With their austere faces and sleek metal-mesh bands, Skagen watches are among the more stylish timepieces on the market. So it's hard not to be taken aback by their prices--seldom more than 100 bucks, less than the sales tax on a Rolex. "We're creative but unpretentious," says Skagen Chief Executive Charlotte Jorst.
Delivering high style at low prices has been the mission of Skagen Designs Ltd. since it was founded a decade ago by Jorst and her husband Henrik. Last year, the Reno (Nev.) company, which has 70 employees, sold a million watches in department stores and boutiques nationwide, generating revenues of some $30 million. Now, it's getting even more ambitious, putting the Skagen name on sunglasses, apparel, and home and office accessories.
Not too bad considering that the enterprise began as a hobby for Charlotte. She and Henrik emigrated to New York from Denmark in 1989 to work for the U.S. division of Danish beer company Carlsberg International--he in marketing and she as a "Miss Carlsberg" model. Bored with modeling, Charlotte--who, like her husband, holds an MBA--began designing watches and selling them to corporations to distribute as gifts. The watches, which are made by a small, Danish manufacturer, soon attracted the attention of retail boutiques, and in 1991, the Jorsts left Carlsberg and founded Skagen, naming the company for a quaint Danish seaside village.
Four hundred pieces were placed in Manhattan boutiques, and they went fast. The duo tallied $800,000 in receipts that first year. In 1993, eager to expand their business in a more tax-friendly environment, they moved to Reno and soon cracked the difficult department-store circuit. "Because Skagen is small, we're able to work together on product development," says Mark Rado, a buyer for the Macy's chain, which carries Skagen watches in 65 of its 87 stores, including a line of exclusive designs for Macy's customers.
Skagen is launching a new line of watches aimed at the booming young-adult market, in partnership with teen-fashion powerhouse Candies Inc. The company stands to gain even more exposure as it prepares its largest advertising campaign, with ads appearing in InStyle and GQ. For these watchmakers, it's the best of times.
By Amy Oringel