Silke Koltrowitz Basel

A recent advert from luxury watch maker Omega shows a large, technologically advanced timepiece. So far, so typical. But this one is studded with diamonds and worn by actress Nicole Kidman. Called the Ladymatic, it is the future of the industry.

The bulk of the $50 billion (R528.5bn) Swiss watch market has for years been aimed at wealthy men drawn to hi-tech, gadget-loaded timepieces they can wear as status symbols. These customers’ interest has waned little despite economic fluctuations – though the recent financial crisis hurt sales, it was followed by a stronger rebound that was driven by demand in China.

Now, however, sales of men’s watches in China have slowed, and demand in the West is not enough to pick up the slack. Faced with only single-digit growth prospects, top brands are looking to the other 50 percent of the population for inspiration.

“Women are the future of watches,” says Jean-Claude Biver, the head of LVMH’s watch unit. “There’s huge potential in women’s watches that is only half exploited today.”

Traditionally women have shown little inclination to buy the kind of mechanically complex, multi-functional pieces on which Swiss manufacturers have built their reputation for precision – this kind of engineering needs space and results in the big dials which women tend to shun for battery-powered, unobtrusive styles.

However, fashions are changing. A trend for bulkier watches and a boom in jewellery sales have lifted levels of interest, which has also been driven by a growing middle-class female customer base in China.

A study by Digital Luxury Group showed that online searches for ladies’ watches rose 7.5 percent last year, led by Chinese consumers and Swatch Group brands. In the same year, the share of female watches in the luxury watch market increased to 35 percent from 20 percent in 1995, market analysts Bain found.

Stephen Urquhart, the head of Swatch Group’s Omega brand, said the success of its Ladymatic model, first launched in Beijing in 2010, was driven by Asian women.

“In China, women are really emerging as buyers. There are more women buying for themselves,” Urquhart said. – Reuters