FEATURE: Mighty Titanium Timepieces

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Discover the brands opting to produce timepieces in this strong metal.

Titanium is used in aeronautics, golf clubs and even prosthetics, but more than ever this lightweight, super strong metal is making waves in the watch market. Kathryn Bishop delves into demand in the UK and the brands who are taking titanium to the top end of watchmaking.

When it comes to buying a watch, what is it that makes a consumer spend their money? Chiefly, the design will be the most important reason to buy, but it is about the qualities of the watch; its features, its case size and, more so than ever, the metal from which it is made.

And consumers are starting to pick up on the fact that titanium watches boast qualities that put them head and shoulders over standard watchmaking metals such as stainless steel and gold. Titanium is a lightweight metal, typically used in the fabrication of everything from aeroplanes and boats to tennis racquets and bicycle frames. It is even used medically for procedures such as hip replacements.

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Many will recognise titanium for its use in jewellery design, especially men’s jewellery and wedding rings, and it has enjoyed a growing slice of the market in recent years. But titanium watches are big news; titanium timepieces have gone from being niche novelties to some of the bestsellers for UK watch retailers. And it is hardly a surprise; titanium is a more affordable option in watchmaking compared to steel or gold and its lightweight nature is making it ever-more ideal for oversized timepieces – something brands such as U-BOAT have been quick to pick up on, designing timepieces that retail at several thousand pounds in the metal.

In the UK, brands such as Skagen and Boccia have been available for some time selling titanium watches to astute customers on the lookout for something different. Both of these brands boast a particular design style: the Scandinavian look. Many of Skagen’s designs are sleek, typically matt in finish and minimal in design. It is this that has made Skagen one of the bestselling brands in the UK. With Boccia the Scandi style remains, but the brand also produces sporty-looking chronographs, skeletonised dials and an unusual black titanium finish. Both Skagen and Boccia have women’s titanium timepieces, with smaller case sizes, Swarovski crystal indices and touches of white ceramic and bi-colour titanium bracelets.

The rise of this metal in watchmaking has made it an ideal choice for retailers looking to offer something different. T.H. Baker, which operates stores in Telford, Brighton, Horsham, Walsall and Shrewsbury, along with website The Watch Hut, has noticed a rise in demand for titanium watches in recent months.

Rich Jarrott of T.H. Baker explains: “We sell a range of brands online that offer titanium options from Sekonda to Oris and see good volumes [sold] in Seiko, Citizen and Boccia.” The company recently added Skagen to its portfolio of brands and after only five months the brand’s titanium watches are already creating “decent sales”.

Fellow online watch retailer Watch Shop regards its sales of titanium watches as fair but says that titanium-specific brands, though selling, are yet to full ingrain themselves with consumers. “There’s not a rush for titanium brands,” explains Terry Markham, assistant buyer and senior marketing merchandiser at Watch Shop. “We do have titanium-specific brands such as Boccia but they are lacking brand awareness and I’m not sure people understand titanium just yet.”

Consumer awareness is paramount to selling any brand or product, especially if it has unique selling points as titanium does for being not only lightweight but also hypoallergenic and a particularly strong metal. Raising this awareness however is all part of selling the watches, and Markham says that all of Watch Shop’s descriptions ensure that the metal is listed. The site also has its own glossary to ensure customers are aware of what they are buying.

Jarrott agrees that The Watch Hut’s customers are unlikely to be instantly moved by a watch being titanium, mostly because of the limitation of selling online. “When buying from a website like The Watch Hut, it is difficult to give customers a real idea of the weight of the timepiece, so customers probably do not appreciate the difference unless it is a property of which they are already aware, he explains. “Nevertheless, the nature of the internet is that people research what they want.”
In-store, however, Jarrott notes that customers are always amazed when they handle a titanium timepiece, purely because of the weight.

Skagen UK brand manager Richard Hill believes the growth of the brand in the UK is down to consumers looking for stylish, smart timepieces. “Often I believe people are aware of the advantages of titanium – that the material is lightweight and strong – and they look for the DNA of Skagen in our watches such as the slim, Danish design, minimal and elegance,” he says.

Jarrott agrees that although a titanium watch’s style is important, it is the metal’s characteristics that win most customers over, especially for the gents. “Titanium is usually a favourite on sportier models and chronographs as it removes some of the extra weight introduced by the various complications,” he explains. “The lightweight properties of the material are appreciated by watch lovers who understand why there is weight to their watches, rather than in the fashion market where looks are paramount.”

