Personal Luxuries

Extra time

Some of the world’s top watchmakers are expanding their remit – with sports cars and skis among their desirable new offerings, says Nick Foulkes.

December 29 2010
Nick Foulkes

“I have never seen a nice-looking big watch boutique in my whole career. The bigger they get, the more boring they get.” These are strong words, especially when uttered by a watch boss of the standing of Georges Kern. Kern is the rising star of Richemont who oversees the Roger Dubuis and Baume & Mercier brands, as well as heading up IWC. Although I love looking at watches, he does have a point when he says, “It is difficult to decorate a 220sq m shop with watches that are 42mm in diameter.”

Kern understands that when a man buys a watch, he is purchasing more than micromechanical brilliance; he is buying into a brand. Last year, Kern opened a large shop in Hong Kong in order to flesh out IWC. As well as watches, it sells other objects that transform five of the product lines into what he calls “five worlds”.

Thus, for IWC’s most expensive and prestigious watches, the Da Vinci line, there is a collection of crocodile pieces, including wallets and an attaché case (from SFr842, about £534). The Aquatimer is expressed through a waterproof dive boat bag (about £444) and diving kit bags (about £506), while Ingenieur wearers can ride out of the store on an IWC Ingenieur spec carbon-fibre bicycle by Storck (about £9,332). As the Aquatimer has its origins in the sea, so the Ingenieur is related to the earth, explains Kern, and “we wanted to have something ecological, where you can use your muscle power”. IWC’s best-known line is the Portuguese, which has a heritage in maritime navigation, so it’s no surprise that barometric items (from about £3,112) are among its accessories.

However, my favourite is the range of objects that have been brought out to accompany Pilot watches: luggage finished with the same signature stitching as the strap of the Big Pilot (from about £978); a real, made-to-measure Top Gun jacket in buffalo hide, accessorised with IWC patches (about £3,201); a “chocks away” Battle of Britain-style sheepskin jacket (about £382); and a large, remote-controlled Spitfire with a wingspan of almost 1.5m (about £23,122). However, the pièce de résistance is the IWC flight simulator – that’s right, a flight simulator (price on request) – that visitors to the store in Hong Kong can purchase.

Kern has plans to roll out this collection in other key locations, but, instead of worrying about filling up the space of a large store, he now finds himself with the problem of requiring a minimum area of around 150sq m in order to show the constellation of IWC worlds and their associated “narrative” accessories. However, Kern is in no hurry to focus on selling flight simulation systems or crocodile briefcases. For him, this collection of goods exists to contextualise the timepieces. “We make turnover with them,” he admits, “but that is not the objective. It is about illustration and animation and giving the consumer the capacity to dive” – wearing IWC goggles, of course – “further into the brand in a coherent and credible way.”

The attention-grabbing IWC accessory programme is part of a growing trend. While not every company is about to launch a flight simulator, there is increasing awareness of the benefits that can come when watch brands create collections of other goods that are more than mere freebies to give away at trade fairs. This is not entirely new. Many top brands, such as Patek Philippe, Girard-Perregaux and Vacheron Constantin, have made cuff links celebrating their iconic products. Girard-Perregaux does links in the form of a tourbillon cage (starting at £2,700), homage to the bridge of the emblematic Tourbillon watch, while Patek has gold links (£2,370) and a key ring (£2,850) to accompany its late-1960s masterpiece, the Jumbo Ellipse. Patek also produced a range of astrological pendants in the 1970s, and even an Ellipse lighter.

But the watch world has changed a great deal since the days of that utterly glorious lighter. Now, companies’ use of brand extension is as much about trademark protection as anything. Take the example of Omega, which, in addition to jewellery and leather goods, sells a fragrance called Aqua Terra (£45 for 50ml). It’s not that the brand suddenly thought it could segue into the potentially profitable fragrance business; rather, as Stephen Urquhart, president of Omega, puts it, “We never had any intention to make a fragrance, but it is a way of protecting the trademark, and we wanted to do something top of the line, so we took one of the best fragrance designers, Alberto Morillas, and did a very special bottle with a gauge to show how much is left.” And while you can’t find Aqua Terra on fragrance counters, it does, says Urquhart, sell well in the Omega boutiques.

