This story first appeared in the May 31 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
At the Cannes Film Festival, one might spot a few strangers who seem more preoccupied with what's on people's wrists than what's playing. That's because they're watch enthusiasts: Each year, fest sponsor Chopard lifts the velvet ropes for its most important collectors and grants special access to parties and premieres. "It's really a red-carpet treatment for the client," says the brand's U.S. president and CEO, Marc Hruschka.
In the world of luxury watches, collecting has its privileges. Many top brands give their best clients access to the most expensive limited editions, stage elaborate events with sports stars or, perhaps most exciting to the true watch geek, offer full immersion within rarefied watchmaking factories in Switzerland, most of which are closed to the public.
How does one land on the horological A-list? It often boils down to developing personal relationships with retailers and not only spending big -- top collectors can plunk down $250,000 to $1 million a year on tickers -- but also buying multiple pieces from a single company. According to one collector, purchasing as many as five Audemars Piguet watches (each in the $50,000 range) can score a collector an all-expenses-paid trip to the brand's Swiss workshops. "However, some of our clients only travel with their private jets," says Frederick Martel, vp sales and marketing at Audemars Piguet North America.
Access to limited-edition pieces is the biggest get. "A dealer may give those few watches to their favorite clients or perhaps deny them to someone they don't like as much," explains Paul Boutros, a New Jersey-based engineer and collector. According to Breitling marketing director Lisa Roman, a collector who bought an example from every limited-edition series was rewarded by having his favorite edition number reserved on future models.
Patek Philippe is known for being particularly selective about who can acquire its most elaborate watches. "They are called 'application watches,' " says Beverly Hills jeweler Martin Katz. "You apply for the opportunity to buy them. They want to see how many and which watches you already own and how long you've been collecting. I've been denied on applications. I didn't own enough Pateks; they weren't ready to give them to me."
In addition to tickets to Cannes or the Oscars, which Chopard also provides, brands arrange to bring star endorsers and top clients together. Breitling recently played host to a 10-guest dinner with New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez at its Manhattan boutique, and Breguet threw a dinner party at violinist Joshua Bell's New York penthouse.
Lavish dinners are one of the most popular ways to make an impression among current and would-be clients. In 2011, when it opened its New York boutique, Vacheron Constantin transported a few collectors via Rolls-Royce from the Madison Avenue store to an uptown townhouse where Michelin-starred chef Sergi Arola, flown in from Madrid, prepared a custom meal. The gift bag included an iPad.
But there's no substitute for the experience of visiting the brands' exalted Swiss workshops. At Jaeger-LeCoultre headquarters in the village of Le Sentier, guests might get to see the handiwork of Muriel Job, the only person capable of producing the spherical hairspring in the new $560,000 Gyrotourbillon 3. Such a visit might begin with a stop at Maison d'Antoine, a private salon inaugurated this year when Clive Owen visited. It includes a classroom, equipped with watchmakers' benches, where a master craftsman teaches how to dismantle and reassemble a watch movement.
If one is willing to spend hundreds of thousands for a Patek Philippe minute repeater, then the brand will arrange a visit to its manufacturer on the outskirts of Geneva to meet head technician Laurent Junod, who personally will present the highly complex musical timepiece. "He walks them through setting the watch, operation and care," says Patek Philippe USA president Larry Pettinelli. "It is a very special piece for which people might wait as long as two years. We make a celebration of it."