Watches & Jewellery

Watch this space

New monobrand watch stores are transforming the experience of choosing a timepiece, says Nick Foulkes.

November 20 2011
Nick Foulkes

I am not much of a sports fan, but the impending arrival of the Olympics in London does hold some interest for me, more for the shopping opportunities than the Games themselves – in particular, the new Westfield centre in Stratford.

I, for one, will be making the trek out to the east-London mall, which opened in September, to visit the new Omega store. The watchmaker’s president, Stephen Urquhart, is very enthusiastic about the prospects for his latest venture: “We have found a fantastic location, a big space with plenty of scope for exhibitions,” he explains. And although he says it will “scale down after the Games”, it will be “a big store. We are hoping that this area [of London] will develop”.

Omega is the Official Timekeeper of the London 2012 Olympic Games and it is probably only the result of commercial good manners that it has opened a shop nearby. However, polite though Urquhart is, Omega is a business first and he clearly believes there is room for a sixth Omega store in the capital.

It is remarkable to think that the company only opened its first shop 11 years ago, in Zurich, and that soon there will be 100 stores around the world; which equates to about one shop every six weeks – pretty good going given the global economic turbulence of the past three years.

Omega is just one of many watch brands that in the past few years have decided to follow the route of the major fashion houses and open their own stores; so now your local swank shopping street, wherever you are in the world, is likely to have a branch of Audemars Piguet around the corner from Hermès, or a Breguet just up the street from Ralph Lauren. And next time you berth your yacht in Portofino, be sure to stop at the charming Panerai boutique on your way to Loro Piana.

While watch and jewellery brands such as Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels, Chopard and Piaget have long seen the value in standalone boutiques, it is only in the past few years that monobrand watch stores have exploded on to the international retailscape. The change in the way watches are sold is not due to any single factor, but has been influenced by a number of considerations. Of course, the increasing involvement of fashion groups, with their decades of retail experience, has shaped a change in the culture. Also, luxury watches have become progressively better made and more expensive, changes that have been met by a more sophisticated and far better informed customer, who, in turn, wants to be served by expert staff familiar with the latest micromechanical innovations and the smallest technical refinements. After all, it is not entirely fair to expect your local jeweller to be able to explain everything about the Silinvar components in the new Oscillomax balance assembly from Patek Philippe.

As a result, the manner in which watches are sold has developed in a way that would have been inconceivable just a few years ago. Before then, the majority of monobrand horological retail interaction would have taken place in Rolex stores – which, like the brand they serve, remain predictable and familiar – or at the homes of brand sepulchres in the historic heartland of Swiss watchmaking, which is, well, Switzerland.

But, as the global network of monobrand watch stores has grown, even these historic Swiss sites have been spectacularly revived. Take the hallowed Patek Philippe store on the Rue du Rhône in Geneva, which I am old enough to remember when it housed corporate offices and even the highlights of what has since become the Patek Philippe Museum. It was treated to a sumptuous overhaul in 2006, complete with an imposing, lofty, double-height galleried space lit by a giant chandelier, off which run various private rooms for those clients who wish to be discreet. All in all, with its statement light fittings, its comfortable sofas and their perfectly plumped cushions, and its geometric flower arrangements, the store puts one in mind of an extremely well run, rather smart hotel.

Another brand seems to be taking the hotel parallel even further, having hired a former concierge from the Carlton hotel in Cannes two years ago to work in one of its watch shops. “He knows what service means, he knows how to treat customers,” says the chief executive of Hublot, Jean Claude Biver, of his new recruit, “and once he understands the product he can draw on all sorts of other experience: customers already call him to organise helicopter transfers and book tables in restaurants.”

And if Biver has his way, those tables being reserved will soon be in Hublot restaurants. He is opening a 300sq m store in Frankfurt in 2013: “It is big enough for us to make a little restaurant, a Hublot Café. Watch retail is going further than just selling watches,” he says a trifle gnomically. “We are systematically looking for bigger space where people can come and gather together. The shop must give you an experience, not only products for your money; that is now the trend, to transform our shops into a shopping experience.”

And by the end of the year he intends to have 50 such Hublot “experiences” around the world, in all the best places: Place Vendôme, Bond Street, Beverly Hills, Almaty in Kazakhstan, and so on.

