Couture Watches vs. Fashion Watches


Carol Besler wrote an interesting article about how we should title watches made by haute couture houses like Chanel and Hermes. In the article “Don’t call us fashion watches”, published on the website of the AIHH, Besler proposed to make a difference between watches made by fashion brands. For prices below USD 1000 we should continue calling them Fashion Watches, where as when mechanical movements are used and the prices evidently will be higher, Besler proposed to name them Couture Watches. I strongly agree with Besler and think it is an excellent idea, because Chanel ofcourse wants to differciate it’s high-end Tourbilion watch from the high-volume Guess watches.

Don’t call us “fashion watches”

A fashion watch is not so-called because of its affiliation with a fashion house, and yet a fashion watch can have such an affiliation. Furthermore, a watch can be fashionable, even if it is not designated as fashion watch, as long as it hits a certain price point.

In the 1980s, the Swiss watch industry, having been crucified by the invention of quartz movements a decade earlier, was miraculously resurrected when Swatch created the “fashion watch.” It was a cheap, plastic, fashionable and accurate alternative to the mechanical watch and, low and behold, it spawned a brand new segment in the watch industry.

Fashion watches, a term utterly ambiguous

Other “fashion” watches followed. There was Guess, Fossil, Nina Ricci, DKNY, Burberry, et cetera, et cetera. Because some of these watches were produced under license from luxury fashion houses, it so happened that, ever after, any watch bearing the name of a luxury fashion brand was dubbed a “fashion” watch. This understandably rankles companies such as Chanel, which objects to the notion of anyone placing, for example, its baguette-diamond-set J12 Tourbillon in the same category as a USD 250 quartz Nina Ricci (nothing against Nina Ricci ; it’s a great watch !). Even within the industry, the moniker “fashion watch,” still sticks to anything with a couture-sounding name. The term has therefore become utterly ambiguous, referring to anything from a USD 150 DKNY to a USD 2,000 Gucci to a USD 130,000 Chanel, depending on the person using the term and what they conceive it to mean. Because of this confusion, brands are shying away from the title in droves.

“We are not interested in participating in an article about fashion watches,” came a terse reply from Chanel when approached for this story. “We are watchmakers.” Similarly, Hermes, whose watches are made in Switzerland by one of the world’s most respected watchmakers, Vaucher Manufacture Fleurier, commented : “From ready-to-wear to leather to watches, it is our policy to join forces with experts in that field. We are not producing fashion watches.”

So noted. A fashion watch, then, is not so-called because of its affiliation – license or otherwise – with a fashion house, and yet a fashion watch can have such an affiliation. Furthermore, a watch can be fashionable, even if it is not designated as fashion watch, as long as it hits a certain price point. But what should that price point be ?

Time to address this crisis of designation

It is perhaps time someone addressed this crisis of designation, a crisis which, it should be noted, also besets the jewellery industry : the term “fashion” formerly referred to costume jewellery, which is made of base metals and rhinestones rather than noble metals and diamonds, but today, the term refers to all jewellery that is non-bridal, and stems from the notion that it is fashion-driven.

For watches, I humbly propose the following new segment designations. For all high-end watches – that is, with mechanical movements, complications and/or high jewellery pieces, AND which bear the name of a luxury goods brand, I propose the name “couture watches” (this would include Chanel, Hermes, Dior and Gucci). Brands with all of these qualities except a fashion house brand name designation should be called “luxury watches” (this would include Cartier, Piaget, Boucheron). And finally, brands that are primarily quartz, under USD 1,000, let’s say, and may or may not bear the name of a fashion house should retain the name “fashion watch” (DKNY and Nina Ricci, but also Fossil and Timberland).

There may linger some ambiguity in (or hostility toward) these categories. Some will argue that “fashion” should include anything under USD 2,000, but if we do, those in the USD 1,000 and up range might object. Others will object to the title of “couture,” which might not be perceived as sufficiently accessible to designate a mass luxury brand… I predict all sorts of objections. But it’s a start.


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31 Responses to “Couture Watches vs. Fashion Watches”

  1. Evert Says:

    I think couture watches is not the right term. The watches are, although horologically very respectable, are not at the same level as the fashion achievements of these brands. This is no shame or problem, just a fact. Rolex will never produce a dress at the level Chanel can and luckily they won’t try it either. With all due respect to Chanels watches, their tourbillon is just another high end fashion item in which they follow other brands, and has no real relevance to either the functioning or desgin of the watch. It is an expensive luxury and status item. Is that bad? Not at all. But the companies in the front line of watch development are Patek Philippe for their complications, tradition and craftmenship, Rolex for their endless innovation in durability and timeless design and many other brands for their innovations in the use of materials (Richard Mille), small batches of haute horlogerie pieces (like Parmigiani), etc etc.
    What defines the esssence of a fashion watch is not the price point, but the urge to make sales today and the quick depreciation of the value of the watch tomorrow. In that way, even a $ 200.000 can very well be a fashion watch, while a BenRus Military watch of $ 50 can turn out to a higly sought after piece of functionality and timeless design. So, for me, a fashion watch is a fashion watch, no matter the price or the manufacturer: it’s here today, and gone tomorrow. This will be inevitably the faith of almost all the so called Couture Watches.

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  10. john Says:

    Yes,it is tough to differentiate fashion watches so when someone purchase a watch for $100 and other for $10,000 both uses same word fashion watch. I purchased few rolex watches and I never called them fashion watches instead I used rolex.

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    My other friend who also uses
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