Festive seasons come and go, but the Lunar New Year is the one annual holiday where luxury watchmakers really invest their time and creativity producing designs that feature the latest zodiac animal of the year. It provides brands with an opportunity to connect with one of their most important customer bases — the East Asian consumer — and show off their unique artistry.
The Year of the Rabbit, the fourth animal in the 12-year cycle, has inspired a range of limited-edition designs from naturalistic impressions to playful cartoonish images of bunnies skipping around the dial. Watchmakers are hoping these will help boost a market that has suffered during China’s strict COVID-19 policies.
In 2022, China’s luxury watch market was worth 10.36 billion, even though Swiss watch exports to the mainland fell by 12.3 percent in the first nine months of last year, according to Bloomberg Intelligence. Meanwhile, exports to Hong Kong, a significant hub for luxury watch exports to Chinese buyers, dipped by 10.4 percent. In contrast, exports to America grew 28.5 percent over the same period.
Even in November, the decline continued with sales down 11.5 percent in China and 8.9 percent in Hong Kong, according to the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry. However, Bloomberg states that among luxury brands operating in China, watchmakers held up better than most.
The loosening of restrictions and the renewed sense of optimism among Chinese consumers may be just the fillip luxury watchmakers need as people start traveling and shopping again. Considered the luckiest of the zodiac signs, the brands are hoping some of the rabbit’s good fortune will brush off on their sales.
Gucci’s playful designs tie into its fashion capsule collection, which feature whimsical motifs of rabbits on G-Timeless watches or as part of a monogram pattern, with prices falling under 1,000. Most luxury brands, however, are using the Lunar New Year opportunity to emphasize standout complications on their timepieces and their métiers d’art skills.
Harry Winston and Chopard, for example, have presented their own interpretations of the legend of the Jade Rabbit. Since 2016, Harry Winston has celebrated the Lunar New Year by depicting a zodiac animal on a timepiece, and this year, a gold rabbit picking wildflowers graces the Premier Automatic 36mm model. Chopard has two limited-edition models of 88 pieces each, one for its Happy Sport model and the other for its L.U.C XP 39.5mm model featuring the ancient Japanese Urushi lacquer, which will sell for 26,200.
The Year of the Rabbit is the last in Piaget’s zodiac series of 38mm Altiplano models and uses the same Grand Feu Cloisonné enamel as the others. Created by master enameller Anita Porchet, the 38 limited-edition pieces retail for 71,000 each. Elsewhere, fluffy rabbits playfully skip around the dial of Breguet’s Classique 9075, which uses enamel and engraving like Van Cleef & Arpels’ Lady Duo de Lapins model to target the female consumer.
The zodiac watches that stood out this year for Austen Chu, co-founder of the Shanghai Watch Gang, are those from Chopard, Breguet, Vacheron Constantin and Van Cleef & Arpels. “I think they’re all tastefully executed in the different ways they’ve incorporated the rabbit as the focal point of the watch,” Chu, who is also behind the successful @horoloupe account on Instagram and recently co-founded Wristcheck in Hong Kong, says. “They’ve integrated it into the design language of the watch, all the while highlighting each respective Maison’s horological know-how.”
The trend for producing zodiac watches for the Chinese market began about 15 years ago, according to Chu. “I think initially it was quite a novel thing for brands to do, and it was extremely successful in the eyes of collectors,” he recalls. But are they still considered cool? “I appreciate the homage to Chinese culture,” he says, adding, “I would love to see more abstract interpretations in the future.”
Vacheron Constantin is one player that is putting a distinct spin on the Lunar New Year, using its zodiac watches to highlight historical links with China that date back to 1845. The brand has pledged to make a zodiac watch for every year of the cycle, starting in 2013. Some collectors, a spokesperson from Vacheron Constantin says, are committed to buying the whole series. The Métiers D’Art zodiac designs on the 31mm Calibre 2460 G4 self-winding watch features the Jianzhi paper-cutting technique and is priced at 108,000 in pink gold.
Blancpain’s Villeret Traditional Chinese Calendar watch is also unique as it displays both the Gregorian and Chinese calendars and is decorated with a pair of bunnies.
However, there are concerns that interest in zodiac watches may be waning. A trend report on luxury watches in China by leading fashion agency GMA suggests that only 24 percent of luxury shoppers enjoy having the animal of the year on their luxury watch, although 42 percent do like good luck symbols.
The reason, the report cites, is “because Chinese shoppers are more and more into a timeless design. They want to invest in a product that will last. And the ‘animal of the year' comes back every 12 years.”
IWC Schaffhausen has received “very positive” feedback for its subtle approach to the Portugieser Automatic 40 limited edition, which has a burgundy dial and a rabbit-shaped gold rotor visible through the glass case at the back. The timepiece, which hit stores last November, “brings back the clean and crisp design of the first Portugieser from 1939, which was also a Rabbit Year,” points out Peter Lao, managing director of the brand in mainland China.
Meanwhile, Jaeger-LeCoultre focuses on another symbol of the holiday — the moon phase — and adds this imagery to the dials of its Master Ultra-Thin Tourbillon Moon timepiece, in addition to launching a new campaign with the talented singer-actor Jackson Yee (Yi Yang Qian Xi) to appeal to a younger audience.
As Yee highlights in the campaign, the moon phase “has special meaning because the moon governs our Chinese New Year but also because its timeless elegance is like an anchor in a world that seems to be spinning faster all the time. With the change of the year, it symbolizes the relationship between reality, time and our dreams for the future."