Watchmakers wooing women to boost flagging sales

BASEL, Switzerland (Reuters) - A recent advert from luxury watchmaker Omega shows a large, technologically advanced timepiece. So far, so typical. But this one is studded with diamonds and worn by actress Nicole Kidman. Called the Ladymatic, it's the future of the industry.

The bulk of the US$50 billion (S$63 billion) Swiss watch market has for years been aimed at wealthy men drawn to high-tech, gadget-loaded timepieces they can wear as status symbols. These customers' interest has waned little despite economic fluctuations - though the recent financial crisis hurt sales, it was followed by a stronger rebound that was driven by demand in China.

Now however, sales of men's watches in China have slowed, and demand in the West is not enough to pick up the slack. Faced with only single digit growth prospects, top brands are looking to the other 50 per cent of the population for inspiration.

"Women are the future of watches," says Mr Jean-Claude Biver, head of LVMH's watch unit. "There's huge potential in women's watches that is only half exploited today."

Traditionally women have shown little inclination to buy the kind of mechanically complex, multi-functional pieces on which Swiss manufacturers have built their reputation for precision - this kind of engineering needs space and results in the big dials that women tend to shun for battery-powered, unobtrusive styles.

However, fashions are changing. A trend for bulkier watches, and a boom in jewellery sales have lifted levels of interest, which has also been driven by a growing middle-class female customer base in China.

A study by Digital Luxury Group showed that online searches for ladies' watches rose 7.5 per cent in 2013, led by China and Swatch Group brands. In the same year, the share of female watches in the luxury watch market rose to 35 per cent from 20 per cent in 1995, market analysts Bain & Co. found.

Mr Stephen Urquhart, head of Swatch Group's Omega brand, said the success of its Ladymatic model, first launched in Beijing in 2010, was driven by Asian women.

"In China, women are really emerging as buyers. There are more women buying for themselves," he said.

The Asian market is also a cross-over point for another trend - the resurgence of interest in jewellery that has seen Swatch acquire Harry Winston to provide eager customers with even more precious diamond-studded watches than those modelled by Kidman.

Bernstein analysts forecast that sales of branded jewellery, which makes up 20 percent of the total market, will grow at a compound annual rate of 8 to 9 per cent from 2012 to 2017, compared with 6 to 7 per cent growth for the luxury industry as a whole.

In addition to providing bejewelled watches the big brands are also coming under pressure to provide different technological aspects to their ranges.

Last year, Ulysse Nardin launched a mechanical watch for women, the Jade, that - at the request of its Chairwoman Chai Schnyder - does not damage ladies' manicures because there's no need to push or pull the crown to set the date and time.

Other watchmakers are hard at work to produce designs that will attract female buyers for whom a chunky timepiece is still a turn-off.

"The more functions you add to a mechanical (watch) the thicker it gets. Maybe we have to wait for technical advances to go more into miniatures," said Mr Thierry Stern, chairman of Patek Philippe, which makes some of the most complicated technical watches on the market.

Currently, only about a third of Patek's watches end up on women's wrists, but Mr Stern wants to increase that share to 40 per cent.

Brands like Hermes and Dior are working at the other end of the scale - offering very small watches this season.

"We go a bit against the market with our new Faubourg models because most brands make bigger watches, but we believe in the elegance of a jewellery watch," said Mr Luc Perramond, head of Hermes' watch unit, La Montre Hermes.

Its new Faubourg watch measures a mere 15.5mm in diameter, even smaller than Dior's 19mm Mini D.