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Women’s watches have gone from the bold to the beautiful in a return to elegance

Dainty does it. Watchmakers, after a few seasons of issuing men’s wear-inspired clunkers made feminine with the addition of crystals or different colors like pink, are returning to fine jewelry¬†influences and petite proportions designed with the ladies in mind. The turnaround coincides beautifully with ready-to-wear’s resurgence of tailored suits, subdued colors and flirty, yet classic elements like trumpet skirts and polkadots.

Fashion dictates a smaller watch now,” said Patric Zingg, general manager of Hamilton, a watch line owned by The Swatch Group in Weehawken, N.J. Since Hamilton pioneered the concept of creating a stand-alone women’s watch collection in the early 20th century, according to Zingg, the brand’s recent transition to smaller timepieces has been seamless. “Ladylike looks are in our DNA,” he said.

One example Zingg cited is the revival of the Lady Hamilton style from the Thirties. Though designed in the same tonneau shape, the new Lady Hamilton is made of stainless steel instead of its original white gold or platinum. Two bracelet styles and a style with a leather strap in red, black or white retail between $295 and $500 at Macy’s East. A satin strap in black or white makes its debut late spring.

Zingg said one of the biggest selling factors with the new Lady Hamilton is the reasonable price. “This trend is usually represented through fine jewelry,” he explained.

Carried at Federated department stores for $58 or $72, Peugeot watches really deliver the trend for a steal. Peugeot’s biggest hit is a thin rectangular case in yellow gold with a leather strap in black, tan or turquoise. The company will add striped grosgrain ribbon for summer and leather in camel, royal blue or berry, and some possible tweeds and wools, for fall. Peugeot’s national sales manager Sean Sherman said anything white, such as a mother-of-pearl face with a white crocodile-printed leather strap, is also selling. Mother-of-pearl faces appear on gold or silver chain-link bracelets, too.

“The market overdid the bling-bling large trend, so it’s going back to traditional again,” said Sherman, who observed the changeover in the fourth quarter of 2004. Half the collection has more dainty proportions compared with 20 percent last year. “Smaller pieces are checking so much better that we may increase to 60 percent and reissue retro styles,” he said.

But it’s not just established watch houses with decades of meticulously kept archives that are looking back at ladylike, jewelry-influenced retro styles. BCBG, which launched its watch division in February, shows Thirties-inspired cocktail watches in materials like rose gold, stainless steel and mother-of-pearl. Leather straps are hot pink, brown, white or teal, and 40 percent of the collection is now allotted to metal bracelet watches. The looks retail between $95 and $350 at department stores including Bloomingdale’s, Macy’s and Marshall Field’s.

“People are going back to elegant. Big watches are completely dead for us,” said Dina Crisco, a national sales manager for Long Island City, N.Y.-based Geneva Watch Company, which licenses BCBG.

Crisco attributed the demise of bold watches to oversaturation, especially when retailers splashed the look all over holiday advertisements after it had already been done to death in spring 2004. “Everyone had oversized, glitzy, pink watches, and it backfired,” she said.

Estimating more than 60 percent of Geneva’s watch business is dedicated to small and even miniature styles, Crisco predicted the trend should run through spring 2006.

Kenneth Cole, another Geneva brand that sells for $75 to $125 at Nordstrom, Parisian and Federated department stores, features classic cases and neutral colors. “Cases aren’t in those crazy shapes anymore, and we’re seeing growth in earth-tone straps, yellow gold and textured faces like mother-of-pearl,” said Crisco, whose top seller is a narrow, rectangular shape with Roman numerals and a silver or white face.

Fossil, a Richardson, Tex.-based multibrand watch company that licenses Michael Michael Kors and DKNY, experienced a jump in sales this spring due to the emergence of women’s watches with a jewelry feel, according to Brad Beach, vice president of watch design and product development. “Small and feminine is the biggest trend now,” he said of the vintage-inspired pieces.

Beach said Michael Kors combines watch materials in a manner similar to how they are working with materials in sunglasses, like mixing leather and a metal chain or white plastic and gold. The line also incorporates gold or silver mesh, identification chain bracelets and charms for items that retail between $110 and $150 at Macy’s. “Bigger watches are just sportier by nature, whereas small sizes are more versatile and can go from casual to dressy to true evening much easier,” said Beach.

Basing its collection on the spirit of romance, DKNY shrinks its cases and decorates them with stones and leather straps in girly pinks and lilacs. Fluid silver mesh, which Beach said continues to be a strong platform, sends a feminine message, as well. Watches sell for $85 to $125 at Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s and DKNY retail stores.

Kim Anderson-Curry, senior vice president of marketing and product for Callanen, a watch designer, manufacturer and distributor in Norwalk, Conn., said small, tailored watches are important to its Guess brand. In January, Guess introduced a smaller, elongated case with crystals on a silver-toned metal bracelet for $85. For Mother’s Day, the company plans to add a rectangular, crystal-enhanced case in stainless steel with a mother-of-pearl face and leather strap in white, pink or black for $85. It also has designed a watch on a multistrand chain with an engraved locket for $85 in silver or $95 in gold.

We see a strong fine jewelry influence,” said Anderson-Curry, who oversees accounts at Macy’s and Watch Station in addition to Guess retail stores.

Since the brand’s broad audience means it can’t walk away entirely from oversized looks, it also is doing “bold watches with feminine twists like five-strand pearl bracelets or cases of gold-toned metal and crystals,” according to Anderson-Curry.

She added, however, that Thirties-inspired watches are what’s to come. “Based on the ready-to-wear trends,” she explained, “I see the small, retro trend having a longer life than 2005.”

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