Concern with branding, brand equity, brand extension and all the other marketing voodoo grew as the ownership of more brands became consolidated in fewer hands. Watch companies, which are sometimes under the same ownership as fashion brands, have come to realise that they can extend their reach in the same way. As Jean-Christophe Babin, president and CEO of Tag Heuer, puts it, “If a brand like Gucci makes watches, why shouldn’t a brand like Tag Heuer make bags? What we are talking about is building a power brand. We thought that Tag Heuer, besides its watchmaking cred, could be credible in some diversification.”

And indeed, as well as being credible, it sounds as though the sports-watch brand has been rather successful, expanding into luxury eyewear and prestige mobile phones (starting at £3,000), as well as offering a range of items that tap into its famous links with Steve McQueen and the film Le Mans (cuff links, £150; jacket, £185; holdall, £195; helmet, £395). Babin says sales data reveals that a customer who buys a jacket often returns in a couple of weeks to snap up the corresponding timepiece. Moreover, rather than cheapening the brand, Babin believes that this carefully monitored brand extension has actually delivered something to a new upper segment of customer, particularly where the eyewear is concerned. At over £250 a pair, these glasses don’t come cheap.

Also, as those of us who have reached middle age know, eyesight does not improve much during the 40s and 50s. As demographic coincidence would have it, customers now in the market for a pair of luxury high-tech specs are probably the sort of men who had a Tag Heuer in the 1980s and early 1990s, when the brand was geared towards providing inexpensive timepieces for not much more than one would pay for a pair of Tag’s funky reading glasses today.

“It is huge and it is important,” says Babin of the growth of his eyewear business since its launch eight years ago. “It’s really fuelling the brand. It positions the image very high and brings back people who were customers in the 1990s, when they were 25 to 30 years old and a Tag Heuer was a £500 watch.” But, upon being reintroduced to the brand through another channel, these customers are discovering that the watches have moved on considerably in the past 20 years.

Although his business in spectacles is brisk, Babin is keen to emphasise that many aspects of the eyewear – the attention to detail, where it is made (the French Jura) and its technical construction – mirror the qualities of the brand’s horological output. The watch industry is by nature cautious and conservative; it has clearly learnt from the lessons of saturation branding in fashion and seen how overextension can easily devalue a brand.

Even a lively, adventurous and innovative watch boss like Jean-Claude Biver, CEO and chairman of Hublot, is cautious when launching products other than watches bearing the Hublot name. For him, as for others, the procedure is conceptual rather than commercial and the products he puts out, whether a carbon bicycle (€18,000) or a pair of revolutionary Hublot skis (€6,000), are more about explaining the “fusion” mantra that is at the heart of the astonishing revival of Hublot under his leadership. So the skis – which were made with Zai in a one-off run of 110 pairs – combine rubber, carbon, wood and stone; and, like the watches, they are not cheap. Also in the pipeline is a sled that mixes carbon with leather and wood, whose design resulted from a competition among the students at ECAL, the Lausanne art school.

Of course, it helps that Biver himself is a long-time winter-sports enthusiast who took up cycling a couple of years ago, and that in February Hublot is sponsoring the World Ski Championships in Germany and also the Nordic World Ski Championships near Oslo.

A similar level of personal and brand involvement has led to perhaps the most extravagant “accessory” launched by a watch company so far. Marc Hayek is the scion of the Swatch dynasty who runs Blancpain, Breguet and Jaquet Droz. Blancpain has tended to be a very traditional brand. However, Hayek, frustrated that the technical message was not getting out sufficiently clearly, launched the Super Trofeo watches and sponsored an eponymous season of races for Lamborghini. After making the watches, he started looking at the cars.

To his taste, the Gallardo Superleggera, already the lightest Lamborghini, did not really go far enough in terms of weight-saving and styling. He therefore had more carbon fibre used for external detailing such as mirror casings, and gave it a strong flavour of the competition car, with such touches as a huge spoiler for stability at high speeds and the engine cover, slotted like the gills on a shark for ventilation. In fact, about the only subtle thing on this matte black monster of a motor is the yellow Blancpain signature on the spoiler… not, of course, that anyone would see it, as the car goes much too quickly for that.

It’s the fastest Blancpain ever, and even in Lamborghini terms it is a swift machine, moving from a standstill to 100kmph in just 3.4 seconds. To get any faster than that, you’ll have to go beyond IWC’s flight simulator and convince Georges Kern to build you a branded jet.