“This is probably the most important launch for Louis Vuitton since the launch of the Tambour 21 years ago,” Jean Arnault, watch director at Louis Vuitton, said a few hours before friends of the brand, collectors, influencers and media representatives from around the world joined Bradley Cooper, Alicia Vikander and Michael Fassbender in the Musée d’Orsay near the massive clocks overlooking the Seine.
But the starry gathering on July 5 wasn’t just to present the brand’s redesigned Tambour case, for the first time as a sports watch with an integrated metal bracelet, in five iterations. In line with the recent trend in Swiss watches — and much of the rest of the luxury universe — Louis Vuitton announced that its watch line was going upscale.
While the brand will continue to produce Tambour connected watches, it primarily plans to showcase more precious materials, elevate its artisanal work, reduce output, refocus distribution and raise prices. “Starting today, we will remove 80 percent of our existing collection in the entry level to make way for the new product,” said Mr. Arnault, 24, adding that the brand will remove all fashion-oriented men’s watches with quartz movements from its offering. “We are repositioning Louis Vuitton as a general super-high-end brand in the watch sector overall.”
The new Tambour line is physical proof of the brand’s strategic shift. Packed with haute horlogerie finishes and intricate design details, the timepieces range from $18,000 to $52,000.
And as of Sept. 1, when the watches are scheduled to arrive in stores, they will be available in only about a quarter of the approximately 500 Louis Vuitton boutiques around the world. (Vuitton does not disclose how many watches it makes each year, and Mr. Arnault would say only that the new Tambours would be made in “hundreds, not thousands,” annually.)
So gone are the days when you could walk into any Louis Vuitton boutique and buy a fashion-oriented men’s quartz watch for $4,000 to $5,000.
About the Bracelet
Made in stainless steel, yellow gold, rose gold and a two-metal version, the new Tambour is a complete redesign — although still recognizable — of the drum-shape case that Louis Vuitton has used since it began watchmaking in 2002. (The French word tambour means drum.)
According to Mr. Arnault, the original Tambour case had a “defect: its thickness. It has always been a thick watch visible from across the room. Now we have gone from around 13 millimeters to 8.3 millimeters.
“And the 40-millimeter diameter feels like 40,” he added, “because the bracelet goes straight into the case.”
The model is Vuitton’s first sports watch with an integrated metal bracelet. Pascal Ravessoud, vice president of the industry organization Fondation de la Haute Horlogerie, said such watches are among the most successful of all time. “This is due to their ubiquity, in that they can be both sporty and elegant, and therefore appropriate on most — if not all — occasions,” he wrote in an email.
Mr. Arnault acknowledged that an integral steel sports watch “is not a revolution for the industry, but it is a revolution for us. There were many in the past and we are probably the last one to enter.
“But we stayed true to our DNA,” he added. “It looks like the Tambour, and by removing the lugs it looks more modern, more 2023.”
The curved bracelet is sleek and appears to be seamless. A discreetly engraved logo is the only hint of where the bracelet can be pulled open. “For us, the number one aspect of an integrated sports steel watch was to make sure the bracelet was second to none when it comes to haute horlogerie finishes and comfort,” Mr. Arnault said.
The multi-layer and meticulously finished gray, blue, white or brown dials with gold indexes also show that Louis Vuitton takes pride in being a French brand: Along with the words Louis Vuitton Paris on the dial is the more subtle “Fab. en Suisse” (Fab. is an abbreviation for fabriqué, the French word for made).
The approach has its roots, according to the watch website onthedash.com, in French consumer protection laws dating to 1892, which required a product imported to France to indicate its origins — in French. “This gives a vintage feel, which resonated with the brand in general. And it has a meaning for a French brand — and we are French at the end of the day,” said Mr. Arnault, who noted that he likes to add little pieces of history through small design details. “It is like the L.V. pattern on the 22-karat-gold miniature rotor. If you know, you know.”
A collaboration between La Fabrique du Temps, the watch movement specialist owned by Vuitton, and a specialist movement workshop in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland, called Le Cercle des Horlogers, produced the Tambour’s new movement, the LFT023. “We never made a three-hand movement at L.V., so it would be presumptuous of us to say that we could develop such a movement in-house with no issues,” Mr. Arnault said.
He noted that the movement’s traditional handmade finishes are on par with that in Vuitton timepieces selling for $400,000 to $500,000. “We want to value the savoir-faire of all our artisans throughout our collections,” he said. “It is not only about high watchmaking anymore; it is about all of our watches.”
The movement’s reliability and efficiency prompted Vuitton to include a five-year warranty, rather than the two years it previously offered — another industry trend that began in 2015 when Rolex started offering five years. “It is very good to see the industry investing significant sums to get the quality up,” Mr. Arnault said.
The strategic shift and the redesigned Tambour are Mr. Arnault’s most significant announcements since being appointed to his position in late 2022, and then founding the Louis Vuitton Watch Prize for Independent Creatives, an award for young watchmakers that is to debut in January. He came to LVMH Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy, the world’s largest luxury conglomerate, after earning master’s degrees from Imperial College London and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is the youngest child of Bernard Arnault, the LVMH founder and chairman.
The trend of Swiss watch exports over the past five years certainly support Louis Vuitton’s decision to concentrate on the top end of horology.
By 2022, the value of exported Swiss timepieces rose to a record 23.7 billion Swiss francs ($27.32 billion), a 26 percent increase over the value in 2017 — while the number of watches that were shipped declined to 15.8 million in 2022, a 35 percent decrease in the same five-year span, according to the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry.
And the trend of increasing value shows little change: Judging by figures for 2023 through May, the record may be broken again this year.
“Some watches are perceived as investment-grade assets,” Mr. Ravessoud of the watch foundation wrote, “and therefore value perception shot up almost across all watchmaking, in a sort of spillover effect.”
The $18,000 price tag of the gray- and blue-dial Tambours is “just right,” according to Jack Forster, global editorial director at WatchBox, a platform for selling and buying luxury watches.
“I think it is on par with what the market expects,” he said. “With the quality of the construction, the quality of design, it feels appropriate. I think they have done a fantastic job with turning the Tambour, which is a very inter-actable design to work with, into a ‘daily driver’ watch” (industry slang for a watch considered good for daily wear).
Mr. Arnault agreed that the prices are not insignificant but noted that all the models come with a trunk-style storage box measuring 24 centimeters by 17 centimeters (roughly 9.5 inches by 6.5 inches), covered in brown canvas printed with the LV Monogram pattern and edged in black leather.
If the box were available in stores, he said, it would have a value of 4,000 to 5,000 euros ($4,448 to $5,561). And it is an appropriate accessory for the Tambour, he said: “It would be a shame for us not to use our close-to 170-year history of trunk making.”
As for the ultimate commercial potential of the new Tambour, that is “a bit of a guessing game,” Mr. Arnault said. “But we know this is the right thing to do.”
And he is sure that the watch follows what he described as the most important industry lesson he has learned so far: “It is not only about the movement, not only about the finishing, not only about the dial, not only about the bracelet. Everything must be good and all come together as a whole.”