A Timex shows your practical side, but a $259,000 timepiece suggests a Bugatti Veyron is in the garage
Watch collectors and petrol heads share a kinship that goes beyond an appreciation for complicated engineering and fine things. At a basic level, the two camps are united by the joy of the impractical: after all, a $30 Timex does the same thing as a $30,000 Rolex, just as a Kia Forte 5 will get you through city traffic at the same speed as a Ferrari 458.
For those who don’t drool over hand-built V8s and gravity-defying tourbillons, the watch obsession makes no sense. Those who don’t “get it” can be left with emotional responses ranging from bemusement to incredulity. But watchmakers and car companies do get it. As a result, many have spent the last half-century figuring out new and creative ways to join forces for glory and profit, creating long-lasting emotional and financial bonds.
Last year, the release of Jaeger LeCoultre’s latest AMVOX2 Transponder watch caused a collective gasp in spotless garages across the land. Collaboration between the juggernaut Swiss watchmaker and British sportscar legend Aston Martin produced a $29,500 (all figures USD) timepiece – complete with a spinning Aston Martin logo at 6 o’clock, naturally – that could lock and unlock your Aston Martin with a push of the sapphire crystal face. (Cue the comparisons to James Bond, who, for the record, wears an Omega.) In one grand sweep, Aston had reached out and titillated a world of watch fans, creating perhaps the first “smart” timepiece that die-hard analog enthusiasts could get excited about; meanwhile, Aston Martin had also drawn the attention of Jaeger LeCoultre’s legion of deep-pocketed customers. Clearly the arrangement brought advantageous results all around.
TAG Heuer and Rolex, two of the world’s foremost watchmakers, are no strangers to motorsports. Their Monaco and Daytona chronographs, respectively, are iconic timepieces named in honour of mid-century sponsorship deals between the watchmakers and the famous races for which the watches are named. Neither carries any overt indication of this association aside from their names, but their success was an early indication of the potential of such collaborations.
In the intervening years, watch companies have embraced the connection to motorsports to the point that there’s a racing watch from top brands at every price point, from Casio’s Infiniti Red Bull F1 Chronograph (priced from about $200) to Hublot’s Big Bang Ferrari King Gold ($45,900). These are still a relatively small part of the $50-billion global watch industry, but the marketing value is immense. As a result, watchmakers have become ever more sophisticated in their attempts to entice racing fans to buy their wares, drawing inspiration and material from carbon fibre and titanium race cars and emblazoning the watches with team logos.
This year, TAG Heuer alone released two such watches, one in partnership with McLaren and another celebrating Nissan’s return to Le Mans, both proudly displaying the TAG Heuer logo as well as the carmaker’s.
“TAG Heuer has always embraced avant-garde technology as a core value, and they immediately saw a kindred spirit in the convention-defying design of the Nissan GT-R LM NISMO,” says Darren Cox, director, Global Motorsports for Nissan. “The NISMO brand has a loyal and enthusiastic following across the world. These are people who recognize an innovative and dynamic brand, and we expect them to recognize the shared values in owning a TAG Heuer.”
Likewise Oris, a Swiss watchmaker with over a century of heritage but not much brand presence in the U.S., has been making Williams Formula One–branded watches for years. Their newest collaboration, however, a joint venture with Audi, takes a step away from the racetrack and into the showroom.
“The customer that’s purchasing an Audi is similar to the customer that’s purchasing an Oris,” says Jamie McCorry, Oris’ U.S. marketing manager. Rather than going the motorsports route, putting Oris watches in front of Audi buyers is an attempt to attract a whole new breed of fan, one who appreciates mechanical precision and contemporary design, but who may not have a favourite F1 team, she explains. “[These customers are] not looking for the flashiest or most well-known product out there. They value quality.”
Audi (and other carmakers) has been selling branded watches for years. By putting the Oris name on the outside and a quality Swiss movement within, Audi now has a means of talking to watch fans in their own language, a conversation that might end with them driving off the lot in a new A4.
On the other hand, any brand that makes a sleek-looking watch powered by cheap quartz movements risks a huge turnoff — something akin to selling a Ferrari with a Chinese tractor engine.
Down the street in the Bentley showroom, the eyes of potential buyers will surely be drawn to the cars’ Breitling analog dashboard clocks. Breitling also created a line of companion watches for the automaker. Unlike Oris and TAG Heuer, which operate at a slightly lower price point, this collaboration is more about brand positioning.
“If you took the Breitling clock out of the Bentley dashboard, would you say you don’t want the Bentley?” asks Laurance Yap, director of marketing for Pfaff Automotive. It’s a no-brainer, of course, but these timepieces immediately position Breitling at the same level as Bentley, putting their logo at the eye-level of some very desirable customers. Likewise, Bentley gets to take on some of Breitling’s fighter pilot charisma, an association at odds with the stuffy, British, old-money reputation the automaker is trying to shake.
The higher the price, the more similar the luxury automotive and watchmaking industries become: they both sell complex, somewhat impractical machines to wealthy customers who are predominantly male and notoriously hard to reach. At the upper levels, these collaborations also function as a means of finding ways to get potential customers into the same room.
“Higher-end brands are looking for ways to bump into more rich people,” says Yap. “The higher up you move in the car world, the more the marketing budgets are about experiential marketing rather than advertising. Lamborghini just doesn’t have enough money to do a massive print campaign, so what they’ll do instead is have a party. If they have a watch partner, then that company can bring [new] people to the table.”
A case in point: Parmigiani Fleurier’s recent partnership with Bugatti to create a watch in honour of the Veyron supercar. The timepiece, available in yellow or rose gold on an Hermès alligator strap, is priced at $259,000 — in other words, about as exclusive as the Veyron itself.
In a room full of buyers willing to shell out $1,000,000 or more for the world’s fastest production sports car, however, the symbiosis is clear: If you drop $1 million on a car, what’s another one or two hundred grand for a matching watch? It’s a calculus that only car lovers, watch enthusiasts, and the marketing executives who love them could ever understand.