Watchmakers partnering with fashion designers is not a novel idea, but some brands looking to build their share of the female market are deepening those ties and inviting women designers to put their creative stamp on iconic watches.

In January, couturier Tamara Ralph sent her models down the runway at Paris Couture Week in a new limited edition Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Concept Flying Tourbillon. The following month, Victoria Beckham debuted her limited edition Chronomat collection in six variations for Breitling, which has been a sellout hit. And, this week, at the Watches and Wonders fair in Geneva, Vacheron Constantin and its ambassador Yiqing Yin, a Paris-based haute couturier, launch a collection complete with an innovative perfume-infused strap.

According to a 2023 Swiss watch industry report by Deloitte, “the untapped potential of the female watch buyer is significant”. The consultancy cited self-purchasing and more female watch influencers on social media as strong drivers of demand. In 2022, nearly half of the brands surveyed by Deloitte said they were expanding their range of designs tailored to women.

Elsewhere, the consultancy McKinsey and the Business of Fashion website, in their The State of Fashion 2024 report, predict branding will go into overdrive this year as companies feed customers’ desire for authenticity and emotional affinity. This can be achieved, the report suggests, by “leveraging the personalities” behind a brand. “Underscoring how many consumers gravitate towards the people who personify and drive a brand, organic content can be created around these personalities in authentic, personable ways,” the report says.

A model poses backstage prior to the Tamara Ralph  Haute Couture Spring/Summer 2024
Fashion designer Tamara Ralph debuted a new limited edition Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Concept Flying Tourbillon at Paris Couture Week © Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images

Ralph and Audemars Piguet began their partnership in 2020, but the new watch is the first one to come out of the union. “I’d never actually designed a watch before, but as soon as I started, I couldn’t stop,” recalls Ralph. “I ended up with around 50 sketches. We didn’t know which ones to choose.”

Her approach, however, echoed her work as a haute couturier. “I focus on one piece at a time. I make sure that each piece is a work of art, whether it’s the technique, materials, craftsmanship,” she says. “It’s all done in a very bespoke, personal way. It’s very tailored — I consider the client all the time: their lifestyle, who they are and how I envision them. My couture collection is the same: it’s my vision of my woman.”

The tourbillon watch features a dial of 3D-like, concentric circles in tones of brown, bronze and gold. It adopts the watchmaker’s subtle, signature Frosted Gold finish but is not set with any diamonds. Ralph says she imagined it as a transitional piece, much like her clothes. “A watch does not necessarily have to be covered in diamonds to transition into the evening,” she says, adding that the watch’s muted, metallic tones speak to a kind of “feminine strength”.

Audemars Piguet’s newly appointed chief executive, Ilaria Resta, adds that Ralph’s “quest for perfection combined with a feminine and bold aesthetic” resonates with the values of the house. Ralph — who debuted her eponymous brand in 2023 after leaving Ralph & Russo, a label she co-founded in 2010 — says creating a watch has encouraged her to look at new business strategies. “The collaboration has stretched us to think creatively about different product categories and diversifying into a more lifestyle concept,” she says.

Breitling Chronomat Automatic 36 Victoria Beckham
Breitling Chronomat Automatic 36 Victoria Beckham

Tapping into the fashion world in an effort to capture the growing women’s watch market was also Breitling’s play in its collaboration with pop star-turned-fashion designer Beckham. “Her relevance within the fashion industry enables us to speak to fashion-savvy women, while simultaneously reaching a broader female audience,” says Georges Kern, Breitling’s chief executive. The brand has grown its women’s segment by nine percentage points since 2020, with women’s watches accounting for 16 per cent of sales in 2023, according to Kern. He says it aims to increase that to 30 per cent.

The new Chronomat 36 Victoria Beckham collection, a classic three-hander with a date display, is limited to 1,500 pieces and comes in six models featuring a range of dial colours, from blue, peppermint and sand to dove grey. The watch comes in either steel or yellow gold, the latter a finish Breitling revived specially for the collaboration — and a first for a Breitling woman’s watch.

“This is the perfect watch for women who are looking for something versatile,” says Beckham, a noted watch enthusiast. “The mix of masculine and feminine has always been how I like to dress myself.”

Vacheron Constantin is also deepening its ties with women’s fashion. The Égérie Pleats of Time concept watch is an innovative design created with Yin. The piece features Yin’s creative touchpoints, such as a pleat-style mother-of-pearl dial and original haute couture embroidery strap woven with mother-of-pearl shards.

Desinger Yiqing Yin
The Vacheron Constantin Égérie Pleats of Time concept watch

But Yin has added a third element: components of the strap, including the embroidery, lining and loop, have been infused with perfumed nanocapsules that are randomly released as the strap rubs against the skin with the wearer’s movements. The scent was created by master perfumer Dominique Ropion, with whom Yin had worked on couture pieces. The idea was to “open another dimension”, says Yin. “I’ve always been really fascinated by perfume — its capacity to get out of the immediate, olfactive experience. It opens the doors to something completely intuitive, imaginative and sensorial.

“Perfume speaks of perpetuity and transformation. That relates to time in such an intimate way . . . I wanted to expand into an imaginative and emotional realm, rather than just a linear measure of time.”

This is the first watch Yin has designed and she admits it was a challenge — but a welcome one. “I didn’t know much about the technicality of watchmaking. So it was a confrontation with a world that is quite rigorous in its rules and constraints,” she says. “Vacheron Constantin guided me through the possibilities — the rules, the codes, that huge heritage that comprises such a small surface.”

A commercial design launches alongside the concept watch: limited to 100 pieces, the 37mm Égérie moon phase comes in pink gold with a gem-set bezel and choice of three interchangeable straps in pastel colours selected by Yin.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2024. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section

Follow the topics in this article