Cartier Backtracks After $600,000 Watch Shows Risks of Extending Luxury Brands

 Rotonde de Cartier Grande Complication

Rotonde de Cartier Grande Complication

For over a century, Cartier has sold elegant, if simple, timepieces, which starts around $2,500 and never confused with the level of technical finesse from brands like Patek Philippe. Now it is different.

A decade ago, Cartier sought to prove its own prowess, investing millions to build one of Switzerland’s largest watch factories and bringing in an industry veteran to head a fine watchmaking unit, news agency «Bloomberg» reports.

The jeweler delved into the segment for connoisseurs known as «complicated pieces,» which sport analog mechanisms such as calendars that adjust for leap years and require painstaking hand craftsmanship.

The effort culminated last year in the Rotonde de Cartier Grande Complication Skeleton, a glass-backed confection priced at more than $600,000.

Push Into Fine Watchmaking

According to «Bloomberg», Cartier began its push into fine watchmaking in 2008, creating a division led by Carole Forestier-Kasapi, a watch-industry veteran who had worked at Audemars Piguet.

While Richemont, the parent company of Cartier, doesn’t say how much it spent, the Geneva-based company probably invested about 150 million euros ($168 million) in Cartier’s watch business, with about a third of that focused on higher-end complicated timepieces, estimates Jon Cox, an analyst at Kepler Cheuvreux.

Joining That Men’s Club Was a Stretch

In the following years, Cartier developed dozens of new movements – the engine of a watch – to improve its reputation and show that it belongs in the same league as the likes of Patek Philippe, Vacheron Constantin and Breguet, which have focused on complicated timepieces for more than a century.

For Cartier, a brand traditionally associated with jewelry for women, joining that men’s club was a stretch. Unlike the brands it was chasing, which are focused almost exclusively on watches, Cartier has a broad luxury portfolio of leather handbags, fragrances and sunglasses.

But the company saw rich rewards in going upmarket: brands that have hyper-expensive handcrafted watches at the top of the lineup can typically charge more even for their less expensive offerings.

Changing An Image Can Take Decades

«In the man’s connoisseur world, Cartier wasn’t taken seriously enough,» said Patrik Schwendimann, an analyst at Zuercher Kantonalbank. «But to change an image can take decades.»

The Ballon Bleu line, introduced in 2007 and favored by the likes of the Duchess of Cambridge – the former Kate Middleton, the wife of Prince William – was a hit.

But while it might account for as much as half the brand’s sales in China, later collections never gained the same traction, according to Zuzanna Pusz, an analyst at Berenberg Bank. «Cartier was blinded by the boom in China,» Pusz said.

Crimped Demand for Watches in China

A campaign against extravagant spending and corruption in China has crimped demand for watches there. And in Europe terrorist attacks have cut the numbers of free-spending tourists who make up a big chunk of sales.

Cartier has had three chief executives in the past half-decade as earnings growth at Richemont’s jewelry business flattened from rates exceeding 40 percent. The watchmaker this year introduced a lower-priced new collection for men, called Drive, which starts at about $6,000.

At a watch salon in Geneva in January, the company plans to present a selection of more feminine watches with fewer complications that cost less, going back to the brand’s roots.

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