The use of the metal is not only for brands that sit at the £100 to £300 price point typical of those sold through The Watch Hut and Watch Shop, however. Citizen has released its Skyhawk in titanium – an all-singing all-dancing watch with more features than most gents would have use for but with a price tag of about £470. Similarly Tissot has pushed its T-Touch collection forward with an all-titanium men’s Chrono Alarm timepiece, retailing at £685. The watch partners its touch-screen technology with the metal, something that appeals to Markham. “It is just a great watch,” he enthuses of the T-Touch. “It is Tissot’s way of doing top-end watches.”

Luxury watchmakers are also looking to add a touch of titanium to watch collections. For example, U-BOAT has offered up a number of titanium creations in recent years including its oversized U-42 Chrono, available in 47mm and 53mm. The watch cases are made in grade five titanium and are, in comparison to U-BOAT’s 2009 supersized 65mm U-1942, diminutive follow-ons. The limited edition 65mm timepiece boasted a two-part case and bezel crafted in titanium, while its case had a matt finish, something the brand prides itself on. Emma Field of U-BOAT’s UK distributor Rockwell says that, when it comes to titanium, U-BOAT’s use of the metal is largely due to the weight factor, but also the versatility of the metal, which includes its durability and strength compared to other light metals such as aluminium.

Markham agrees with Field that more and more brands are working with the metal in their collections. “It is definitely coming through more,” he says. “Working with it was quite difficult but now that companies such as Seiko and Swatch Group are working with it they can produce titanium watches on a much cheaper and bigger scale.”

Mark Toulson, buying manager for watches at Aurum Holdings, owner of Goldsmiths and Watches of Switzerland, says that while he believes titanium is not a newly emerging watch trend, improved manufacturing has allowed more brands to start working with it. Much like ceramic has filtered down to the mid-prices market, titanium appears to be moving up.

In a bid to make its titanium timepieces even more coveted Edox recently launched its World Rally X-Treme Pilot 10303 limited edition timepiece with a black titanium case and carbon fibre dial, retailing at £1,675 and limited to 1,000 pieces.
The metal’s aviation and motoring connotations are apparent in new releases by watch brands that are working with titanium to play on its more historical uses. Luminox has released the F-35 Lightning II Flight Calculation Chronograph, a 45mm timepiece with a titanium case and optional titanium bracelet, as part of the brand’s Air series. It pays tribute to strategic aircraft and even won an exclusive worldwide license with defence company Lockheed Martin for the use of its flight-inspired slide rule bezel.

Likewise Italian watch brand Meccaniche Veloci is adored by motor enthusiasts for its play on engine designs. It describes itself as a luxury watch brand that utilises state-of-the-art technology and has made its distinctive Quattro Valvole 48 Classic timepiece in titanium, no doubt to keep this chunkier of watch styles lightweight on the wrist. The Classic’s 48mm case also boasts four titanium crowns, covered with a rubber lining.

Toulson concurs that the metal is perfect for the oversized market. “Titanium is a great material for use in oversize watch cases because it is lighter than steel, is hypoallergenic and is very comfortable to wear,” he says. “The high-tech nature of the material really appeals to the sports watch purchaser and this market sector is huge and continues to grow.”

Similarly haute horlogerie has embraced titanium, adding elements of the metal here and there where other alloys will not suffice. Bernhard Lederer celebrated space travel with its platinum Yuri Gagarin Tourbillon, which included titanium details in the tourbillon cage, while Jaquet Droz launched its Grande Seconde SW in red gold and titanium at BaselWorld earlier this year, with contrasting polished red gold and a matt titanium bezel, surrounding a carbon fibre dial.

Toulson lists Panerai, Breitling, Audemars Piguet and IWC as manufacturers of overtly masculine titanium sports watches. He describes the material as fitting the profile of the target consumer incredibly well, noting the 45.5mm Omega Planet Ocean 600m as one style that shows off titanium’s rugged properties.

In a bid to reach higher price points a number of lower-priced brands are following suit and up-scaling. Skagen, one of John Lewis’s bestselling brands, has launched a collection called Skagen Black Label with a number of higher-priced men’s and women’s titanium watches, produced following demand from the European market.

Industry feedback suggests that consumer reaction is typically positive no matter the price point. “Our most expensive titanium watch is nearly £1,400,” says Jarrott. “There is a trend toward the £200 price range indicating that customers will pay a small premium for the material.”

Hill concurs: “For many years we have experienced demand for titanium watches [so] we understand why other companies can see good business in developing key titanium models.”

One thing can be certain for this mightiest of metals: it has allowed watchmaking to be ever more innovative, which is good news for any retailer with customers on the lookout for that point of difference.
 

This article was taken from the December issue of WatchPro. To read WatchPro and Professional Jeweller in full online, and for archive WatchPro issues, click here.

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