Style & Substance: The Rise of Fashion-Branded Watches
We look at how fashion brands have introduced, and sometimes even nurtured, the tenets of high horlogerie.
By Karishma Tulsidas
Apart from the multiple “how many kidneys do I have to sell to afford this?” comments — clearly not the brand’s target audience — the overarching sentiment that echoed throughout the comments section of the Louis Vuitton Tambour Carpe Diem campaign could be summed up in one word: “Wow”. These expensively produced videos clearly served their purpose: for product awareness, yes, but also to introduce the brand’s watches to a new audience. But beyond the self-serving reasons, these timepieces made by fashion brands have had another unintentional consequence: that of introducing Swiss watchmaking to a completely new audience.
Joey Luk, Sotheby’s head of watches in Asia, explains the phenomena: “Watches from luxury brands are particularly popular amongst the younger generations or new collectors, as they offer a more affordable and attractive price range. As knowledge and experience about collecting watches increase, these customers will likely move on to traditional brands to pursue other qualities of horology, such as complications, craftsmanship and technological innovations.”
She attributes this level of awareness to social media platforms, which have broadened the conventional collectors’ circle. It has a halo effect, and if you are already sold on Louis Vuitton’s bags, shoes, ready-to-wear, and trunks, the next logical step would be to complete the look with Louis Vuitton-branded watch and jewellery. Luk says, “It’s very likely that clients would pick up a (Hermès) Birkin and decide they would want a watch that goes with it or vice versa — due to the overall branding and marketing.”
She attests that in recent years, “complicated watches by Chanel and Hermès have been performing well”. She adds, “Brands aside, other highly sought after qualities and features include: (i) tourbillons, amongst other complicated watches, are more popular; (ii) endorsements by celebrities; and (iii) a preference for smaller watches compared to 10 years ago.”
It is important to note that the high watchmaking departments of brands such as Chanel, Hermès, Louis Vuitton and Gucci are not producing copycat, more affordable versions of the most famous Swiss watches. Instead, these luxury brands have adeptly honed in on their unique identities, and have pushed creative boundaries to build watches that perfectly echo their raison d’etre without diluting their brand image. Take Gucci for instance. Last year, it celebrated 50 years of watchmaking in Switzerland with the launch of its first haute horlogerie collection. Elements like bees, mint-coloured sapphire cases, and constellations abounded — not exactly what you would expect from a Swiss watchmaker (and neither is it everyone’s cup of tea) but the result is so inherently Gucci that you have to respect Alessandro Michele for remaining dedicated to his aesthetic vision of the brand.
Louis Vuitton, Hermès and Chanel — who have deeper (though not longer) horological histories than Gucci — have all made their mark on Swiss horlogerie. They have won awards, impressed even the purists with their playful and innovative takes on traditional movements — the Hermès L’Arceau Time Suspended, anyone? — and made sure that they do not rankle the gods of Swiss watchmaking by disrespecting traditional mores. Where these brands stand out is that the movement is always at the service of design. This means that the design team first comes up with the crazy concept, and subsequently challenges the watchmakers to make their outlandish ideas come true. Case in point: When Chanel wanted to hop on the tourbillon bandwagon back in 2012, they asked their partners Renaud and Papi to shape the bridge in the form of a camellia — Gabrielle Chanel’s favourite flower. Giulio Papi’s response? “You must be mad.”
Perhaps, but madness — as Adam Neumann would attest — is what separates the wheat from the chaff. That year, the Première Flying Tourbillon with a camellia shaped bridge bagged the best women’s watch at the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève (GPHG). Perhaps it is high time that we rebrand the derogatory connotation that comes with the phrase “fashion watch”. These luxury houses have poured in blood, sweat and lots of money to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the watchmaking greats. They refused to simply licence their product to a manufacturer and stamp their logo on the finished product even though commercially, that might have made more sense (we’re looking at you, Michael Kors). But instead, they played the long, arduous game, taking a deliberate and long-term view of their horological aspirations. They established a presence in Switzerland, set up ateliers and acquired specialists along the way to realise their ambitions. To paraphrase a watchmaking giant based in Le Brassus, they had to master the rules of watchmaking before they could break and shape them according to their identity.
They hired the right people, partnered with the right talents, and spent years studying and mastering Swiss techniques, craftsmanship and know-how. Slowly and surely, they have also been vertically integrating their manufactures, and taking control over the production of components such as cases, dials, balance springs and more.
