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 $50-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% of the population for inspiration.
“Women are the future of watches,” says 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 which 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% 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% from 20% in 1995, market analysts Bain & Co found.
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 crossover 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% of the total market, will grow at a compound annual rate of 8-9% from 2012-17, compared with 6-7% growth