How luxury watchmakers are courting millennials with customisation and ethical practices

  • New brand Baume offers 2,160 ‘aesthetic options’ and does not use animal products or precious stones
  • The moves could change the face of luxury watchmaking
PUBLISHED : Saturday, 27 October, 2018, 6:03pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 27 October, 2018, 6:26pm

There was a time when you chose your first dress watch and there was one model that called out your name. You would wear it with quiet pride, knowing its caseback had been engraved with your monogram. Never mind if 500 other people had the same watch; this was personal.

It was in this storied way that the Rolex “Paul Newman” Daytona (ref 6239, vintage ’68) became the most expensive wristwatch ever when it was auctioned last October for US$17.8 million, despite the Daytona model being manufactured in quantity. “Drive Carefully Me” reads the engraving on its caseback; a timeless endearment from Newman’s wife Joanne Woodward, whose gift it was.

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In today’s world of the millennial consumer, however, narrative subtleties like custom engravings are woefully inadequate for the mixed identities, beliefs and causes that they unabashedly brandish. They are also less well-off than baby boomers and Gen X were at the same stage of life, even after accounting for property bubbles and inflation, so less able to splash out on the top watch brands.

Meanwhile, luxury spending among high-net-worth Gen Xers and above has flatlined, at least in the developed world. That leaves luxury watch brands faced with a lower-value incipient market and a shrinking existing one.

It’s a tricky business to attract new followers and not alienate your current well-heeled client base, especially for brands that have set high standards. But with millennials the most significant consumer demographic right now – they comprised 85 per cent of luxury retail growth in 2017, according to a report by Bain and Co – the question is not if luxury watchmakers must court millennials, but how.

Some brands are answering that question by introducing more affordable entry-level models where bespoke customisation is the key feature and the parts used appeal to millennials’ changing priorities.

Baume might be the first to make such deliberate attempt. The brand was launched in May this year under the Richemont luxury group – a spin-off from its Swiss mother brand Baume et Mercier – and is the only 21st-century brand among the conglomerate’s portfolio of nine. Heading the enterprise is Marie-Emmanuelle Chassot, 42, who was most recently product marketing director at Baume et Mercier and at Roger Dubuis (also owned by Richemont).

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Not only are Baume’s watches genderless, but they are ethical too. It does not use any animal products, such as leather, or precious stones, and what it does use it describes as sustainable.

Straps are made of cork, cotton, Alcantara and PET; recycled aluminium replaces gold and platinum. The words “upcycled timepiece” are displayed on the dial of the Baume Iconic 41mm (Miyota 82D7 movement, US$1,000), as opposed to the “Swiss Made” text which features on the models of its mother brand (Baume watches are made in the Netherlands and are only available online).

Unlike Baume’s Custom series (US$530 and up) with its online 3D configurator of 2,160 “aesthetic options”, the Iconic series comes as it is. Baume is betting that the Iconic’s readiness for the “circular economy” – a regenerative system that reduces wastes and emissions – will be an offer its target market can’t refuse. Even its movement is claimed to be recyclable; just bring it back to Baume when you’re ready for an upgrade.

Baume’s brand messaging is well layered. Apart from flaunting its ethics and regarding customers as “collaborators”, it burnishes its image by having supporting partners with brand-relevant causes. It is pledging 2 per cent of its turnover to three such partners: Waste Free Oceans (environment), Les Maîtres de Mon Moulin (sustainable food), and Central Saint Martins (fashion education).

But Baume hasn’t exactly impressed ardent collectors on online watch forums. Solar-powered Citizens, Junghans and Seikos were sustainable before millennials were born, they say. And how will Baume’s use of quartz movements save the planet? For the asking price of the Iconic model, why not an Omega or Tissot with their COSC-certified automatic movements?

They miss the point. Baume isn’t swinging for the fences, but for the fence-sitters who are not into their watches – yet. Its brand cachet and “collabs” are there to wean millennials off wearables, fashion watches, and brands like Daniel Wellington, Fossil and MVMT. If only a fraction of this vast influencer market begins to get into complications, that would be a start. 

Beyond the slick branding, the impression is that Richemont has rolled out Baume as a pilot project to answer the watchmaker’s existential question: how is it possible to produce high-quality customised watches at a low-enough cost without economies of scale?

Interestingly, Richemont’s other watch brands are also offering online “configurators”. Baume’s success could change the rest of Richemont’s watch business – and the face of luxury watchmaking itself.

Three high-end customisable pieces

Jaeger-LeCoultre Atelier Reverso

Offers a wide variety of models, dials, colours and straps for more permutations than you’ll ever need.

Vacheron Constantin Quai de I’lle

Features customised finishes made possible by the construction of its seven-part case middle.

Bulgari Serpenti

300 possible combinations of case metals, plain or diamond-set bezel, dial colour and treatment, and strap.

Three bespoke watchmakers

Ochs und Junior

Dr Ludwig Oechslin’s moon-phase watch features a unique moon-phase function executed as a five-part epicyclic gear system that will take 3,478.27 years before its calculation will be off by 1 day. Design your moon-phase watch using its online customiser.

Andreas Strehler 

Built upon request and delivered by Andreas Strehler personally. Customers discuss the details of their watch directly.

Vaucher Private Label 

Oscillating weight can be adapted to produce a unique calibre, and complications added with modules.