It’s no secret that women have become more sophisticated in the way they approach buying a watch. Ten years ago a pretty face, an elegant strap and a smattering of diamonds for the evening might have been enough. Now, women are curious – and increasingly knowledgeable – about the inner workings.
The first sign was a growing interest in mechanical (as opposed to battery-operated) watches. Mark Hearn, UK MD of Patek Philippe, has noted a decade of demand for top-level women’s mechanical watches, while the women’s mechanical-watch sector has grown from half to two-thirds at Watches of Switzerland, according to Brian Duffy, CEO of holding company Aurum. There’s also a rising interest in functionality and craftsmanship, such as a painstakingly assembled open movement or a highly crafted dial.Moreover, these technically accomplished watches are unashamedly feminine. “Some businesswomen used to feel they had to wear a large, often masculine, watch to express their seriousness,” says Jens Henning Koch, executive VP of marketing at Montblanc. “Now they would rather express their strength through an elegant and feminine watch, which they buy for themselves.” Zenith’s regional brand director for north and central Europe Rebecca McDermott agrees. “Women don’t want any loss of glamour at work,” she says. “We can compete as equals with men, but we want everything we wear, including a serious watch, to be feminine. Buying one at a key career point – bonus, promotion, returning to work after a baby – makes a confident statement of achievement.”
The push is coming partly from consumers like entrepreneur Vida Tayebi, who is looking to open her third Persian restaurant. “I grew up loving watches – my grandmother passed on some lovely pieces, including Cartier and Piaget evening watches,” she says. “I’m partial to chronographs and my day-to-day watch is a Panerai, the smallest one they do, on a coloured strap to feminise it. I also have a Bulgari chrono, a Rolex and a Boucheron evening watch, but my current target is the new Vacheron Constantin Harmony chrono (example pictured, £50,500) – beautiful, feminine and highly technical.” Enthusiasm also comes from senior women in the industry. Sandrine Stern is director of watch creation at Patek Philippe and also the wife of its president and she drove the introduction of the Ladies First complication models five years ago. They now include a chronograph (£60,180); a subtle minute repeater (about £270,000, pictured) where the chime lever on the side is the only indication of its underlying complexity; a perpetual calendar (£61,150) – the most popular; and a World Timer (£33,560), which Hearn recently saw a well-informed female client take a mere half hour to decide on buying. There is also the ultra-slim Grand Exhibition version of the Calatrava (£21,490), designed for the brand’s retrospective in London last year.
At Cartier, head of movements development Carole Forestier-Kasapi has a penchant for designing skeleton dials, which she has now brought into the feminine field with a fine openworked version (£34,800) of the Tank Louis Cartier and a modern version (£57,500, pictured) of the Crash watch with skeletonised Roman numerals, knowing that the visible intricacies of a watch’s works exert as much fascination for women as they do men. Other houses feminising skeleton watches include Patek Philippe, with its delicately cut white gold 7180 (£64,210) and Vacheron Constantin with the white gold Traditionelle (from £29,400). All these models are sober, gold and very beautiful because, as Cartier’s image, style and heritage director Pierre Rainero points out, women often judge a watch on aesthetics first, even when technicality is an important consideration. “Our success is based on creating objects of beauty,” he says. “Even though many models serve both sexes, each version is appropriately reworked. I do not believe women would buy a technical object without being convinced of its aesthetics”.
This technical advancement and elegant execution is an alliance emphasised by Piaget’s product marketing manager Quentin Herbert, though the strategy was originally applied to a watch not specifically for women – Piaget’s Altiplano 900P (£20,800), unveiled last year. Indeed, the model has been influential in redefining top-end women’s watches. It was designed as a superb technical innovation – it is the slimmest mechanical watch in existence and the way it achieves this, with the movement visible, level with the dial and attached to a baseplate that is also the caseback, creates a supreme elegance that is proving popular with women who, he points out, “find the intimate link between design and innovation speaks to them”. The off‑centre dial and the arrangement of the gear train are indeed playful, and Herbert says that about half of Altiplano sales entail a diamond bezel, though in markets – like the Far East – some of these are to men. Its success set Piaget’s designers thinking and they have recently revealed an all-feminine equivalent – the Limelight Stella moonphase (£24,500) with a beautifully worked moon in a sky containing the “feminine” constellations Cassiopeia and Andromeda, plus a specially designed movement, a softly oval dial and a very restrained diamond trim.
