Can We Still Take Limited Editions Seriously, Or Is That Already A Rhetorical Question?
by Martin Green
Have the last two decades been some of the most turbulent in watchmaking history?
It does seem to be the case because everything we thought we knew about the industry has changed in unprecedented ways.
Having an interesting collection of products and a worldwide retail network supported by effective marketing and communication in a selection of equally tasteful publications is not cutting it anymore.
The current consumer seems to be completely different from the one of ten years ago, who, by the way, is not the same one as ten years before that even if it might be the same person.
Watch collectors and connoisseurs also change due to the impact that, for example, social media has on the industry. And brick-and-mortar stores are closing as more and more people shop online.
One of the coping mechanisms for watch manufacturers having to take all of these changes into consideration has long been limited editions. Dedicating a watch to a special occasion or just giving it a new color, manufacturers make only a few of them while slapping on a higher price tag. And people fall over themselves to get one.
That is at least the idea.
Limited editions used to be rarities, but they started to become more popular in late 1980s and early 1990s, almost like a snowball rolling down a hill that gets bigger and bigger.
How to make them limited
Initially, limited editions often constituted simply changing the color and/or layout of a dial. For watch manufacturers, this is quite easy and inexpensive to do.
The impact can be substantial; Omega once created a limited edition of the Seamaster Professional for the Japanese market with a red dial. Generally, this is not a mind-blowing difference, but at that point the Seamaster was only available with a blue or white dial, making the red one stand out.
In the early 2000s, Cartier did something similar with the Santos Galbée, taking the steel version as the base to create three limited editions by merely changing the dial: one in ice blue, one in salmon pink, and the last one in grey with LumiNova Roman numerals.
Although physically minor changes, the visual changes here were quite powerful.
How powerful? Try to find one of them for sale.
Cartier made 2,000 Santos Galbée models in each of the colors, yet they so rarely surface in the pre-owned market that most people don’t even know that they exist. This is also what you aim for when you create a limited edition: something rare and desirable.
But creating a limited edition by only changing the color of the dial is a method a manufacturer can do only so many times.
Most brands have indeed moved away from simply swapping out colors, undoubtedly influenced by a more demanding clientele. Also, it is certain that some brands were simply running out of colors.
This should have made limited editions more interesting as brands now tend to create different hands, case backs, straps, and other watch parts to make it stand out more from the regular production models.
And while this sounds like a good thing, it did result in an avalanche of limited editions as these days the watch world never seems to be short of an excuse to create yet another one.
By changing more than only the color, brands felt a natural urge to give their limited editions a theme. Or an excuse to make the limited edition in the first place.
Partnerships have always been great to celebrate with a limited edition. Or a new ambassador, a sponsored event, or even an important holiday (Chinese New Year and Día de los Muertos seem by far the most popular).
These themes brought a new dynamic to the game as the limited editions became more personal. As a result, only people who are into whatever the limited edition is dedicated to would be likely to buy one.
In most cases, this brought the number of the limited edition down. Maintaining exclusivity seems to be a priority for a watch that is limited to begin with, but sometimes this appeared to have been forgotten.
For example, Omega launched a limited edition of a Seamaster Professional dedicated to James Bond called Classic Seamaster Co-Axial 300 M in a run of 11,007 pieces in 2012. Note that that number is not a typo.
Can more than 10,000 of anything big enough to fit on the wrist seriously be called “limited”?
A brand of limited editions
Frankly, this is not the only issue limited editions are facing.
There is an inside joke among watch collectors that with some brands the most limited model is the one that is not a limited edition. There is some truth to this: and a brand that then often comes up in conjunction with it is Hublot.
There is indeed no shortage of limited editions in Hublot’s collection, yet there is also no other brand that does limited editions quite as well as Hublot. The brand’s secret is that with each limited edition it goes all in.
As a result, Hublot can make limited editions work in a way that no other watch brand can, even when the limited edition is dedicated to something you can’t really imagine a watch partnering with.
Recently Hublot launched a limited edition to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the Fuente Fuente Opus X, a very exclusive cigar. The watches made for this occasion featured cases engraved with tobacco leaves in aged gold or gunmetal titanium, looking sincerely sharp.
The same can be said of Hublot’s collaboration with Maxime Büchi, founder of the Sang Bleu London tattoo studio. You would expect a dial with a tattoo-inspired image, but instead Hublot created a new perception of reading time by turning the hands into disks and integrating Büchi’s intricate designs into them.
While this strategy is working well for Hublot, other brands struggle with the approach, often because they either don’t integrate the strategy into their core “DNA” as Hublot has or they don’t dedicate fully to it.
The new limited edition is called limited production?
Today, limited editions have become simply part of the watch world, and they are unlikely to leave.
While a limited edition guarantees how exclusive a watch is, limited production seems to be another way brands can distinguish themselves these days. While they technically don’t commit to making only so many watches, they do only make a set number each year.
These watches enter the market gradually, not all at once. There is no reason to dedicate these watches to a special event, and for many collectors, the slow-paced production seems to be far more enticing.
Will limited-production watches take over the role of limited editions? As always time will tell, but what we know at least from the last three decades in the watch industry is that the future is also hard to predict.
Also published on Medium.