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New Watch Market: Women Who Choose

New York Times, November 22, 2012

COSTA MESA, CALIFORNIA — On a balmy evening this month, about a dozen well-to-do women draped in white diamonds and popcorn-sized pearls arrived at Marché Moderne, a French restaurant on the penthouse floor of South Coast Plaza, a vast upscale shopping center that dominates its stretch of the Southern California coastline.

Jaeger-LeCoultre, about to open a boutique in the mall, had invited the women, along with their more soberly dressed partners, to a luxury dinner party to woo potential clients and get them acquainted with the brand, the store and the timepieces in its newest ladies’ collection, Rendez-Vous.

The importance of the evening to Jaeger-LeCoultre’s marketing mission was underscored by the presence of the chief executive, Jérome Lambert, who flew in from Switzerland for the festivities, and Anton and Jennifer Segerstrom, members of the family who own the mall.

“Two years ago, we decided to give to women a larger part of our creativity,” Mr. Lambert said earlier in the day, explaining the impetus behind the Rendez-Vous collection.

The line made its formal debut in mid-June at the Shanghai Film Festival, where the actress Diane Kruger served as its face and muse.

“Some years ago,” Mr. Lambert said, “a big wave of global brands came into the market — a lot of quartz watches, where the distinctive factor was the brand name. We are reopening a time where the interest in an object’s pedigree is coming back.”

In other words: Jaeger-LeCoultre is not the only mechanical watchmaking brand fiercely courting female clients.

Patek Philippe surprised its mostly male devotees three years ago, when it introduced the Ladies First Chronograph, a $79,800 timepiece meant to begin the Geneva watchmaker’s campaign to cultivate a global community of passionate and knowledgeable female collectors.

Last year’s unveiling of an ultrathin split-second chronograph and a minute repeater, “in very feminine versions,” seemed to complete the triumvirate. But the $100,200 Ladies First Perpetual Calendar presented at the Baselworld luxury watch and jewelry fair in March suggests that the brand is only getting started.

“More and more, luxury watchmakers are seeing a shift from men buying high-end watches for women as gifts to women buying watches themselves,” said Claudia D’Arpizio, a partner with Bain & Co. and author of a recent report on the luxury goods market. “These new segments of women are looking for more than price points and high-quality movements. They have a much stronger interest in the fashion content of the watches they buy.”

While most watchmakers have interpreted “fashion” to mean a liberal application of diamonds, when it comes to new ladies’ timepieces from prestige makers-like Girard-Perregaux’s Cat’s Eye Tourbillon Haute Joaillerie, or Tourbillon with Three Gold Bridges, the impressive amounts of bling don’t detract from the feats of high watchmaking.

Take the one-of-a-kind diamond-and-sapphire-encrusted Reine de Naples timepiece shown by Breguet last month at a lavish party in the Gulf of Naples. The fanfare marked the 200th anniversary of the stunning oval wristwatch Abraham-Louis Breguet created for Caroline Murat, the watch-loving younger sister of the Queen of Naples-Napoleon Bonaparte — as well as the 10th anniversary of the contemporary collection she inspired.

“They’re making more beautiful and complicated pieces for women,” said Elizabeth Doerr, a watch journalist who attended Breguet’s black-tie gala at the Grand Hotel Capri. “It’s driven by the fact that they want to open up the brand to new consumers. The industry tried to do it several years ago and then 2008 happened and put those efforts on hold. They see China is not going to go on forever.”