Beyond a desire to propagate Swiss watchmaking and master their horological aspirations, there was another event that pushed these brands to bolster their watchmaking production: They were triggered by the Swatch Group’s infamous decision in 2013 to limit the distribution of ETA movements. Without a ready supply of ebauches, they had no choice but to ramp up their own production and take control over the narrative. This has led to acquisitions that not only protect traditional watchmaking techniques, but also support independent watchmakers and manufacturers by giving them a healthy financial backing. Of course, this heady concoction of events has resulted in unbridled creativity, allowing these fashion brands to truly develop their unique watchmaking ethos and deliver a unique, and dare we say stylish, take on watchmaking.
In the next few pages, join us as we delve into the impact that these fashion brands have had on Swiss watchmaking, and how they have helped keep the legacy of Swiss watchmaking alive with strategic investments and thoughtful creations.
The history of Hermès has oft been documented: long story short, it started its life as a saddle-maker before it launched that bag that has spawned years-long waiting lists. But lesser known is its watchmaking heritage — it started with a tiny blip back in 1912, when a photo of Émile Hermès’ four daughters featured one of them, Jacqueline, wearing a wristwatch (remember, pocket watches were all the rage back then) with a strap made by the atelier’s saddle-making and leather craftsmen.
Its horological ambitions were certainly not linear: a decade or so later, Hermès would dedicate a section of its Rue Faubourg boutique to watches, offering timepieces from famous Swiss brands (yes, Rolex included) stamped with the Hermès logo.
It was in 1978 that things got serious: it set up a watch division in Bienne to find out more about the impact the city has had on watchmaking, to produce trendy fashion watches including the Cape Cod and the stirrup-inspired Arceau.
This strategy served the brand well for two decades, with the launch of interesting watch collections like the Medor and the Kelly. But it was time to get even more serious: in 2003, under the tutelage of Guillaume de Seynes, executive vice president of Hermès and a sixth-generation member of the Dumas family (Jean-Louis Dumas is his uncle), La Montre Hermès acquired a stake in Vaucher, officially solidifying its intent to grow its watch division. Less than 20 years later, it seems like the strategy has paid off: in 2021, Hermès entered the hallowed list of the top 20 Swiss watch brands, ranking number 19, just ahead of Bulgari. Today, Hermès’s watch division accounts for 4 per cent of the company’s revenue, and sold 58,000 units in 2021.
How exactly did it achieve this?
1. Strategic investments.
2. Doubling down on its playful identity and designing watches that serve to amplify the Hermès identity.
3. And a laser-pointed focus on honing its expertise in artistic crafts and bracelet-making, while continuously refining its watchmaking know-how.
Hermès watches have never deviated from the core Hermès identity that permeates its entire universe. They are whimsical, playful, beautifully made, artistic and dreamy – they put the fun in luxury, without ever coming across as juvenile.
Even its complications are executed in a quintessentially Hermès fashion: A moonphase in Hermès’ hands, for instance, features two-subdials that orbit around the dial to indicate the lunar cycle. With a base movement by Vaucher, and the inventive display conceptualised by Chronode, the Arceau L’Heure de la Lune is replete with charming details, like a meteorite dial, a Pegasus motif subtly painted on the moon, and those curved Arabic numerals.
This creativity has been amplified by other watchmaking acquisitions: dial-maker, Natéber and case-maker, Joseph Érard.
Furthermore, harkening to its heritage, Hermès fabricates leather straps at its workshop in Bienne, which opened in 2006. Here, leathers including goatskin, calfskin, ostrich skin, and alligator leather — selected with the same exacting and meticulous standards as its bags and saddles — are carefully manipulated into watch straps, with an utmost attention to detail and strict quality control.
The words icon and revolutionary are bandied about way too liberally in the watch industry, which is why I hesitate slightly to make the following declaration, but make it I must: Chanel revolutionised horology when it launched the ceramic J12 in 2002. There, I said it. In the same way that stainless steel was considered tool-watch material until the launch of the Royal Oak in 1972, the J12 introduced a design lexicon that was virtually unheard of at that time. A four-figure, almost-plastic-looking watch that could not be scratched? Unfathomable.
