To create the first women’s model of its best-selling DS PH200M, a £785 sports watch popular for its precision and shock resistance, Swiss watchmaker Certina bypassed its in-house designers last March and turned to social media, asking fans to vote on key aspects of the design, including the bezel, dial, hands, strap and packaging, with a chance to win the final model.
The winning design, which featured a 39mm black mother-of-pearl dial offsetting a black bezel, surprised Managing Director Marc Aellen, who was sure only the light, feminine tones would resonate.
“The outcome was not expected and that alone was a good reason to campaign – to change your mind and your vision,” he says. “We are experienced people in the watch industry, but sometimes we have ideas that may be outdated.”
Probing the peanut gallery for ideas might seem like a marketer’s worst nightmare, but a handful of forward-thinking watchmakers are doing just that – engaging customers and coming up with unexpected design ideas along the way.
Seiko also launched a competition last year inviting fans to create their own Seiko 5 Sports watch via an online configurator, which received over 48,000 entries. Seiko produced 2,021 pieces of the winning design, which sold.
And, in 2020, avant-garde Belgian watchmaker Ressence tapped into the lockdown trend for coloring books, asking fans to submit a colorful sketch of its popular Type 1 Slim watch. The winning entry was a pastel blue creation by Yorkshire-based interior designer Raymond Ramsden, which sold at Sotheby’s Hong Kong for HK$375,000 (about £35,500), with all proceeds going to the Covid-19 research.
Ressence founder Benoît Mintiens knew that designing by public committee was uncertain — he worried that there wouldn’t be enough submissions, let alone good ones. The campaign received nearly 500 entries, from kids to industry insiders.
“First, we had to have a design that was potentially good, and second, we had to auction off,” says Mintiens. “So you are exposing yourself as a brand. When you’re a small organization like ours – we’re not all Patek Philippe – you do those things.
Some watchmakers take a more targeted approach, creating custom watches for a loyal collector base. Breitling sponsors the Ironman triathlon, and its special edition Endurance Pro watch (£2,720) comes in a black and gold version available only to race finishers. Meanwhile, in 2020, Panerai created a special edition Radiomir Venti – with a 45mm case versus the usual 47mm – to mark the 20th anniversary of Paneristi.com, an online community of Panerai fans. Some 1,020 pieces were made, including a dozen with special engravings for important members of the community.
Managing Director Jean-Marc Pontroué is quick to point out that community-designed watches will always be a niche offering. “Our bestsellers are those that have been around for many years,” he says. Bespoke watches will eventually be the preserve of the high end – watches over £50,000 (Panerai’s flagship is the 44mm Luminor Marina, £6,800) – and sought after by customers accustomed to personalizing their toys.
In 2018, two Facebook executives founded Collective Horology, a membership-based watch collecting club rooted in the idea of creating exclusive collaborative watches.
Co-founders Asher Rapkin and Gabe Reilly act as a bridge between members and brands, sharing ideas and design concepts, as well as participating in reviews once watchmakers come back with designs. (Collective Horology receives a percentage of retail sales.) The first watch, the Zenith El Primero Chronomaster C.01, was limited to 50 pieces.
“We believed in their concept and the strong community of creatives, executives and creators in the Bay Area,” says Julien Tornare, CEO of Zenith.
Collective has since produced five watches in partnership with brands, priced at $6,850 to $62,500, all of which have sold out. Membership has grown from 50 to 180 – purchase of a Collaborative Watch is required to join – and includes Oscar and Grammy-winning talent, but also doctors, lawyers and a renovator of the kitchen.
Co-founder Gabe Reilly calls its members “a small watch discussion group” that offers a pulse on members’ tastes and interests.
Ultimately, community-designed watches mean inclusiveness and transparency. “It’s not necessarily about providing feedback and commentary, it’s about being in the game,” Rapkin says. “They like to have a window into the process, out of sheer curiosity.”
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