender. And in the high-end watch business, one thing has always been very clear: It’s a man’s world.

Consider the sheer number of models made for men versus those for women; the industry’s male-dominated executive ranks; and the masculine tenor of its history, which is devoted to macho idols from the English watchmaker George Daniels to the Rolex icon Paul Newman.

And today, as the Salon QP event opens in London with its exhibitors undoubtedly concerned about finding growth in a tough global environment — particularly in light of the economic slump in China, the industry’s biggest market — fine watchmakers are realizing that their approach to women isn’t helping the bottom line.

“Over the last three to five years, the female fine watch category has experienced a real slowdown,” said Fred Levin, president of NPD Luxury Practice, a company that tracks high-end watch sales in the United States.

For the 12 months that ended in July, women’s watch sales in America declined across all price categories compared with the prior year, but they fell most dramatically in the $25,000-plus range, which suffered a 14 percent drop, according to NPD.

“The men’s category, on the flip side, has continued to perform really well,” Mr. Levin said.

In Europe, sales of fine watches are not often broken down by gender, but the German market research company GfK noted that in Britain for the 12 months that ended in September, men’s watches selling for more than 1,000 pounds, or $1,500, had increased by 16.1 percent year over year while women’s sales had increased only 4.3 percent.

“This then would indicate that gents’ watches are becoming more focused on and are driving more sales than ever compared to ladies watches in this price category,” said Jonathan Hedges, account director with GfK POS Tracking in Germany.

In the United States, Mr. Levin attributed the decrease in women’s fine watch sales primarily to a trading-down phenomenon in which affordable fashion watches — epitomized by the runaway success of Michael Kors’ licensed watch brand — have captured market share. And even though most Swiss watchmakers do not consider such brands competitors, the success of fashion watches has not gone unnoticed.

“It’s really opened our eyes,” said Stephen Urquhart, president of Omega. “Fashion brands come in with a great name, great design and a completely different price segment and appeal to a market that could be ours.”

In September, Omega, part of the Swatch Group, made a calculated pitch to court fashion-forward female buyers with the “Her Time” initiative, a traveling exhibition of women’s timepieces, from the early Lépine pendant watches of the Belle Époque to the brand’s 5-year-old Ladymatic collection. It kicked off the campaign with a gala dinner at the design and art museum La Triennale di Milano, headlined by the longtime Omega ambassador Nicole Kidman.

A companion “Time for Her” website, available in 12 languages, is loaded with stories, illustrations, profiles and vintage advertisements that echo the exhibition’s themes.

Omega isn’t the only brand showing its feminine side. The independent watchmaker Urwerk introduced its first watch for women, the UR-106 Lotus, in September and will be displaying it at Salon QP. To draw attention to the timepiece, the co-founders Martin Frei and Felix Baumgartner created a series of online portraits of women who have made a difference to the Urwek business, beginning with Christina Kreyenbühl, known as “Ninin,” a family friend of Baumgartner’s who in 1995 became Urwerk’s first customer.

At last month’s Watches & Wonders fair in Hong Kong, Vacheron Constantin touted its new Heures Créatives collection of mechanical womens’ pieces. (According to a news release, the firm “has indeed been honoring women since 1810, when its first ladies’ watch was produced: a quarter-repeating pocket watch, directly ordered by a woman!”)

Also in Hong Kong, Piaget unveiled the Stella Limelight, an astronomical moonphase model that is the brand’s first complication designed specifically for women.

“We’re on time for catching a need which is there,” said Thomas Bouillonnec, president of Piaget North America. “Some women prefer quartz, some prefer automatic — at least now they’ll have a choice.”

Even IWC Schaffhausen, long associated with the slogan “Engineered for men,” relaxed its push into strictly masculine territory last fall with the introduction of the Portofino Midsize collection, since renamed Portofino 37, a reference to the millimeter size of the models, which are intended for smaller wrists.

As wearable devices start to gain traction, the high-end watch industry’s focus on the womens’ segment may become even more critical. A Goldman Sachs survey on the Apple Watch, published in April, found that 10 percent of female iPhone users were “very likely” to purchase the watch, compared with 13 percent of men.

“The Apple Watch is one answer to demand that is out there and not being answered by traditional brands,” said Fabrice Paget, a former Cartier executive and founder of the London-based Luxury Brand Agency. He said that now is a good time for brands that haven’t prioritized the women’s business to start changing their attitudes. “Will they be able to cross the Rubicon and see this opportunity?” he said.

The watch trade wasn’t always so one-sided. Beginning in the 17th century, women of means, including Catherine the Great and Marie Antoinette, bought elaborate timekeepers with the same gusto as their male counterparts.

“Access to watches was not based on gender, it was based on economics,” said Michael Friedman, a historian with the Swiss watch brand Audemars Piguet.

Yet there’s no denying that over the course of the 20th century, fine watchmakers lost their way with women. When the Swiss mechanical industry succumbed to the Japanese quartz crisis of the 1970s, women’s watches, once proud examples of mechanical miniaturization, were among the lasting casualties. During the fine watchmaking renaissance of the past two decades, the category has slowly come back to life, yet many see a lingering sexism.

“The Swiss brands are still chauvinistic about their approach to luxury,” Mr. Paget said. “Most of them still think women are only interested in things that are pink and sparkly, and therefore selling complicated watches to women is seen almost as a sin because women are not supposed to be interested in those things.”

There is another factor in the watch trade’s reluctance to market products exclusively to women: a growing demand for unisex styling: “We have strong-minded and self-confident female customers looking for an IWC Big Pilot’s Watch, and we have male customers with an affinity for diamonds looking to purchase a Portofino Automatic 37,” said George Kern, chief executive at IWC.

He has a point. The rise of androgynous fashion — highlighted, if not typified, by Chanel’s introduction in September of the Boy.Friend watch, its first timepiece since 2000 — is making the very notion of a “woman’s watch” increasingly obsolete.

Mr. Levin, at NPD Luxury Practice, said as much when acknowledging a weak spot in the group’s data: “The concept of ‘boyfriend watches’ or women wearing oversized watches that could be men’s — that’s very real, and something we can’t capture,” he said. “It appears that certain brands are selling a great deal of men’s-size watches but it’s debatable if men or women are truly wearing them.”