Tudor Returns to U.S. Market

New York Times, November 29, 2014

NEW YORK — At the end of New York Fashion Week in September, a rainstorm tore through the city, snarling traffic and causing thousands of pedestrians to scramble for cover. Inside the Frank Gehry-designed IAC building on the West Side, however, the deluge was all but forgotten as 450 guests gathered for a cocktail party suffused with a sunny, urbane vibe.

Video screens around the space played sepia-toned scenes from a Mediterranean idyll: A glamorous couple boards a classic wooden speedboat and cruises the coast of Monaco to the sound of Dean Martin crooning “Gentle on My Mind.” The camera lingers on the stylish Swiss watch on the man’s wrist. The clip closes with an aerial shot of the speedboat slicing through the water, followed by an image of the watch and, finally, the tagline “Watch Your Style.”

To anyone at the party who had ever bought, sold or coveted a Rolex, the timepiece on the screen may have looked familiar, even if the name and shield logo on the dial did not. Known as the Heritage Chrono Blue, the vintage-inspired model bore the name Tudor, a watch that debuted in 1946 as a modestly priced alternative to its sister brand Rolex. Available in the United States for five decades, it was pulled from the market in 1996. The rainy night in New York marked Tudor’s much-hyped return.

“It’s about to be official. Brace yourselves. #TUDORWATCH,” Kyle Stults, executive editor of Perpetuelle.com, a luxury timepiece blog, wrote on Twitter two days before the party.

Collectors of vintage Rolexes and watch industry insiders were among the first to take note of the Tudor revival because the brand has “a history that runs parallel to Rolex,” said Stephen J. Pulvirent, associate editor of Hodinkee, a watch blog here that co-sponsored the event.

It is easy to understand how people unfamiliar with watches might confuse the two. Both brands were founded in the first half of the 20th century by Hans Wilsdorf, a Bavarian who made his fortune in London. Both are manufactured at the Rolex site in Geneva. And both produce sporty and utilitarian mechanical timepieces prominently advertised in multimillion-dollar marketing campaigns that target a largely male audience of collectors, dilettantes and status-seekers.

The differences lie mostly behind the scenes. Rolex manages all aspects of its production in-house, for example, down to alloying its own gold, while Tudor obtains its movements from suppliers like the Swatch Group’s ETA division. Among fans of Tudor, however, any suggestion that the brand is merely a cheaper clone of its luxury predecessor is not taken lightly.

“It winds me up when people say it’s a poor man’s Rolex,” said Ross Povey, a collector in Cheshire, England, who runs the blog Tudorcollector. “To me, Tudor has always had a stealthy appeal. The diversity of the brand is just phenomenal. They had their time in the wilderness in the ’90s, but the relaunch is really appealing to the collectors’ market.”

During Tudor’s last stint in America, the brand suffered from what Mr. Pulvirent called “a perception problem.”

“It was sold mostly through Rolex dealers,” he said. “Two watches that look similar, but one was $1,000 and the other was $6,000. People didn’t understand why.”

In 2007, Tudor embarked on a campaign to distinguish itself in the marketplace. The brand decided to use the look and feel of its vintage models as a guiding design principle, an approach that Rolex has consistently eschewed.

Take the Tudor Heritage Chrono Blue, which takes its inspiration from the 1973 Oysterdate Chronograph featuring the roulette-like “Monte Carlo” dial.

“It perfectly captures the spirit of cool and carefree Mediterranean resort towns in the 1960s and ’70s,” according to a brand statement.

For all its happy-go-lucky associations, however, Tudor has serious credibility among fans of military watches, thanks to a series of Tudor Submariners issued to the French Navy from the late 1950s to 1983. Encased in Rolex’s classic waterproof Oyster case, an icon of 20th-century watch engineering, and distinguished by unique features like “snowflake” hands, the vintage models now earn thousands of dollars on the secondary market, helping to drive interest in Tudor’s modern timepieces.

“The vintage Rolex world is very influential and I think Tudor has very cleverly tapped into that,” said Mr. Povey, a moderator on the Vintage Rolex Forum.

Despite the emphasis on heritage, Tudor has not shied away from exploring its more futuristic side. The brand’s Pelagos dive watch, for example, comes in a 42-millimeter satin-finished case fashioned from titanium, a high-tech metal that has no place in the Rolex oeuvre.

Tudor’s willingness to experiment with new materials is one element of an overall marketing effort that is targeting the “young fashion, style and design guys, who might not need to know about the movement but want a watch that looks cool and they know is going to last,” Mr. Pulvirent said.

“Rolex-built quality,” he added, “for a fraction of the price.”

Indeed, Tudor’s midmarket pricing — the collection ranges from $2,100 to $8,000, with the core offerings at $3,000 to $5,000 — is one of the brand’s chief selling points, said Josh Bonifas, a vintage-watch expert at Fourtané Jewelers, a Rolex dealer in Carmel-by-the-Sea, Calif.

Mr. Bonifas said his customers, many of whom are collectors of Rolex, “are already in love with Tudor because they appreciate and value the heritage and quality of the watches.”

He said that the brand had overcome its copycat image of decades past, but that the relationship with Rolex was still key to its appeal.

“Everybody wants a Rolex, but they’re expensive,” Mr. Bonifas said. “A Submariner is $9,000. Tudor isn’t chump change. But compared to something like a TAG Heuer, a Tudor Black Bay costs $3,200, has a unique style and design, and its association with Rolex gives it a little more prestige.”