That choice of complication is significant. The moonphase is viewed as a less technical function that reinforces the feminine commitment to aesthetics and as such is rapidly claiming female ownership. The cynical might argue that it is rarely used by either sex for its function, though Koch at Montblanc disagrees. This brand is investing heavily in the discerning female market with its Bohème range, which includes the innovative steel Moongarden (£3,115) with a window featuring the traditional names of each of the year’s 12 moons and a date hand instead of a window, and the rose gold Perpetual Calendar (£17,500, pictured). “The influence of the moon on everything from agriculture to mood catches the imagination,” he says. Other notable moonphases come from brands less associated with women’s models, such as IWC’s 37mm stainless-steel Portofino Automatic 37 Moonphase (example pictured, £6,550) – officially it’s for “customers with smaller wrists”, but campaign shots on tuxedo-wearing female celebrities make its target audience pretty clear – and Zenith’s Elite Ultra Thin Lady Moonphase (example pictured, £3,700), which is put into perspective by McDermott. “We are known for men’s watches with top-quality movements,” she says. “Our sales of women’s watches – all mechanical and most with a complication – started from almost zero three years ago, but now account for about 15 per cent, including three of our 10 bestsellers, with no advertising. Women are researching for the best combinations of feminine design and function.”
The moonphase is also a component of the perpetual calendar, which is still a rarity in women’s models, Patek and Montblanc excepted. Both employ diamond bezels. “At Patek we use them to subtly soften a traditionally more masculine complication like the calendar,” says Hearn, “but others like the minute repeater stand alone in their beauty.” Zenith similarly adds diamonds to a woman’s chronograph; they are optional on the moonphase. “In east Asia, diamonds for day are always fine, but in western boardrooms they are more acceptable if understated,” says McDermott. “Then they have an insouciant confidence, especially in gold.’”
However, plainer styles without diamonds are a growing trend, “in particular non-diamond styles like the steel Jaeger-LeCoultre Rendez-Vous Date or the Patek Philippe exhibition Calatrava,” says Bond Street retailer Wempe’s UK MD Lynn Schroeder. Chanel’s latest success, the Boy.Friend (example pictured, £9,400), is inspired by the rectangular shape of Place Vendôme and Mme Chanel’s love of masculine-style clothing, yet is simple with soft curves that are perfectly shaped to the female wrist. It comes with either a seconds or date counter, and other functions will doubtless follow. Blancpain’s Villeret Ultra Slim for women (£7,240, pictured) is a classic, rose gold three-hander, yet of almost dainty proportions, while Jaeger-LeCoultre is celebrating the 85th anniversary of the Reverso by redesigning the women’s models. A new version of the Duetto (£12,600, pictured) has a plain dial on one side for day and diamonds on black on the other for night, and there’s now a wide choice of customisation for the reverse of single-dial models.
For modernists, ceramic specialists Rado’s latest innovation (£5,200, pictured) is a transformative plasma technique that produces a light-adaptive, super-hard grey finish that is brought to life by a subtle diamond bezel. Saxony-based brand Nomos introduced its groundbreaking ultra-slim in-house movement last year and now it powers the minimalist but feminine Minimatik (£2,420, pictured) with champagne dial and neon-orange details.
Despite their obvious use to women who travel a lot, the feminine world timer remains – at least for the time being – a rarity. However, Louis Vuitton’s remarkable Escale Time Zone (£4,500 pictured), emblazoned with bright emblems inspired by the brand’s vintage trunks, is a unisex design that women have appropriated. As with every other model mentioned within this feature, it is a talking point and the women who buy it invariably know whereof they speak. “We still imagine women’s choices are less governed by gadgets and technicality than men’s,” says Hearn, “but I find female collectors know exactly how their watches work. In five years, I don’t think there will be a difference between our male and female clients.” Except I suspect women will still prefer feminine style, even in the boardroom.