Watchmakers look to bespoke design to court the super-rich

Watchmakers look to bespoke design to court the super-rich
A watchmaker adjusts the components of the Autore 2TA watch model at Buccellati workshop in Chiasso March 14, 2014.

CHIASSO, Switzerland - As luxury watchmakers seek to keep increasing sales while preserving exclusivity, they are taking a leaf out of the haute couture book, making watches to order with anything from diamond stars to fully personalized shapes and decorations.

Big brands, such as Swatch Group's Omega or Richemont's Cartier, generate billions of dollars in sales, but as their timepieces grace ever more wrists, they lose their charm for some rich individualists.

And as the industry faces a slowdown after years of rampant growth, the super-rich - who can splash out on luxury even in tough times - become an even more coveted clientele, and personalization is one way to court them.

One jeweler, Buccellati, is going as far as allowing clients to customise everything - so they can have a heart-shaped watch engraved with their lover's picture or a square one with their family mansion set in diamonds.

"We will offer a bespoke service where the customer has a say on everything: the material, the case, the dial, the hands," said Thierry Andretta, president of the firm where prices for custom-made watches start at 100,000 Swiss francs ($113,000).

Established watch brands are also in on the game but, with their names and reputations on the line, insist on keeping the final say on the design of the customised piece.

Family-owned Chopard lets customers hand pick diamond-studded stars, horseshoes, hearts or crescent moons that will "float" on the dial of its Happy Sport watches, while Jaeger-LeCoultre fans can personalize the reversible side of the Reverso model through engraving, precious stones or enameling.

At Vacheron Constantin, which like Jaeger is owned by Richemont, customers can choose from a broad range of options on the Quai de l'Ile watch. About 1,000 combinations are possible.

"Buyers of expensive timepieces want to be seen as different from the crowd and customisation of appearance is key," Kepler Cheuvreux analyst Jon Cox said. "Customization and personalisation will be a key driver in the watch sector."

Exane BNP Paribas analyst Luca Solca said that, while still small, the market for customised watches would certainly grow as it increased perceived exclusivity and supported price premiums.

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