But Chanel had just gotten started, and that was just its nascent step on its horological journey. The man responsible for igniting Chanel’s watchmaking flame was Jacques Helleu, the brand’s artistic director at that time. In 1987, he conceived the Première watch, recognisable for its shape that emulates the Chanel No. 5 bottle stopper. A few years later, in 1993, Chanel would establish its Swiss presence by acquiring a stake in G&F Châtelain, a manufacture that specialised in the finishing of movements and other watchmaking skills. It was set up in 1947 by two brothers, Georges and Francis Châtelain, and had worked with Chanel on the production of Première, thus organically paving the way to its eventual acquisition.
Located in La Chaux-de-Fonds, G&F Châtelain represents a very important piece of the puzzle for Chanel, as this is where it manufactures — from scratch — the ceramic that it uses for its J12 watches. Essentially, high-tech ceramic grains undergo a high-pressure, high-heat treatment to solidify into the material’s final form — it is a labour-intensive task, and one that requires precision and experience. It must be noted that Chanel’s ceramic-making technique took six years to be perfected, and the secret to the material’s lustre, strength and quality remains closely guarded.
In its ambition to expand its watchmaking division, Chanel would make a few more strategic investments to establish it as a bona fide watchmaker — after acquiring G&F, the Wertheimer brothers (controlling shareholders of Chanel) also bought a “friendly” stake in Romain Gauthier in 2016, a 20 per cent stake in FP Journe in 2018, and 20 per cent stake movement-maker Kenissi in 2019.
For independent watchmakers like Romain Gauthier and FP Journe, this partnership allows them to secure their businesses, and ensures that their brands will continue long after they are gone. Post-acquisition, Journe revealed that he agreed to sell a stake of his company “to guarantee the future of his company”, given that none of his children want to follow in his footsteps.
This deliberate acquisition of skilled artisans is in line with Chanel’s greater ethos: its subsidiary Paraffection has slowly been acquiring couture ateliers in France that specialise in rarefied crafts — its ambition is to protect handcrafted techniques and metiers d’art, ensuring the know-how is passed on from generation to generation and not lost to the annals of time.
And one thing that we should give Chanel credit for is that it has never seen its “fashion” roots as a disadvantage. It has embraced and leveraged its expertise in couture time and again, bringing fashion crafts and motifs to its watchmaking endeavours, as evinced by the Mademoiselle Privé collection that often showcases artistic crafts such as embroidery on the dial.
It is a strategy that has helped set it apart, and has spawned timepieces that unapologetically straddle the line between fashion and horology — all while respecting the codes inherent to Swiss watchmaking. In fact, in 2016, it surprised us with the launch of its first in-house movement, surprisingly fitted in a men’s watch, Monsieur de Chanel.
Calibre 1 features an instant jumping hour and retrograde minute, but beyond its technical specs, it also revealed Chanel’s hand: the brand was not interested in using its resources to build an in-house automatic, simple movement. No, it wanted to show off the prowess that it had built over the years, and to affirm its position as a bona fide watchmaker. Subsequent in-house movements would include a flying tourbillon (Calibre 5), a skeleton movement (Calibre 3) and a manual-winding skeleton movement shaped like a camellia (Calibre 2).
While Gucci has only amped up its high watchmaking production in the past two years, it has a long history of producing cool timepieces — in 1978, its Model 2000 timepiece broke world records by selling more than one million units in two years. Over the years, Gucci’s watches have continued to be stamped by the Swiss-made label, inking its spot at number 25 in a Morgan Stanley 2021 report on the top-selling Swiss watch brands.
This was thanks to the fact that in 1972, Gucci inked a licencing agreement with the Severin Montres Group, essentially cementing its presence in Switzerland. Since then, it has anchored its production in three locations, focusing on different expertise: At its workshop in La Chaux-de-Fonds, this is where Gucci conducts quality control checks, assembles the watches, and does the jewellery-setting. Over at the Kering manufacture in Neuchâtel — which also serves as the headquarters for Gucci watches — the ideas are percolated via the design process and its in-house movements are produced. Then, in Ticino (the Italian-speaking region of Switzerland), its visual mastery comes to life at the Fabbrica Quadranti workshop, which manufactures the Gucci dials. The Florentine dial-maker started working with Gucci 15 years before the Italian brand acquired its operations in 2013.
It is clear that Alessandro Michele and Gucci have high aspirations for the watchmaking division, evinced by the launch of its high watchmaking collection in 2021. Unapologetically ostentatious, the watches are tres Gucci, subverting design norms and drawing inspiration from myriad sources — creating, ultimately, a veritable Gucci Wonderland. But still, regardless of how you feel about the aesthetics, one cannot deny that the watches are well-made, kowtowing to traditional Swiss watchmaking techniques without plunging into the tried-and-tested category.
