The bridge niche a new category of watches is gaining momentum

The bridge watch business is cutting its teeth.

With business in the fashion category gathering steam and a bridge watch market still laying its foundations, makers are considering styling, quality and changing lifestyles as they plan fall and build a new category.

According to Charles Kriete, sales manager for Geneva Watches, which markets Reaction Kenneth Cole and Kenneth Cole New York watches, bridge is well poised to come into its own because of increasingly exacting quality requirements as well as sophisticated styling and the growing significance of brand names.

As we saw less resistance to our price points, we could bring in a more sophisticated product with all of the aspects of fine watch styling,” said Kriete, referring to Geneva’s Kenneth Cole New York line, which hit the market in fall 1997 and retails for approximately $250.

Kriete also notes that the injection of brand identity to the watch business has resulted in more updated looks that have punched up the category as a whole.

“Styling in fine watches was becoming stale, with comparable quality being offered by the new bridgewatches with updated silhouettes,” Kriete added. “Essentially, a bridge watch is a fine watch sold in the fashion watch area, which retailers have now segmented artificially.”

Kriete says that to stay ahead in the new bridge category, the quality and a steady introduction of new product keeps the assortment fresh and interesting.

A spokesman for Emporio Armani watches, which are produced under license by Fossil and bowed in fall 1997, echoed the importance of styling to drive business in this new category. He noted that the bridge watches don’t necessarily have to be dictated by the fine watch industry, but conceded that standing out as a quality watch amid a sea of fine watches is a formidable obstacle.

“We have been faced with the difficulty of overcoming the hurdle that our product is non-Swiss,” the spokesman said. “But the acceptance of our product is based on the intrinsic quality and styling that is associated with the Armani name. The idea that a fine watch has to be Swiss is becoming outdated.”

Natural rubber wristbands, pearlized gunmetal finishes, slim lines and stainless steel characterize the collection.

The firm also plans to add jewelry stores to its distribution.

“We are going step by step to offer an entire collection and not just concentrate on a limited offering of items,” he said. “We are in it for the long haul.”

Alejandro Toussier, who is in his second season with a line of Swiss- made watches, says that to be a player in the bridge watch business, “You have to offer the quality. But you must also have a fashion twist and a design concept.”

But not all manufacturers are jumping into bridge. Citing the difficulty of establishing credibility by brands not traditionally associated with watches, other watch manufacturers are banking on continued growth within the fashion category.

“As you get into bridge, you are talking about investments and expect customers to spend over $150 on a watch,” said Ken Genender, president of Genender International, which produces Perry Ellis and Levi Strauss watches. “You have to be able to face the serious watch brands [Tag Heuer, Movado], which have a longstanding identity.”

Brand names that have not been traditional watch brands are more viable in the fashion watch business, leaving room for such novelty treatments as off-the-wrist looks and technical innovations in sport watches, according to Genender.

At E. Gluck, which markets both bridge and fashion watch lines including Anne Klein Swiss, Anne Klein II, Nine West and Armitron, fashion watches will still be the mainstay of the business, according to Mark Odenheimer, vice president.

Brands will stay true to their original concepts. Styling for the Nine West line, which E. Gluck just launched, will remain consistent with Nine West’s small leather goods and accessories line. Noting that business for Nine West watches has surpassed original expectations, Odenheimer cited novel and cutting-edge looks and microfiber bands in an array of digital colors as lures for a younger customer. He said the company would also continue to build the Anne Klein II brand, featuring interchangeable bracelets and bezels for the more sophisticated customer.

Odenheimer stressed that while the bridge watch category is not negligible, the fashion category is still expected to drive overall business.

“In terms of high individual sale, retailers can’t ignore the bridge watch category. But volume will still be in fashion watches.”

Guess Watches, which are produced by Callanen International, has expanded its assortment to include a third line, G3 Steel.

Touted as an “extreme lifestyle” watch, complete with solid steel case, titanium bezel and oversized chronograph, the G3 Steel will cater to a sportier customer. In the Guess Watches line, the company’s core line — matte white metal looks and pastel dials — will be replaced by black metal with deeper colors, like dark blue and purple faces.

“People understand that fashion watches are an added accessory and not an investment,” said Jeffery Cohen, special projects manager for Callanen. “We have really tried to offer different looks for different wardrobes, keeping in mind fashion trends.”

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