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Cartier's new boss must put the sparkle back in watches

(Agencies) Updated: 2015-12-11 08:46
Cartier's new boss must put the sparkle back in watches

Cle de Cartier, a new watch model this year. [Photo/China Daily]

The gold and diamonds of Cartier jewelry are so popular with women that the brand founded in Paris in 1847 is finding it difficult to market watches to men.

The world's biggest jewelry and watch brand in terms of combined sales generates more than two-thirds of profits for Swiss parent Richemont, but watch revenues have dwindled relentlessly while jewelry sales have boomed.

Like other high-end watchmakers, Cartier is suffering from a drop in demand in big markets such as Hong Kong, the Chinese mainland, Russia and the United States. But some of Cartier's problems are specific to the brand, setting up a challenge for Cyrille Vigneron when he takes over the leadership next month.

Improving Cartier's image as a watchmaker in China, where wealthy women love its red boxes but men prefer pure watch brands such as Rolex, Patek Philippe or Vacheron Constantin, may be top of his to-do list.

"Cartier is popular among fashion-focused customers in Hong Kong. Consumers will regard it as a piece of jewelry when they hear the brand, it is particularly popular among ladies," said Lam Tung-hing, general manager of the Hong Kong retail operations of Oriental Watch Holdings Ltd.

"First-time luxury watch buyers among men will choose to buy Rolex, which is practical and good looking."

Cartier and Richemont declined to comment on the brand's strategy to improve watch sales.

Richemont said last month that watch sales were down mid-single digits in the six months to September, dragged down by its biggest markets-Hong Kong and the United States. It had already stated a similar decline for Cartier watches in the full year to March. Shares have fallen more than 12 percent this year.

Comparisons with competitors are hard to make. Rolex is privately owned and at LVMH, watch and jewelry sales rose 10 percent during the first nine months but it does not give a separate watch figure. Swatch Group shares have fallen 18 percent, partly due to competition from smartwatches and the drop in demand from China.

Watch exports from Switzerland, where Cartier and other watches are made, fell 3.2 percent during the first 10 months of 2015, with shipments to Hong Kong down 22.7 percent and rising just 0.1 percent to the United States. Pierluigi Fedele, who is responsible for watchmaking at the Swiss union Unia, downplayed any talk of a crisis.

"There is no real crisis in the Swiss watch industry today. Exports are down a bit, but probably still above 20 billion Swiss francs ($20.3 billion) for the whole year," he said.

But he noted the subdued Asian market was causing problems for some companies and a few had laid off staff. Cartier said last year it introduced shorter working hours for some employees and would not say if the measure was still in place.

Some analysts estimate that the high-end watch market in the Chinese mainland is down 60 percent since its 2012 peak.

This is partly due to the government's crackdown on the tradition of gifts-for-favors which often involved watches. Richemont also highlighted difficulties in Macao where the casino industry is suffering from the crackdown on corruption, the weak yuan and Chinese government restrictions on travel on public funds.

The strong franc has made Swiss exports more expensive while Tiffany & Co forecast a bigger fall in full-year profit than previously expected as a strong dollar kept tourists from spending in its showpiece US stores.

Last month's terrorist attacks in Paris were also expected to further dent tourists' travels to Europe to buy luxury goods during the pre-Christmas period which, for some brands, represent up to a quarter of annual sales.

But for Cartier, whose sparkling creations adorned royal heads around the globe in the early 20th century and more recently Kate Middleton's at her wedding to Prince William, the challenges are bigger than for most.

Exane BNP Paribas analyst Luca Solca said Cartier is particularly exposed to China.

"Cartier is facing a relatively subdued luxury market, as the bulk of the other mega-brands. Additionally, Cartier is suffering from the step back in the Chinese watch market gifting practices. You could argue Cartier has not been the strongest innovator in recent years," he said.

Lack of innovation has been a problem and Vigneron, who replaces Stanislas de Quercize, a 25-year Richemont group veteran who stepped down last month, will need to focus on this.

Many of Cartier's new watches have been based on existing versions with innovation focused on the most expensive models. In January, Cartier unveiled its first new model in eight years, but so far only gold models costing more than 10,000 euros ($11,000) are available.

According to a person close to the Richemont group who declined to be named, about 90 percent of buyers of the latest model since its launch have been women.

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