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Oldest Swiss Watchmaker's 21st-Century Goal: Make U.S. No. 1

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By William George Shuster, Senior Editor
This story appears in the January 2006 issue of JCK magazine
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Vacheron Constantin, the world’s oldest continuing watchmaker, has plans to make America its top sales market, add younger clients, and boost affluent consumers’ awareness of it. The Swiss luxury brand marked its 250th anniversary in 2005 with a series of anniversary-year-only timepieces and 17 galas around the world, including one in New York City in October. Julien Tornare, 33, formerly the company’s area manager overseeing Europe, Latin America, and Switzerland and president of Vacheron Constantin USA since April, talked with JCK about plans for the American market.

BRAND AWARENESS

At present, America provides 15 percent to 20 percent of the brand’s total business, second only to Asia. Tornare’s five-year goal is to make the United States the company’s No. 1 market, with 25 percent of total world sales. “We’re seeing a positive trend here,” he said. “The luxury watch business keeps evolving, with more brands here and more knowledge among people about fine watchmaking every year. We ourselves are selling more complicated timepieces here, and find people are more and more interested in such watches. Also, this is a big country with a lot of people with lots of money, who can afford such beautiful timepieces.”

Growth in U.S. sales could also help the watchmaker’s overall production, now 16,000 watches annually, eventually reach 18,000 to 20,000, he said.

Though known among European watch connoisseurs as a top luxury brand, Vacheron Constantin needs to raise its profile in America, said Tornare, so one of his key goals is developing brand awareness in the United States. “We want to use every opportunity for the American people to see and learn about Vacheron Constantin.”

AUCTIONS AND GALAS

One opportunity was the high-profile 250th anniversary gala in late October in the Astor Room of the New York Public Library, hosted by Tornare and Melania Trump, wife of celebrity entrepreneur Donald Trump, who wore a $600,000 Vacheron Constantin 44.00 ct. diamond watch. Some 250 guests, including brand customers and dealers and celebrities in various categories, applauded the evening’s honorees—NBA Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas, filmmaker Albert Maysles, and celebrity chef Eric Ripert—and viewed $4 million worth of Vacheron Constantin watches representing its quarter-millennium history. Those included models from five lines created for the anniversary year, among them, Tour de l’Ile, the world’s most complicated wristwatch; Saint-Gervais, with a 250-hour power reserve; and Jubilé 1755. (The anniversary lines were also displayed earlier in 2005 at the Tourneau TimeMachine store in New York.)

The company is trying to raise its profile through fine-watch auctions as well. Last April Vacheron Constantin set several world records in the first-ever auction of its watches. The Quarter Millennium of Vacheron Constantin sale, held in Geneva by the Antiquorum watch auctioneers, sold 250 classic and new timepieces and took in $15.3 million, the most ever in a thematic watch auction. The watchmaker will be more active in fine-watch auctions here and around the world, Tornare told JCK, strengthening its base among watch collectors and enthusiasts. “We’re a little late getting into this,” he noted, “but collectors in this market, which has been dominated by Patek Philippe or Rolex, have asked us for it. We’ll do more in 2006.”

FINE-TUNING BUSINESS

Vacheron Constantin’s American network is limited and exclusive—56 U.S. dealers and four in Canada—and Tornare likes it that way. “We don’t want more dealers than we can support,” he said. “We do want real partnerships with them, where they work with us to promote the brand, and we help them make lots of money.”

Tornare envisions the brand’s dealers and their staffs being ambassadors for the brand to the public, not just watch sellers: “With passion for it and all there is about it,” Tornare explained. “We’re developing an intensive training program, so they can give good, knowledgeable presentations about Vacheron Constantin.”

Tornare has also made a number of internal changes in the brand’s small U.S. operations, hiring people to do marketing and communications and restructuring, giving him more time to work personally with dealers and customers. “If someone is unhappy and contacts customer service, I write them. If someone buys a watch, I call or write to congratulate them and say a few words about the brand,” he said. “It’s important to have direct contact with customers.”

U.S. ORIENTED

The product focus remains on men’s watches with complications (though it also has some women’s timepieces). Its collections, all sold here, include Egérie, Kalla, 1972, Malte, Patrimony, and Overseas. Royal Eagle (in the Malte collection) and Overseas are stainless-steel sports watches that are especially popular in the United States. The company is also working on special products solely for the U.S. market. The first will be unveiled at April’s SIHH (Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie) luxury watch show in Geneva.

All the brand’s watches, said Tornare, have three competitive advantages: technique, aesthetics, and finishing. Technique means linking vintage craftsmanship with modern equipment and innovation, exemplified by its new 2450 automatic movement, on which all future Vacheron Constantin complications will be based. Aesthetics is displayed in the company’s stylish new Malte Tonneau Dual Time. And finishing is the attention to detail that makes Vacheron Constantin recognizable to connoisseurs.

Supporting all these initiatives is an ad campaign just for the U.S. market, said Tornare, “focusing on America’s core values, its DNA.” The first shows the 1776 signing of the Declaration of Independence, a note that Vacheron Constantin was already 21 years old then, and a picture of the Jubilé 1755. It ran nationally in several upscale publications in spring and fall 2005. This year, Tornare wants more media presence, and he will expand ad placement. A new campaign for 2007 is in the works. “We’re using national ads to show who we are,” he said. The company also uses co-op ads locally.

Altogether, such strategies and methods, Tonare believes, will strengthen the brand’s U.S. business with collectors and connoisseurs, while enticing others who just want a good-quality watch, especially younger customers. Most of Vacheron Constantin’s American customers are close to 40 in age. “We want to target younger affluent customers, too, in their 20s or early 30s,” said Tornare. “We have the right product for the younger, more trendy crowd. We want them today, so they’ll become our classic watch clients tomorrow.”

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