Mo Oshodi, a 38-year-old buyer for several fashion brands in London, likes to dress well. That’s great news for makers of high-end footwear; for Swiss watchmakers, not so much. “I have three watches, but probably 300 pairs of shoes,” she explains. “It’s such a big investment. I’d rather just buy one and hold it, and buy more shoes.”
In 2013, Swiss watch companies saw their slowest sales growth since the global financial crisis, partly because of a $1 billion contraction in watch sales to China, where the government has discouraged extravagant spending. So companies from Audemars Piguet to Richard Mille are wooing women, who account for only 35 percent of sales. The $50 billion watch industry had concentrated for decades on the race to outfit the wealthiest men with wearable status symbols. “For many, many years the watch industry didn’t communicate with women, period,” says François-Henry Bennahmias, chief executive officer of Audemars Piguet, who aims to increase women’s share of his brand’s sales to 35 percent in the next three years from 25 percent.
Luxe brands including Patek Philippe are boosting advertising in fashion magazines such as Vogue and opening stands in department stores rather than expecting women to frequent watch shops. “We’re in a very conservative industry, 100 percent macho,” says Jean-Marc Jacot, CEO of Swiss brand Parmigiani Fleurier. So he got Italian jeweler Pomellato, known for its gemstone stacking rings, to design a line of colorful women’s watches.
There’s plenty of upside in getting women to shell out $125,000 for the latest diamond-encrusted Ballon Blanc watch from Cartier (CFR:VX), says Luca Solca, an analyst at Exane BNP Paribas, because bejeweled timepieces can have higher margins than the plainer models that the industry calls “mechanical” watches. Montblanc learned that last year when it stumbled onto the female watch market with the Star Classique, a smaller timepiece intended for men. Women bought so many that Montblanc began adding diamonds to the model. The most expensive runs about $8,300, vs. $4,700 for the priciest of the Star Classique models meant for men.
Other male-centric brands have joined the shift. Jaeger-LeCoultre, known for its iconic reversible watch for polo, now touts a timepiece that it says is “destined to be a girl’s best friend.” Baume & Mercier aims to “seduce and surprise all women” with a collection in June, CEO Alain Zimmermann says. Its Linea watches have straps in orange and poppy red that women can change.
Still, many watches remain priced out of even the most fashionable woman’s budget. In its first offering for women, Greubel Forsey showed one of the costliest watches at the Geneva watch show in January. With 272 diamonds, it sells for 750,000 Swiss francs ($830,000). That would buy about 1,000 pairs of Manolo Blahnik Cetto pumps.