Are Colored Watches Too Hot to Handle?

In 1996, Breitling, Girard-Perregaux and Omega offered a sneak peek at a new look in luxury watches: a calculated, bold move to color. Bright, in-your-face, Crayola-crayon color.

What’s really interesting is the mix of big names with big color. A few no-name companies played around with color some time ago, but no one seemed to notice. Then some sedate blue dials and straps quietly eased into the mainstream after positive consumer response and sales. But in 1996, Breitling introduced bold yellow and orange dials, avant-garde styles that were a little before their time.

It wasn’t long before rival companies caught on. Girard-Perregaux kicked color into its upscale Pour Ferrari collection. Omega took it to the next level with even bolder red and yellow Speedmasters with matching straps. Surprisingly, rather than being laughed out of Switzerland, these sizzling timepieces encouraged other luxury watch companies to throw caution and conservatism to the wind. What resulted were watches in colors normally reserved for fruit juice. It

wasn’t just reds and blues, it was also pinks, oranges and lime greens.

Europeans always have had a better sense of humor than Americans when it comes to combining lots of whimsy and lots of money. In Basel’s jewelry pavilions, it’s not unusual to see platinum mixed with plastic, but the out-of-the-blue hues in the watch pavilion shocked American buyers, especially in the luxury sector. What was the point? Did the luxury watch companies feel the need to spark a new trend, or did they just go overboard? More to the point, what’s the sell-through on rainbow-colored timepieces?

Colored watches generate excitement, and some retailers even say they sell, but they make up a very small percentage of overall watch business – about 5%, according to one jeweler. Others say it’s even less than that. It’s hardly the stuff of which significant sales are generated, especially at the high end.

So why all the fuss over what amounts to a small fraction of overall watch business?

The fuss is the point. These watches attract attention. Whether they turn consumers’ heads or turn their stomachs, they get noticed in store windows and showcases.

“We don’t just sell watches, we sell emotions,” says Ruediger Albers, vice president and general manager of the Fifth Avenue branch of German-based jeweler Wempe. “Color brings a whole watch collection to life.

“Bread and butter alone makes things boring because you see it everywhere else and you want to distinguish your store … The question is whether a person feels comfortable wearing these colorful watches.”

Some people do. Generally, colored watch customers already have a full watch wardrobe and are ready for a little diversion. While young people who grew up on the bold colors of Swatch are open to the idea of colorful timepieces, affluent customers are more likely to actually buy them, according to some retailers.

“Color appears to sell better on the high end,” says Marion Halfacre, president of Traditional Jewelers, Newport Beach, Calif. “Maybe others are buying watches for function, not for fun.

“For us, $5,000 has probably been the peak sale in colored watches. I thought these watches were pretty brazen when I first saw them. But the watch companies talked me into it.”

“It’s something offbeat and people notice it,” says Albers. “They are striking. You can see an orange dial from across the room. Colorful luxury watches are so far off the chart they’re beautiful again.”

Colored watches have evolved from basic primary colors to chic designer colors. Chic and trendy Franck Muller, never afraid to test time with color, recently launched a U.S. exclusive – the Wall Street Banker, which boasts one model in green gold with a lime green dial. Tiger Tudor watches, named for golfer Tiger Woods, sit on the luxury cusp. These timepieces gave a major boost to colorful watches, both in luxury and moderate price points. Now, fashion forecasters say brown may be this year’s breakthrough color. But some say brown is the worst color a watch company can showcase on a dial. One retailer even calls it the “UPS look.” Stay tuned on brown, especially since its popularity in apparel has already peaked and been supplanted by gray.

If, as retailers say, more than two-thirds of all watches sold have white dials with Roman numerals, fancy-colored watches are welcome window dressing. But to many, impact means nothing if it doesn’t translate to sales.

“We’ve got enough window dressing in the showcases; we buy these watches to sell,” says Howard Kaplan, president of Henry Kay Jewelers in Chicago. “This is a profit-oriented organization.” He says color is doing well enough – Rolex’s blue-dialed Submariner is the best selling in the series right now – but it certainly won’t replace his other watch business.

A scant year after Breitling’s experiment, color was a bona fide, full-fledged craze. By Basel ’97, watches like Audemars Piguet’s Offshore Collection and Daniel Roth’s GMT Gent’s and automatic chronographs attracted attention because they went the distance with the boldest colors. With price points up to and beyond $10,000, retailers were surprised by such bold fashion looks from so many watch companies. Many bought these expensive fashion pieces, but sometimes reluctantly. Color can be pretty restrictive – after all, how often will a person really wear an aqua watch?

Since even mid-priced and fashion watches joined the color brigade last year, jewelers are wondering if Basel ’98 will be just as vivid. Color that made its way back to U.S. stores from Basel last year will likely make its largest impact during this spring and summer season. If enough upscale jewelers like Halfacre can be convinced, maybe consumers will be as well – if the retailers push color. But few believe the high-end color trend will last long. If the sales figures don’t shine this spring and summer, its days could be numbered and retailers will ride the trend only until the rainbow fades.

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