Nicolas Baretzki checks his wristwatch. “It was a full moon exactly two-and-a-half days ago,” he says.
Like any avid luxury watch enthusiast, the International director of Jaeger Le Coultre Swiss-made watches — famed as the founders of “La Grande Maison des Complications” — Baretzki will tell you sophisticated and innovative complications are hard to pass by.
Last year witnessed a “bigger is better” trend for show-off complications but now consumers are opting for retro designs and elegant simplicity, at least in design and aesthetics. Classicism is back in a big way.
Tudor this year launched an updated version of the Heritage Advisor Model — a retrospective icon for the brand — and the response has been ecstatic, according to Zeina Annan, brand manager for the model’s local agent, AS Chronora.
“When Tudor came out with the ‘Advisor’, it combined the brand’s vintage spirit with retro chic elegance. It was perfect,” gushes Annan.
Likewise, the reintroduction of the classic Jaegre Le-Coultre reversible master-line, with its signature swivel case, originally built to withstand the hard knocks of polo matches, was a resounding success; the watches sold before the new line was even launched, according to Baretzki. While trends have become increasingly internationalized, “people are now more interested in precision complications, especially in Lebanon,” he says.
According to General Manager of AS Chronora, Ziad Annan, smaller, more traditional sizes are once again trendy. “While medium-to-larger sizes are still selling well,” he says, “for the more dressy models the lady-sized watch is regaining some popularity.” The re-release of the classic Girard-Perregaux 1966 range, with its original high frequency movement operating at 36,000 vibrations an hour, in a simple, white 38 to 40 millimeter diameter case, has cemented the trend.
“We’re very glad with the results, as the 1966 range balances tradition with more contemporary values,” says Annan.
Barkev Atamian, local brand director for IWC, Jaeger Le-Coultre, Breguet, Blancpain, Ulysse Nardin, Harry Winston, Baume &Mercier, TAG Heuer and Longines at the Atamian Hagop Est., says the move towards classic, retro and minimalist designs actually hit an on-trend Lebanese market in 2010, a little earlier than elsewhere in the Middle East. “Today, apart from some iconic watches, the brands are introducing light and pure models. This is a challenge for the brands, to be simple and yet to have a different identity from their competitors,” he says.
According to Atamian, 40 percent of sales in the high-end market are for collectors. “We can’t say these people are loyal for one brand, since they are passionate for beautiful complications.”
“Men who appreciate complications do so, not because these watches are often very expensive but because these watches are more sophisticated, complex and ‘mature’ than the regular movements which were created as simple products, with little care for their intrinsic value,” he says. “These collectors appreciate that because they overcame many real complications to be where they are today.”
At the same time, he says, they do follow trends closely and may prefer one brand over another over the years. Women collectors, however, are regrettably still rare in the region.
“The woman who knows her watches is simply ravishing,” he says.
No turning back
It’s no secret that the watch industry took a hit during the global financial crisis, but the big houses say the rebound has been encouraging, especially in the MENA market.
Ziad Annan’s AS Chronora is the local agent for several big names, including Rolex, Girard Perragaux, Jean Richard and Tudor. Anaan is typically tight-lipped about sales figures but says; “they are doing quite well this year, considering.”
“In the luxury category, most brands in the Lebanese market are probably doing a little less than what they achieved in 2010, but there certainly aren’t any dramatic differences.
The Lebanese are adaptable,” he says. Indeed that seems to be the case, as Baretzki affirms. Jaeger Le-Coultre’s Middle East and North African sales have seen “tremendous” growth of more than 30 percent per year, keeping manufacturers in Switzerland busy, with each hand-crafted masterpiece taking an average of 18 months to produce. He attributes their resilience to a strong brand history and identity. A solid distribution network and concentration on boutique sales also helped avoid the risks, not to mention the economic boom in Asia softening the global downturn. Concentration of sales in the Gulf has also meant that the recent unrest has had little impact.
Rising prices for raw materials have also put upwards pressure on the price of goods in general, affecting budgets accordingly. “We don’t have any reliable nation-wide statistics at our disposal,” says Annan, “but spending in the luxury category has probably decreased slightly over the last two quarters.”
Atamian says that, while sales in April and May were slow, he hopes to bounce back in the summer. “Yes, sales in Lebanon have been linked to political stability, but since this instability has been going for a very long time, it somehow created a ‘stable’ situation within the instability,” he says. For the moment, he says, sales are affected from the political turmoil in the region, “mainly because the number of people entering and parting on a daily basis has diminished.”
“The Chinese consumers today represent more than 50 percent of the luxury sales in the world, not for watches but for everything which is in the luxury segment,” he says. “I hope the ministry of tourism concentrates more on advertising Lebanon in that region for the coming years.”
Nonetheless, in a sign of confidence in the high-end segment, the group is bolstering its retail presence, opening two new boutiques in Downtown Beirut this year for Longines and CK watches and accessories. Annan agrees: “The Lebanese market is a vibrant and attractive market with a great deal of potential. Our sales have reflected that, especially in view of the fact that regional sales have decreased during the same period.”
“If the customer is bracing himself, it certainly hasn’t been reflected in the quantities sold, but rather in the category of watch he or she might choose.”