If Sammy Cahn was alive today, writing the lyrics for a new version of Sinatra’s ‘Love & Marriage’, one of the analogies he’d use would have to be ‘cars and watches’. Not as elegant as ‘go together like a horse and carriage’, but the pairing does represent one of the most visible and successful examples of co-branding ever seen in the luxury sector. And the nuptials that represent the apotheosis? Bentley and Breitling.
While the two ‘B’s changed the face of watch marketing and selling to a certain type of customer, the link is not particularly new: there have been watches branded for automotive marques ever since the dawn of motoring As long ago as the 1920s, Ettore Bugatti had Mido produce a run of wristwatches shaped like his cars’ famous stirrup radiator, to serve as gifts to successful drivers and cherished clients, and fitted Breguet stopwatches to the steering wheel hub of the Royale.
Since then, but before the current era when such liaisons turned into sales ventures, promotional car watches include a Lancia watch shaped as a steering wheel, a Corum in the form of a miniature Rolls-Royce radiator, complete with the Spirit of Ecstasy, and radiator-shaped timepieces from Chevy, Audi, Volvo and others.
Aside from these assorted one-offs, most car/watch marriages were decidedly down-market, the sort of tchatchkes car dealers sell in their showrooms, in display cases positioned in-your-face while you wait in a state of heightened boredom for your vehicle to be serviced. A major exception was a series of very fine wristwatches that Girard-Perregaux produced in conjunction with Ferrari during the 1990s and early Noughties, superb timekeepers inspired by individual Ferrari models.
It was, however, another, unforeseen liaison which changed the landscape forever, though it also exposed a seam that runs through the watch-making industry: unbridled copycat behaviour. In 2002, commemorating their Le Mans effort, Bentley teamed up with Breitling, a company with a long tradition for producing rugged watches for aviators. Dubbed ‘Breitling For Bentley’, the first watches exceeded all expectations.
So scarily successful was the venture that the series is now a family within Breitling’s catalogue consisting of over a dozen models related to specific cars, established alongside the familiar Navitimer, Windrider, Professional and Aeromarine ranges. One source suggested that this collaboration alone enhanced the already-healthy Breitling’s turnover by a whopping 16 percent. And – so far – it has defied the ‘Curse of Co-Branding’.
It works like this: an expensive automobile reveals a number of things about the owner, the two most obvious being that said owner is not short of cash and that he or she is interested in cars. When the automobile happens to be a pedigreed supercar, with unique connotations and prestige, it’s arguable that the owner doesn’t need to indulge in the sort of paraphernalia that wannabees acquire. Which leads to the apocryphal challenge: who’s the bigger dipstick? The guy who doesn’t own a Ferrari yet wears a Ferrari baseball cap and windbreaker, or the guy who does own a Ferrari and wears the matching attire?
Bentley and Breitling must have done their homework, because it appears that a disproportionately higher percentage of Breitling For Bentley watches have landed on the wrists of actual Bentley owners. One retailer estimated it’s as high as 70 percent, but another found it to be the opposite: the watches are so appealing on their own – for their unique look rather than the Bentley connection – that a number of watch collectors are buying them despite not owning a car from Crewe.
For openers, the Breitlings are fine watches regardless: Bentley chose its partner wisely. But Breitling went the extra mile and developed new functions and models, wrapping them in cases, dials and bezels that reflected Bentley design characteristics – no mere badge engineering here. Engine-turning, Clou de Paris machining, a wheel engraved on the caseback – there’s no mistaking which car they address.
In short order, Aston-Martin teamed up with Jaeger-LeCoultre, Ferrari with Panerai and Maserati with Audemars-Piguet. These are the canny ones who know they need unique models, utterly distinct and separated from the watch company’s own models. Aston-Martin has been blessed with clever GMTs and chronographs, Ferrari can boast in this year’s line-up two very limited models with ultra-rare Minerva movements. This is serious stuff in watch terms, a far cry from the sort of badge-engineering that gives co-branding a bad name.
So far none have been able to match the sheer momentum of the Breitling/Bentley effort. If one gauges the success of a venture by visibility, controversy and sheer presence, the Breitling/Bentley axis trumps all of the others. They certainly enjoy a far higher profile within the industry. Sales figures, though, are hard to come by, but it would appear that fewer of the owners of other makes of car have been as inspired by the matching watches. A well-placed London retailer, who stocks a half-dozen ranges with serious car connections, estimates that most of them are going to watch collectors, with less that a third being sold to their corresponding car owners.
There’s a salutary tale about this: A major Japanese manufacturer launched an assault on the most successful car in the ‘small executive class’. In its attempt at fostering cult attraction equal to its rival’s, it decided to offer a branded wristwatch. What the manufacturer failed to do was any research in the customers’ buying habits beyond the automotive.
It should have learned that owners of small executive cars in the £25,000-£40,000 bracket aspire to finer things. They buy – at the very least – TAG Heuer or Rolex watches in the £2000-£3000 region. What does this manufacturer release? A sub-£200 quartz toy better suited to Ecstasy’d clubbers. Its branding exercise has not matched the car’s own market.
And that’s the secret. Companies such as Ferrari, Aston-Martin and Bentley sell to such a select clientele that the brands’ fans vastly outnumber those who could afford the actual cars. So, instead, they can buy into the mystique with an associated, but officially-sanctioned accessory. But there are more watch brands than car brands, so the number of viable link-ups is finite. A normal Porsche fan may not be able to purchase a 911 Turbo, but he can probably afford Porsche sunglasses. But that’s not the thinking that will sell a £5000-plus watch.
