IWC: The time has come to focus on U.S.

What do Carl Jung, Miles Davis, Sean Connery, King Juan Carlos of Spain and Michael Jordan have in common?

They all wear an IWC watch.

After 125 years, the Swiss watch firm is starting to break out of its position as a brand best known among a small, elite crowd of timepiece aficionados. They looked to IWC for its upper-tier watches with highly technical, complex features — or complications, as they are referred to in the fine watch trade.

The U.S. is a prime focus of growth for the firm. Previously, the region has accounted for only about 8 percent of IWC’s total turnover, according to Marc Bernhardt, vice president and chief marketing officer of U.S. operations, who joined the firm in April.

He said that figure is projected to rise to close to 15 percent by the end of 1999. He would not give figures on the firm’s overall volume.

“In 1997, we sold about 2,000 units [in the U.S.],” Bernhardt said. “We’re expecting to sell about 2,500 units this year and just over 3,000 in 1999.”

He said only some of those units would replace sales in Asia, which has accounted for roughly 20 percent of IWC’s worldwide turnover. He said the Asian market’s performance has varied by model and that some areas, like Taiwan, continue to perform well.

Currently, IWC produces roughly 30,000 watches per year.

“The U.S. has been underrepresented,” said Bernhardt. “We deserve a fair share of the aspirational customer.”

Bernhardt said IWC should appeal to a customer who may have already purchased his or her first fine watch and is now ready to upgrade.

“If someone bought a Rolex and now wants to trade up, where do they go?” asked Bernhardt.

“Real watch connoisseurs know us, but the average person doesn’t yet. But several years ago, Americans didn’t know about premium cigars, either.”

Devoid of gemstones or the colored faces and straps currently in fashion, IWC watches reflect a look that is at once traditional and modern, with crisp, almost minimalist features.

Earlier this year, the company launched a sport collection called GST, an acronym meaning “Gold, Steel, Titanium.” The line retails for $3,200 to $4,200, and some pieces, like the Aquatimer diving watch, is water-resistant to 2,000 meters and features a uni-directional bezel and exclusive bracelet design.

IWC watches start at $1,500 for an ultraslim, classic Portofino model and reach $350,000 for complicated pieces. Most of the line ranges from $10,000 to $20,000.

Beyond new products, the firm’s strategy is to increase sales in the company’s current roster of about 50 accounts in the U.S. through promotional events planned for November, increased advertising and a new emphasis on public relations.

IWC watches are sold through independent jewelers such as Cellini, Tourneau, Wempe and Joseph Edwards here; Shreve & Co. in San Francisco; Fox’s in Seattle, and selected Bailey Banks & Biddle and Neiman Marcus units across the country.

The fall IWC ad campaign is appearing in the New York Times magazine, the New York Observer, Town & Country, Arts & Antiques, Forbes, Esquire and W.

IWC is a family affair, at least in the U.S. Bernhardt’s sister, Marcia Mazzocchi, who worked with Tag Heuer here before joining IWC, runs the firm’s West Coast sales offices in Santa Monica, Calif.

Bernhardt works out of the company’s U.S. headquarters in Winchester, Va.

The IWC brand — along with two other Swiss watch firms, Jaeger le Coultre and Lange Und Sohne — is owned primarily by LMH, a holding company for VDO, a large Swiss conglomerate that manufactures an assortment of mechanical parts.

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