An RM 37-01 Automatic Cerise watch from the ‘Bonbon’ collection stands on display on the Richard Mille stand (Photographer: Stefan Wermuth/Bloomberg)  

Swiss Watchmaker Tries to Go Feminine Without Alienating Men

(Bloomberg) -- Swiss watchmaker Richard Mille, whose rectangular timepieces cost more than $200,000, is treading carefully into female territory as it tries to avoid alienating its main customers: men.

The brand shed its traditionally masculine image at this year’s Geneva watch salon, decorating its booth like a candy store to match a colorful “Bonbon” collection of watches with images of marshmallows, licorice and lollipops. While all 300 pieces, costing as much as 167,000 francs ($187,000), sold out before the fair, founder Richard Mille is tiptoeing carefully into women’s watches.

Swiss Watchmaker Tries to Go Feminine Without Alienating Men

“The difficulty is always that you feel you’re just on the top of a razor blade,” Mille said in an interview. “It’s important to go deeply into the feminine universe without making the gents’ universe weaker. It’s very subtle.”

As the Swiss industry emerges from a protracted slump, many watchmakers see new opportunity in marketing to women, whom they have often neglected.

Audemars Piguet introduced a collection with variants for men and women simultaneously for the first time -- a break from the typical practice of adapting existing men’s models for slimmer women’s wrists a few years later. While women have tended to favor thinner quartz watches, Richemont’s Baume & Mercier revamped its Classima Lady collection to offer automatic mechanical movements for all the pieces.

‘Macho Image’

Mille created his namesake brand in 1999, waiting six years to roll out the first women’s collection, which faced difficulties at the start. Now women’s watches make up about a fifth of the business, and the objective is to reach about 35 percent.

Swiss Watchmaker Tries to Go Feminine Without Alienating Men

“We had such a macho image,” the 67-year-old Frenchman said, sporting a pink watch with a pastel blue strap. “It’s important for the brand, for security” to have a more diverse clientele.

Cecile Guenat, the artistic director who came up with the “Bonbon” line, is the daughter of business partner Dominique Guenat, whose son is also joining the company. Mille said three children of his have also assumed roles within the firm, which makes it likely to remain independent despite the approaches it occasionally gets to sell. The CEO said he created the company because he wanted more freedom.

Swiss Watchmaker Tries to Go Feminine Without Alienating Men

Sales of Richard Mille have increased by a double-digit percentage every year since it was formed as it limits production to maintain demand. Still, the label is boosting output to 5,200 pieces this year, up from 4,000 in 2017.

“Our problem is we’re totally unable to answer the demand,” Mille said. “We have many windows emptied in our boutiques, although we increased production.”

In order to strike a balance between the genders, Richard Mille plans to introduce a “very masculine” watch following the watch fair.

“It’s always important to keep the balance,” he said.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.