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What women want

Much has been made of the growth in demand for ladies’ mechanical watches. The trend began in earnest about a decade ago, just as the watchmaking renaissance was hitting its stride. Then came the financial boom in the Far East, where collectors tend to snub quartz movements. Suddenly, the push to introduce ladies tourbillons, minute repeaters and other high complications took on urgency.

Not ones to miss a marketing opportunity, the prestige watch brands—Patek Philippe, Jaeger-LeCoultre and Girard-Perregaux, to name a few—embraced the category. For a while, the ladies mechanical segment seemed like the next big thing.

Lately, however, the consensus among Swiss watchmakers appears to be changing. The new conviction is that, first and foremost, women want dazzling aesthetics from their timepieces (not necessarily to the exclusion of intricate mechanics, but let’s be clear: Looks come first).

That should explain why the breadth of esoteric artistic techniques seen in the ladies’ category this year is unsurpassed. From mother-of-pearl marquetry to profusions of exotic colored stones, many ladies’ wristwatches feature the work of artisans who trace their creative roots to Geneva in the 17th century, when Huguenots fleeing persecution in France brought their artistic savoir-faire to bear on the local trade.

At Harry Winston, for example, two new ladies’ timepieces—the Avenue C Precious Marquetry and the Premier Precious Marquetry 36 mm—boast dials featuring mother-of-pearl veneers in elaborate motifs that call to mind the geometric lines of Art Deco and the sensuous curves of Art Nouveau, respectively. The wristwatches are powered by quartz movements, but that seems of little consequence—or so retailer reaction would suggest.

“I walked away from Harry Winston doing cartwheels,” said Sandy Hequin, owner of Morays Jewelers in Downtown Miami, referring to her appointment with the brand at the Baselworld luxury fair, held in Switzerland this past spring. “They came out with beautiful women’s dress watches. Before, there wasn’t a lot to see for under $300,000. Now they’re at $50,000. I was ecstatic.”

Other trends seen in the ladies category this year include gold bracelet models, strap watches in fetching double-wrap styles and pops of color in bright, happy hues. “The new Cartier Tank Anglaise in rose gold with diamonds on a purple strap—it comes in and flies out the door,” said Ed Dikes, owner of Weston Jewelers. He said the reason many women prefer to focus on the look of a watch rather than on its engine, per se, might be because most consider timepieces fashion accessories. “They’ll switch watches, go out on a Friday night and ask ‘How do I set this thing?’” he said.

Not all watchmakers, however, are asking women to choose between beauty and brains; many are placing an emphasis on both in their timepieces. Take, for example, the new Jade collection from Ulysse Nardin. Encased in 18-karat gold, the timepiece is distinguished by an elegant mother-of-pearl dial strewn with gemstones. One version features a bezel snow-set with emeralds and diamonds and distinctive “horns” made of jade in an attractive design that is at once sassy and sophisticated.

At the heart of it all, however, beats the brand’s first in-house movement designed and produced exclusively for women—“in such a way that it does not call for pushing or pulling of the crown to set the date and time,” Ulysse Nardin touted in a press release. Alas, old habits die hard. The brand admitted that watchmakers took an aesthetic concern into account when designing the unique functionality: “no more damage to the ladies’ manicure.” — VG