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Time to design a high-class watch - the recession-proof luxury

Q & A

It may be a paradox, but while building projects are among the first things to be cancelled when a worrying trend takes over the economy, the first sign of recovery is a huge increase in advertising for luxury goods. Jewelry, expensive clothes and houses vie with exotic cars and expensive watches in a frenzy of retailing that produces strange reversals of fortune.

While motor industry giants grapple with mountains of unsold cars, Porsche becomes the most profitable motor manufacturer in the world, and Ferrari the only non-ailing branch of the Fiat empire.

But what about watches? Today everything about their design and marketing has become counter-intuitive. While sports cars are a love match, and expensive houses are expensive only because they are where they are, costly watches are leading a bizarrely cosseted life of their own. Costing anywhere up to £20,000 and certified capable of enduring desert heat, arctic cold and the depths of the ocean until the year 2200, most never travel further than the journey from the wall safe to the opera and back. Yet their economic performance beats that of any other techno-bauble by a huge margin. Never mind if you can find perfectly reliable Chinese watches in the goodie-bags your children bring home from birthday parties; or buy a beautifully designed lightweight Swiss Swatch for not much more.

Yet posh watches are still the closest thing to a piece of genuine nanotechnology that most of us ever encounter. But this is a new status. Up until a couple of years ago luxury watchmakers lived lives of quiet desperation when it came to promoting their product. There was only one kind of luxury watch advertisement in those days, one with a picture of the watch itself (except that is for Patek Philippe, which also showed the small child waiting to inherit yours when you died). All other watchmakers were torn between extolling space-age chronometric science, and claiming to have been in business since the Middle Ages. They achieved this impossible combination by either larding their advertisements with background images of vintage aircraft and pilots (Breitling), or by depicting curiosities with four dials which 'use your body's energy to create electrical power' (Seiko). Others less imaginative laid as much emphasis on the leather strap as the watch itself (A Lange & Sohne), or came up with truly gasp-inducing claims of longevity. In the lead here was Ulysse Nardin, in business since 1847, topped only by the invincible Breguet, which still claims to have been in the luxury watchmaking game since 1775 - before the Declaration of Independence let alone the French Revolution. These her - itage advertisers have clearly learned nothing and forgotten nothing; in the style of their original Bourbon customers - one of them (A Lange & Sohne) even boasts a watch with a 'hand-winding movement' instead of an automatic one - and this in a year when expensive watch design is really taking off.

In the lead for innovation is Breitling with its 'emergency watch'. Spun off from its makers' vintage aircraft stories, no doubt, this watch includes a miniature radio beacon to summon rescuers. The only discouragement being the waiver purchasers have to sign absolving the manufacturer of any responsibility for claims resulting from its accidental use.

Slightly more subtle is Tag Heuer's sponsorship agreement with Tiger Woods to develop a special golf watch - the company having discovered that 90 per cent of golfers don't wear watches. But these are all established players in the posh watch business. The real growth has come from a vast influx of new brands, led by name fashion designers. Perhaps name architects will be nextà

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