WATCH WATCH

St. John teams with Swiss Army Brands

Each year, women have more options for their wardrobe. In watches, the latest entry is St. John Timepieces, Swiss watches designed exclusively for sophisticated women. They will be marketed as “pieces of jewelry that tell time.”

The watch collection, one of the highlights of The JCK Show (see July issue), is inspired by mother and daughter Marie and Kelly Gray, respectively vice chairwoman and president of the Irvine, Calif.-based St. John Knits franchise. The company’s clothing and accessories for women are sold under the St. John, Griffith, and Gray names.

Swiss Army Brands is the manufacturer, marketer, and worldwide distributor for the new St. John watch line. The mutually beneficial move puts Swiss Army Brands in the women’s watch market and St. John in the watch business.

St. John’s watches are billed as contemporary classic timepieces, with styling combinations of steel and 18k gold plate, in geometric shapes from round to rectangle – all designed to further refine a woman’s personal style. Retailing from $450 to $18,000, the watches are scheduled to hit St. John boutiques, specialty apparel boutiques, luxury department stores, and high-end independent jewelers in October.

St. John watches have sapphire crystals and ETA movements. The core line features eight models from casual to signature to couture.

The couture collection is the star of the line. It features two of the rarest timepieces seen in the watch industry: custom-made luxury watches set with black and white diamonds. This “Marie” watch showcases 288 rare black diamonds uniquely set in a black stainless steel bracelet. A similar “Marie” model has 160 black diamonds and 128 white diamonds so light dances off their facets.

For the sporty or casual everyday look, the “Kelly” and “Amber” watches fit the bill, with simple round or square stainless steel cases with genuine leather straps or steel bracelets. Some feature the St. John signature paillettes. The “Sharon,” “Jeannette,” and “Neva” styles offer a more refined look, each with a special SJ insignia on the strap or bracelet design. “Sheri” and “Jennifer” feature unique bracelets in black satin or gold and/or steel links.

“There’s so much opportunity for growth in the dress watch market,” says Linda Sweeny, brand manager for St. John Timepieces. “The timing is great because this trend is just starting. St. John watches aren’t necessarily fashion pieces – they’re fashion statements.”

Saks, Neiman Marcus, and Nordstrom are naturals to carry such a watch line. St. John is a 36-year-old company with 16 boutiques in the United States. According to the company, St. John apparel is favored by the likes of Hillary Rodham Clinton and broadcasters Jane Pauley and Lisa McCree.

The company was born by fluke. St. John was a stage name for cofounder Marie Gray, a model who originally designed clothes merely as a way to finance a vacation. Watches are the second license for St. John. Sunglasses were first.

Bulova: quiescent no longer

The alarm has sounded at Bulova. The venerable watch brand is introducing a Vibra-Alarm watch with two alarm modes – sound and vibration. The watch is part of an impressive lineup of new timepieces and styles for the company. Like the watch, the traditionally quiescent brand is trying to make some noise.

Its Millennia Collection, which emphasizes technology and exotic materials, is doing just that. Millennia features nine models, including motion quartz watches (powered by the wearer’s wrist), solar watches (powered by any light source), and the Vibra-Alarm, a perfect watch for the hearing-impaired that can also be used as a dual-time-zone timepiece.

In addition, Bulova is offering another dual-time-zone watch that has a unique second watch dial on – of all things – the bracelet. This watch is also a chronograph and has a separate movement that runs the dual dial on the bracelet.

In its Classics line, Bulova has introduced a series of elegant duets and bangle watches that conform to any size wrist. There’s also a new range of diamond timepieces and sports-themed watches in its Sportstime collection, as well as additions to its Accutron Swiss line and its low-end Caravelle line.

Beyond timepieces, Bulova is aggressively pursuing licensing opportunities in jewelry, leather goods, desk accessories, pens, mechanical pencils, and pen sets. The company is also looking into licenses in technical items such as binoculars, compasses, and telescopes; medical devices; and precise small appliances or electronic items. The first deal is with a company called ROI, which makes the Bulova brand of eyewear.