In true Gucci statement-making fashion, its high watchmaking aspirations were cemented by the launch of its first in-house movement, the ultra-thin the GG727.25, housed within the Gucci 25H. The 25H is reminiscent of a 1970s sports watch, with a cushion-shaped case, integrated bracelet, striated lines on the dial, and a clever three-layer case design that hides the crown. Naysayers dubbed the timepiece a “NautilusOak”; it is perhaps not the most creatively designed watch in the line-up, but will probably be its most commercially successful. Prices for the steel quartz version (which comes with a range of funky-coloured dials) start at US$1,700, but if you want a gold or platinum edition, the automatic watch will cost you US$9,700. The tourbillon version costs a cool US$142,000.
For 2022, the 25H has received an haute horlogerie upgrade: this time, the tourbillon version has been skeletonised, further showing off the technical chops of the Kering manufacture.
Will this — or the other truly bombastic timepieces that Gucci has launched — be purchased by the Patek Philippe or Vacheron Constantin purist? Perhaps not, but they are not whom Gucci is targeting. Those who buy its watches will mostly not be swayed by technical innovations or even an in-house movement — but they are the early adopters who are happy to embrace the unconventional. They grew up wearing Flik Flaks and Apple watches, and do not necessarily want to wear the same watches their fathers do — Gucci’s watches are a way of introducing them to this rarefied world, packaged in a youthful dressing.
In its press release about the Tambour 20 (a watch that celebrates the 20th anniversary of Louis Vuitton’s signature Tambour collection), the French maison states, almost as a footnote: “A tribute to Louis Vuitton’s travel legacy, clients can continue to protect their most precious belongings in cases that will stand the test of time… Said time, however, is not likely to have passed before Louis Vuitton’s legitimacy as a watchmaker is well and truly established…”Talk about being painfully self-aware…
But it is telling of the trajectory that Louis Vuitton has undertaken in the past 20 years to firmly establish its credibility as a watchmaker. An instrumental decision was its acquisition of La Fabrique du Temps, which was the brainchild of watchmakers Michel Navas and Enrico Barbasini. Both were master horologers who had cut their teeth collectively at Patek Philippe, Audemars Piguet and Franck Muller — the latter was during the Crazy Hours era, where their watchmaking know-how was pushed to the limits.
Their objective for setting up La Fabrique du Temps was simple: To think outside the horological box. Unsurprisingly, Louis Vuitton came calling in 2011, its mandate being to cement its watchmaking expertise in Switzerland. Anchored firmly in the twin tenets of sailing and travel, Louis Vuitton wanted to produce timepieces that conveyed its adventurous spirit by reimagining classical complications and presenting them in new-fangled ways.
Over the years, Louis Vuitton would further establish its Swiss presence with the acquisition of dial-maker Léman Cadran, and the establishment of a 4,000 sqm Louis Vuitton High Watchmaking facility in Meyrin.
The manufacture’s strategic location in Geneva gives Louis Vuitton another advantage: it allows the brand to submit its timepieces to the Geneva Seal institute, further guaranteeing that its watches are produced with the finest attention to finishing and manufacturing. Without swaying from its core DNA, Louis Vuitton’s watches have made waves for their unique take on horology — take the Spin Time, which features 12 cubes instead of conventional numerals, which jump to the next hour to reveal the time. Over the years, this intelligent display has been used to display the five-minute regatta countdown as well as the time in your home city on the GMT version. It has also been artistically reimagined, as seen in the Escale Spin Time, and been re-engineered using lightweight aluminium to reduce the size of the case.
This is all to say that Louis Vuitton is no ordinary luxury brand, and its watchmaking endeavours are similarly guided — it is not afraid of defying convention, and the words “technical feat” feature often in media reports for its unorthodox approach to prosaic functions. Case in point: its 2022 Tambour Spin Time Air Quantum takes inspiration from quantum physics, and features minuscule LED lights that illuminate the watch on demand. The cubes are constructed in silicon dioxide — a type of glass — which gives the impression that they are floating. By consistently straddling the lines between innovation and tradition, and everything in between, there is no denying that Louis Vuitton has carved a neat niche for itself in the annals of Swiss watchmaking. Has it established the legitimacy it sought 20 years ago? You tell us.