But big as Hublot watches are, by the standards of the other items competing for one’s attention in shop windows (viz handbags, shoes and clothes) they are very small, yet extremely valuable. So, as watch brands find themselves becoming retailers as well as watchmakers, they have come up with innovative ways to display their products. At Hublot this means store design by LVMH’s favourite architect, Peter Marino, where, against a backdrop of neutral modernity – grey Alcantara, carbon-fibre chairs – Biver amuses himself and his customers with examples of his now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t Raptor display, which enables the watch to be visible outside a vitrine, only to have it disappear through a concealed trapdoor when a hand gets too close. Similar sleight of hand is seen with a cabinet set into a wall that has a carousel of half-a-dozen watches shown in rotation. “We have a special department in which we have invested SFr1m in research and development, together with a start-up coming from the technical department of the University of Lausanne, so that we make new displays that are eye-catching and based on the latest technology.”

According to Georges Kern, chief executive of IWC, maker of big watches for real men: “It is all about telling the story and contriving a dream, which you cannot create over the counter when you go into a normal store with 30 brands.” IWC started seven years ago with a 20sq m site in Dubai; now the prototype is the sprawling flagship in the fabled 1881 Heritage centre in Kowloon, Hong Kong, where the watches are introduced almost tangentially into themed spaces. The watch families are brought to life in rooms that, with their careful accessorising (nautical instruments, a handcrafted model Spitfire and a fully functional flight simulator) remind one of a visit to a Ralph Lauren store. It is perhaps unsurprising that, as well as watchmakers and movement designers, IWC’s staff also includes three full-time architects.

One watch boss who had no need of architects was the late Gino Macaluso, who owned Girard-Perregaux. As well as being one of the great watch industry figures of the turn of the century, and a rally champion to boot, he studied to be an architect – training that served him well when he opened the first Girard-Perregaux boutique in Gstaad in 2004. Its sober modernist lines, its restrained palette and its architectural use of antlers created an environment that reflected the sophistication of the man and the watches he made. He described the role of the monobrand store as being akin to that of an embassy and an antenna for the brand, promoting the marque as it wished to be seen on the international stage and feeding information back to the headquarters.

It is this direct contact with and enhanced understanding of the final customer that Jérôme Lambert, chief executive of Jaeger-LeCoultre, cites as one of the main benefits his brand has reaped from the monobrand boutique trend. Indeed, Jaeger was a relatively early adopter, opening its first shop in 1998 in Malaysia. Now it is to open a store on the Place Vendôme: 400sq m in which to display objects that are roughly between 35mm and 45mm in diameter.

Considerable though the output of Jaeger’s factory in Le Sentier, Switzerland, may be, it is not planning to stack the store to the rafters with watches: instead, it plans a museum to showcase a rich history reaching back to 1833 and to bring in some of Jaeger’s key craftspeople – enamellers, engravers and so on – thus allowing those customers who wish to order a bespoke watch to talk directly to the people who will be making it for them, without having to travel to the Swiss mountains.

Indeed, the Place Vendôme is in danger of rivalling Geneva when it comes to the richness of its watch shops. In addition to historic stalwarts such as Breguet, the ultra-modern, effervescent, haute horlogerie of Richard Mille can be experienced at one of his eponymous boutiques just along from Buccellati. And those fashion brands with watch and jewellery activity, Chanel and Dior, have opened specialised watch and jewellery showrooms here, shortly to be joined by Louis Vuitton, which is opening a watch and jewellery shop, as well as jewellery workshops, on the famous Paris square at the beginning of next year.

Meanwhile, the oldest watch brand in continuous production is understood to be considering a bold retail step. Vacheron Constantin opened its first boutique on Geneva’s Quai de l’Ile in 1906, but for the past three years this has been shut due to public works close by. In the meantime, it has set up shop in Place Longemalle, a location it will keep after the historic boutique is reopened: the plan is that the old shop will be restored to its early 20th-century self and deal mainly with special orders and high complications, while the other shop will sell more general production pieces. The company has 28 stores worldwide; the latest, its first in the US, opened in September in New York.

Most intriguingly, the word is that the brand is planning to open a boutique in Old Havana. The marque has historic links to Latin America – it made its first sales in Cuba in 1834 – and the thinking is not necessarily that Castro and his cadres will all start wearing the watches made under the sign of the Maltese cross, but rather that as Havana is a popular destination with affluent Brazilians, and Brazil has some of the highest import duties in the world, opening a Vacheron Constantin watch shop would make commercial sense.

It will be interesting to see if the plans advance any further. From a purely personal point of view, I hope they get a move on (although neither Swiss watchmaking nor Cuban officialdom is inclined to rush things). Two of my more consuming passions are fine watches and great cigars; over the years I am not sure whether I have made more visits to cigar or watch factories. After all, if I am prepared to travel out to the Westfield centre in Stratford and tolerate the sporty atmosphere to look at the new Omega store, I will be positively delighted to make the pilgrimage to Havana to see the inauguration of a new Vacheron Constantin boutique.