“We’re not as interested in licensing revenue as we are quality,” says Herbert Hofmann, president and chief executive officer of Bulova Corp. “We’re talking a lot [with companies], but the quality has to be compatible to our own.”

Licensing has been a good way of building business for watch companies in recent years – at least more successful than launching a brand from scratch. Bulova is already an active licensee with Royal Doulton, Frank Lloyd Wright, Pfaltzgraff, Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association, the National Football League, and the National Hockey League.

A Ralph Lauren license?

There’s a heavyweight lineup of designer names still expected to jump into the licensed watch market – including Tommy Hilfiger, Donna Karan, and what many consider the mother lode, Ralph Lauren. But they are still holdouts. Their caution opens the door for the likes of Coach, St. John, Yves Saint Laurent, Halston, Hush Puppies, and more.

According to sources, Tommy Hilfiger is considering its options for entering the watch market. But apparently the company’s terms are very demanding. The word about these watches is on the street – literally. Counterfeit Tommy Hilfiger watches are already selling on New York City sidewalks. So legitimate “Tommy” watches are likely on the horizon, and you can bet they’ll be colorful.

Many agree that watches with Ralph Lauren on the dial are a “can’t-miss” launch. According to one source who courted Ralph Lauren, the designer is interested in launching watches from $500 to a surprising $10,000, with projected minimum volume numbers that are “astronomical.” Here’s another catch: According to a different source, the Ralph Lauren company wants the eventual distributor of its watches to commit $9 million in advertising in the first year – a scary figure in the watch industry. So, interested distributors, ante up.

Signs of the Zodiac

Genender International, which purchased Zodiac this year, plans to steer the brand away from its sporty look – although not completely. While sports watches are hot, they are also a hotly contested niche. Zodiac is getting out of the one-dimensional game. The brand will still push sporty styles such as the Super Seawolf, but it will diversify its future product line. Zodiac had financial problems in recent years.

“We’re going to move Zodiac beyond the sports enthusiasts,” says Kenneth Genender, Genender International president. “There’s a new window of opportunity. We’re taking a brand that has heritage and we’re going back to its roots. We have to go back in time to spring forward.”

Genender says most people would be surprised to know that Zodiac has a history of producing other watch styles, including classic dress watches.

Appointments

Egana of Switzerland, the North American subsidiary of Hong Kong-based Egana International, appointed Jerry Thompson as its president and chief operating officer. He was previously executive vice president for Town & Country Corp.

Baume and Mercier, a division of the Vendôme Luxury Group North America, appointed Thomas Van der Kallen as vice president of marketing for the U.S. market. He was formerly with VLG in the Netherlands, where he served as sales and marketing manager for Baume & Mercier, Piaget, Montblanc, and Vacheron Constantin. He was responsible for both the Netherlands and Scandinavia.

Seiko Corp. of America (SCA) made several recent appointments: Chuck Sullivan to vice president of northeast regional sales; John Lessieu to national sales manager of specialty retailing for SCA’s special markets department; and John Santiago to premium sales manager for SCA’s special markets department.

Name switch at SMH

SMH will likely become the Swatch Group, as speculated, says Yann Y. Gamard, president of SMH USA. It’s a worldwide strategic move that makes the company more identifiable on all levels, all the way down to the consumer. It also puts Swatch, considered the favorite “child” of chairman Nicolas G. Hayek, at the forefront of the overall company. But if Swatch is front and center, will it be to the detriment of the luxury brands in the corporation, brands such as Omega, Rado, Blancpain, Hamilton, and Longines?

Not so, says Gamard. “We have high standards and Swiss quality from a value and perception standpoint. Even Swatch has a high perceived value. The name Swatch Group is basically a corporate endorsement that will give the brands strength and force. People don’t even know what SMH stands for, anyway.”

Gamard says the SMH name can’t be used throughout the world, as originally intended. For instance, a bank uses the SMH name in Germany. The eventual move is for synergy and easier identification. After all, everyone knows a corporation named Swatch is a watch company.

“We’re the biggest group, so we might as well let people know.”

Big is an understatement. The future Swatch Group just surpassed the 3 billion Swiss franc level (U.S. $4.5 billion) in total sales – certainly a “force” to be reckoned with.