For Luxury Watches, Life in the Fast Lane

New York Times, November 24, 2011

Watchmakers can go nutty when it comes to cars. Consider the past 50 years of timepieces. From the 1964 Carrera, Heuer’s tribute to La Carrera Panamericana, the renowned Mexican road rally held from 1950 to 1954, to the announcement earlier this month that Hublot, already the official timepiece/timekeeper for FIA Formula One, is now Ferrari’s newest official watch and timekeeper — a role that previously belonged to Panerai and before that, Girard-Perregaux — the automotive partnership is so ubiquitous that it has become an industry cliché.

“There is not one luxury automotive organization that does not have a relationship with a watch,” said Aaron Sigmond, senior contributing editor for Autoweek. “The bottom line: Men like all things mechanical. It’s a logical relationship.”

Effective marketing is one way to explain why now, more than ever, partnerships between watchmakers and their counterparts in the world of fast cars — be they carmakers, racing organizations or drivers — are thriving. A shared fascination with precision, craftsmanship, mechanical engineering and timing is another.

“It’s very rare to find someone who has a beautiful car and has on their wrist something generic,” said Mederic del Monaco, director of Top Marques Watches, an exhibition of luxury watches held in Monaco to coincide with the Top Marques Monaco car show, where prospective buyers are invited to test drive “supercars” — from exclusive makers like Keating, Tirrito and Bugatti — on the Monaco Grand Prix circuit.

As of this month, the show also has an Asian edition, Top Marques Macau, running Nov. 24 to Nov. 27 at the Venetian Resort Hotel in Macao. Aimed at Chinese collectors, the event showcases some 15 timepiece brands, including Franck Muller, Richard Mille and Roger Dubuis.

The goal, Mr. del Monaco said, is to create a series of supercar and watch shows that parallel the Formula One tour, with pit stops in Monaco, Macao, Brazil and the United States. “Next year, we would like to see in Monaco a lot of Chinese visitors,” he said.

It’s a far cry from the early 1960s, when watch-automotive pairings — like the 1963 Rolex Cosmograph Daytona, the perpetually in-demand chronograph named after the Rolex-sponsored car race in Daytona Beach, Florida — were still few and far between.

Then, in 1969, Heuer signed on as the first nonautomotive brand to support a Formula One driver, Jo Siffert of Switzerland. Two years later, the company solidified its future in motor racing by teaming up with Ferrari as official timekeeper, an eight-year relationship that included putting its name on the team’s car. Given Formula One’s growing profile on television in the 1970s and Ferrari’s seven Formula One world championship titles, the collaboration introduced the watchmaker to global consumers for the first time, said Jean-Christophe Babin, chief executive of TAG Heuer.

By Mr. Sigmond’s reckoning, however, “the seminal moment for contemporary auto-inspired wristwatches” didn’t occur until 1980, when Ferdinand Alexander Porsche at Porsche Design created an all-titanium chronograph produced by IWC.

Eight years later, Chopard issued a limited-edition sports watch on the occasion of the Mille Miglia, a legendary endurance race from Brescia to Rome.

“And then everybody is literally off to the races,” Mr. Sigmond said.

Fast-forward to 2011. With an eye to India’s booming luxury market, Hublot, TAG Heuer and Richard Mille all introduced limited-edition timepieces to mark the first Indian Grand Prix in New Delhi on Oct. 30.

“They all sold out before the race started,” said Mr. Babin, referring to the India Racing limited edition of TAG Heuer’s Carrera Tachymeter Chronograph. Priced at 199,000 rupees, or about $4,000, the watch features the colors of the Indian flag, saffron and green, and comes in a limited edition of 200.

The India F1 models enter an already crowded field. The number of automotive-inspired timepieces seems to multiply every year, from Breitling’s extensive collection of Breitling for Bentley watches to Blancpain’s L-Evolution Super Trofeo Flyback Chronograph, which toasts the brand’s two-year-old title sponsorship of the Lamborghini Blancpain Super Trofeo, an event in which Marc A. Hayek, Blancpain chairman and chief executive, who is an amateur driver, has participated.

That’s to say nothing of the juggernaut in the category. “This year, there is nobody doing it like Hublot,” Mr. Sigmond said. He referred to the brand’s two-year-old agreement with Bernie Ecclestone, chief executive of the Formula One Group; nine Hublot F1 limited editions, including the F1 King Power Suzuka released last month in honor of Japan’s Formula One circuit; and handful of timepieces whose proceeds benefit the Ayrton Senna Foundation, a Brazilian charity named after the three-time Formula One world champion killed in 1994.