Can Louis Vuitton Upscale Its Watch Division by Downsizing Its Offerings?

Truth & Dare: Can Louis Vuitton Upscale Its Watch Division by Downsizing Its Offerings?

The luxury brand is reimagining its signature Tambour while retiring 130 timepieces…to start.

By Rhonda Riche

We are processing a lot of events from last week. Beyoncé kicked off the North American leg of her Renaissance Tour in Toronto. Meta’s Threads App took on Twitter. And France was consumed by protests. Then, in the middle of all this chaos, Louis Vuitton announced during the Paris Couture Shows that it was radically reinventing its watchmaking operations by redesigning its most emblematic timepiece, the Tambour.

The watch has become slimmer so that it no longer resembles the hamburger emoji we once saw the old version represented by, and the price of this new Tambour is almost five times higher than previous iterations. These are substantial changes, to be sure, but this news doesn’t seem big enough to warrant mentioning it in the same paragraph as Beyoncé or nationwide protests. Right?

Well, that’s because the Tambour’s size isn’t the only thing Louis Vuitton is reducing. For you see, at an opulent event held at the Musée d’Orsay, Director of Watches Jean Arnault also revealed that the brand was deleting 130 references from its offerings, effectively immediately.

It’s a bold move on many levels. Here’s why.

Truth (Part 1)

Louis Vuitton is one of the most recognized brands in luxury. Its empire has expanded beyond leather goods to haute couture and fine jewelry. Even some of its past creative directors, like Marc Jacobs and Virgil Abloh, have achieved rock star status. But the brand’s horological offerings have always struggled to get the same respect among the watch cognoscenti.

Of course, the brand has tried to turn around many times the perception that it is a fashion house that merely dabbles in watchmaking. Like, for instance, when the maison purchased La Fabrique du Temps (the high-concept shop run by watchmaking veterans Michel Navas and Enrico Barbasini) in 2011 to create an arms-length atelier dedicated to haute horology. The collaboration has produced some crazy complications such as the Tambour Spin Time Air Quantum and the over-the-top Tambour Opera Automata (both of which only launched last year).

Sadly, however, while La Fabrique du Temps bought the brand some credibility in the watch world, it still hasn’t been able to shake the fashion brand label. Here is where Jean Arnault, the director of Louis Vuitton’s watch division, enters the scene.

Dare (Part 1)

The youngest of LVMH founder Bernard Arnault’s five children, Jean joined the watch division of Louis Vuitton two years ago. Now, the 24-year-old is taking steps to completely relaunch the brand’s lineup of watches.

However, between then and now, Arnault has proven that his love of watchmaking goes beyond the family business. For instance, he moved Daniel Roth and Gérald Genta out of the Bulgari stable and re-positioned them as low-volume, high-value brands. Plus, Arnault was instrumental in establishing a prize to help fund young watchmakers. And considering that a shortage of watchmaking talent is one of the industry’s biggest crises right now, this act demonstrates that he recognizes that not all investments need to result in short-term profits.

Now, let’s go back to the timing of introducing the new Tambour during Couture. Louis Vuitton’s runway presentation was the first under new creative director Pharrell Williams, who is primarily known as a musician and producer. While Williams is one of the most stylish people in the world, the fact that he doesn’t come from a design background has many commentators asking, who do these collections serve? Is it about selling clothes, cultivating clients, building prestige? Or is it an arena where new voices can express themselves freely?

Viewed through this lens, we think the decision to upscale the Tambour and reduce the number of existing lines is a reflection of Arnault recognizing the watch enthusiast community in the short term and appealing to their collector instinct in the long term. Moreover, Arnault is daring to apply the lessons learned about cultivating community and managing niche markets (of which timepieces, especially luxury watches, are definitely one) from other emerging areas of the luxury world.

The Truth (Part 2)

The old Tambour, introduced in 2002, was a big ol’ tub-shaped timepiece with a tapered case brazenly inscribed with the brand’s iconic “LV” logo. Thankfully, though it carries the Tambour name, this newest incarnation doesn’t look at all like the old model.

The new version, for example, is 8.3mm high, compared with the original’s 13.2mm. Plus, the brand’s name placement is much more elegant. Meanwhile, the lugs are now integrated into the supple bracelet for a subtler sports-chic appearance.

Finally, this new three-handed unisex timepiece will come in two steel colorways (gray and blue) as well as steel-gold, solid 18K yellow gold, and 18K rose gold options. And while the new Tambour won’t be available for purchase until September, these 40mm timepieces will start at $18,500 – four times the current price point.

Until this announcement, Louis Vuitton’s watch production – not including their connected watch – has ranged from $2,750 fashion watches to $550,000+ haute horlogerie models. But as Arnault told Hypebeast when the new Tambour was launched, “Our goal is not to put a watch on everyone’s wrist.”

Dare (Part 2)

While Tambour 2.0’s new look and price may be grabbing the majority of headlines, raising prices to make an object more alluring is a well-known opening gambit when trying to breathe life into an iconic brand. Chanel, for example, just upped the prices of their handbags. However, Arnault’s (and, thus, Louis Vuitton’s) decision to cut production is a much bigger gamble.

The maison will downsize its roster of men’s watches to just 20 active references, including the Tambour Horizon Light Up Connected Watch, the Tambour Street Diver, and the new Tambour designs. And by 2025, Arnault hopes to exact similar changes to the women’s watch collections as well. Overall, the brand hopes to decrease production from over 10,000 units per collection to under 2,000 units per collection and only make them available at fewer than 100 stores rather than the current 250 stores.

Alone, you could see the brand’s strategy regarding retail availability creating enough perceived scarcity to drive up demand. But this is a moneygrab because once you factor in the increase in quality and the decrease in production, the increased price makes sense. And despite staying up all night doing the math, we cannot work out how Louis Vuitton will make more money off Tambour sales with this strategy.

So why do it? Because increasing sales is most definitely NOT the point of these decisions.

The goal is for Louis Vuitton to be recognized as a true boutique horology brand. To be recognized as such will make Arnault has other long-term plans for the watchmaking division less risky. For instance, within two years, Arnault hopes to bring all production (including cases and dials) in-house, but it would be a huge gamble if the watch community continues its dismissive posture towards Louis Vuitton watches.

So far, the reception to the new blueprint has been very positive. Most reviewers love the cleaned-up look of the 2023 Tambour. And everyone agrees that having 130 existing product lines was way too much. We’re looking forward to seeing where Louis Vuitton and La Fabrique du Temps will take us in the next two years.

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