As long as watch companies are run by enthusiasts who don’t differentiate between the mechanical DNA of cars and watches, and their shared appeal, the affinity will always be encouraged. Karl-Friedrich Scheufele, President of Chopard, and Gerd-R Lang, founder of Chronoswiss, are major players in the world of vintage car collecting, the former sponsoring the revived Mille Miglia, the latter manufacturing rally timers. Others, including Luigi Macaluso of Girard-Perregaux and Giuliano Mazzuoli with his eponymous brand, were professional racing drivers in the 1970s.
In this respect, then, such company heads think exactly like their customers. Cars and watches ranks up there as the ultimate boys toys, and linking them makes good sense. But if owners of airplanes and boats are feeling left out, their passions have matching watches, too.
Who’s Who In Cars & Watches (circa 2008)
By no means complete, here’s a list of current or recent car/watch partnerships, including watch brands with automotive connections that are unrelated to a specific make of car, e.g. Chopard and the Mille Miglia. Not included are the uninspiring, down-market watches usually found in car showrooms next to branded child-seats, baseball caps, picnic tables, et al:
Alfa-Romeo: Mazzuoli Contagiri, with a dial resembling a 1960s Alfa speedometer; previously Alfa applied its name to a series of fine watches from JeanRichard (2007)
AMG-Mercedes: Until recently, special models made by IWC (2005-7)
Aston-Martin: Inventive, upscale range made by Jaeger-LeCoultre (2005-Present)
Austin-Healey: Fans of this much-loved marque can wear a limited-edition Austin-Healey-badged watch from Frederique Constant (2007)
Bentley: An entire family of watches made by Breitling, so successful that most of its competitors have jumped on the bandwagon. None yet have matched its success (2003-present)
B.R.M.: Nothing to do with the legendary British grand prix team, the named is the founder’s initials. All B.R.M. watches look like they’re made from miniature car parts, e.g. steering wheels (current)
Bugatti: Unique and costly design, made by Parmigiani Fleurier (2002); radfiator-shaped Bugatti Mido (1920s); Bugatti watches by MHR (1990s)
Chanel: Special lightweight model of the iconic J12 bearing the Italian automotive term ‘Superleggera’
Chopard: Long-time sponsor of the Mille Miglia, with a series of watches bearing the race’s name; first brand to make a rubber watchstrap with a tyre tread pattern (Current)
De Grisogono: Produces watch called the Power Breaker (we think they meant ‘broker’), bearing the signature of F1 team boss Flavio Briatore on the case back (2006-present)
Dunhill: Their current Tom Bolt-designed range includes a model that looks like a winged wheel nut, with power reserve indicated by a ‘fuel gauge’
Eberhard: Highly successful range of chronographs named after racing legend Tazio Nuvolari (1992-present)
Ferrari: Own brand made by Panerai (2006-present)
Franck Muller: Made a model called the Chronograph Endurance with 24-hour dial, known as the ‘Le Mans Watch’ (1997)
Girard-Perregaux: Manufacturer of Ferrari watches prior to Panerai
Hummer: Range of watches made by Technomarine (Current)
Invicta: Yup, a revived name from the past, with watch courtesy of Invicta Watch Co, a handy coincidence (which didn’t help Hamilton Watches when it came to young Lewis…) (Current)
Jaguar: Own brand made by Festina (Current)
Koenigsegg: Edox produces a Limited Edition chronograph for this marque (2007)
Lamborghini: Own brand, made in Switzerland (Current)
Maserati: A series of limited-edition models produced by Audemars-Piguet, including a tourbillon for the MC 12 racer; AP also developed a special version of the Royal Oak Offshore named after their ambassador, F1 pilot Rubens Barrichello (Current)
Maybach: Ultra-rare tourbillon made for the company by Wilhelm Rieber (2006)
Morgan: Special version of Hublot Big Bang inspired by the Aeromax; only 500 will be produced (2008)
Omega: Featured drivers as ‘ambassadors’, including Michael Schumacher, for whom a special version of the Speedmaster was produced; also issued a Targa Florio version of the Dynamic in late 1990s
Oris: Sponsor of BMW-Williams F1 Team, produces chronographs bearing the team name (2003)
Pagani Zonda: High-end watch made by Cvstos (2007)
Porsche: Porsche automobiles have always been associated (if only by family name) with Porsche Design, which now owns Eterna; they produce a comprehensive range badged ‘Porsche’ (Current)
Richard Mille: Produced model RM 011 for this year’s Le Mans. Also designed RM005 Felipe Massa Titanium, which must aggravate the hell out of Ferrari … (2007, 2008)
Rolex: Specific chronograph from the 1960s/1970s associated with Paul Newman, who wore it in the film Winning, about motor racing. Has been known as ‘the Paul Newman’ ever since (1960s-1970s)
Seiko: This company produces a range related to Honda’s F1 effort (Current)
TAG-Heuer: Long history manufacturing sports chronographs, mainly named after race circuits, with automotive links to the 1960s, now sponsor of TAG-McLaren F1 team, enjoying the rise of Lewis Hamilton (1960s-present)
Spyker: Subject of a watch made by ChronoSwiss. The latter’s founder, Gerd-R Lang, is a known car fanatic; also features his vintage Jaguars in the company’s advertising, and produces rally timers – to wear on the wrist! (2003-4)
Wyler: Special editions for Zagato, Paris-Beijing Race, etc (2007-present)
[Author’s note: This list is long-out-of-date!]
(After Hours, 2008)