With the Year of the Rabbit starting on Jan. 22, watchmakers have already leapt forward to issue special editions for the Lunar New Year, the most important period of the traditional lunisolar calendar in China and East Asia.
On these high-end timepieces meant to appeal to the all-important consumers of the Chinese diaspora across the world, the rabbit is everywhere, from figurative depictions to interpretations of its fur.
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At jewelers Harry Winston and Chopard, the color red dominated women’s styles with red crocodile straps and diamond-set watch cases, with filigree rabbit silhouettes taking pride of place on the dial.
Elsewhere, enameling was the technique chosen to represent the fourth tutelar animal in the 12-year lunar cycle on dials, starting with the L.U.C XP Urushi Year of the Rabbit from Chopard, which used the highly prized Japanese technique for its dial.
On the 38-piece Piaget Altiplano limited-edition, lauded enameler Anita Porchet, who has been working with the brand since 2006, represented a pair of rabbits facing forward in soft gray tones on the dial.
Another duo, sitting among rolling hills, was executed by enamel specialist Donzé Cadrans for Ulysse Nardin’s 88-strong run of Classico Rabbit 40 mm watches in champlevé and cloisonné techniques.
Meanwhile, hand-engraving was the technique chosen by Vacheron Constantin and Dior for their timepieces. For the French luxury house, it’s a gold rabbit leaping across an aventurine dial toward a mother-of-pearl tree that was represented on its Grand Soir watch.
An engraved figure sits amid greenery inspired by paper cutting at the center of the Swiss watchmaker’s Métiers d’Art Legend of the Chinese Zodiac timepiece, which includes its Calibre 2460 G4 and four-aperture design.
Some players in the field went for a more subtle approach, with IWC Schaffhausen, Blancpain, and Tag Heuer hiding the rabbit on the case back or figuring the animal on the oscillating weight of automatic mechanisms. That makes the styles feel more enduring instead of occasional.
Blancpain’s 50-piece limited-edition Year of the Rabbit iteration comes with a traditional Chinese calendar, which the brand touted as a rare feature as only a few watchmakers are capable of mastering its construction.
As China ditched most of its COVID-19 rules on Jan. 8, could the energetic and prosperous rabbit, said to be the luckiest of the 12 zodiac signs, be the one to bring swift recovery to the Chinese luxury watch segment after a bearish 2022?
“It’s certainly an opportunity to sell watches and to create bonds with one of the biggest markets in the world,” a challenging one at that, confirmed watch industry veteran Oliver Müller, founder of consulting firm LuxeConsult.
But getting the attention of consumers and collectors is becoming increasingly harder.
According to Müller, Chinese consumers are beginning to “resent the fact that brands, watches or otherwise, rebound on [the occasion], feeling it is not a sincere way of trying to create bonds with Chinese collectors,” he continued, noting that the most successful models were those where Chinese culture was interpreted with subtlety and sensitivity.
There could also be other ways to appeal to these consumers beyond the release of themed timepieces.
Take the approach of Jaeger-LeCoultre. The Swiss watchmaker launched a new star-powered campaign featuring its global brand ambassador, award-winning actor Jackson Yee, sporting the Master Ultra-Thin Tourbillon Moon timepiece — with no mention of a rabbit.
“This watch has special meaning because the moon governs our Chinese New Year but also because its timeless elegance is like an anchor in a world that seems to be spinning faster all the time,” Yee said in a statement.
Sebastian Wang, watch collector and chief editor at Woohootime, a Shanghai-based rare luxury watch trading platform, said he is a fan of the more enduring Chinese New Year-themed styles.
“Having a subtle but interesting ‘plus’ on an already popular model will be a good approach — a unique color dial, extra engraving on the movement or unique case material would enhance a great model and make it even better,” Wang said, adding that IWC’s burgundy Portugieser Automatic is a winner for him this year.
In his opinion, brands should not change the dial layout too drastically for the festive occasion. A two-tone color edition for a normally one-color dial would be just enough, though it’s not uncommon to see some brands create dials around the Chinese zodiac, or use Chinese characters for indices.
Wang noted that this kind of approach isn’t widely appreciated among collectors as they “have a tendency of cultural stereotype and is way too predictable” and “these styles often are equipped with enamel or jewelry touches with hyped prices; they were soon forgotten and the residual value is usually very poor.”
He believes that a successful watch style should come with a simple dial, a well-executed timeless design that the brand has been steadily running for decades and kept its style consistent, or discontinued and made in a relatively small batch of production.
He singled out Vacheron Constantin’s Mercator as “a great example of innovation, bold but traditional in terms of aesthetics.” Some neo-vintage Cartiers like CPCP models have also attracted him for a while.
Samuel Xu, watch expert and founder of the timepiece WeChat channel Big Shot Weekly, believes that what makes a Chinese New Year-themed style stand out is not only a limited use of visual elements or mechanical details but a combination of emotion and storytelling.
“I personally appreciate those with a unique perspective on our culture and can create a deeper bond with the consumer. It would be very topical and eye-catching if there is a style with a Chinese dragon on the dial made in the ancient bronze casting method from the Spring and Autumn and Warring States period. What I don’t like is a piece that has only form but no soul, such as a big red Chinese character of luck printed on the dial,” he said.
Xu contended that very few Chinese New Year-themed styles would see their value increase in the resale market since they usually are made in very limited numbers and there isn’t a sustained demand to drive up the price.
But there is always an exception. “If it’s a classic style from a big brand with a high level of watchmaking craftsmanship and a creative and respectful spin on the Chinese New Year theme, then it will undoubtedly have more room for appreciation in value,” Xu said.
Launch Gallery: Year of the Rabbit Limited Edition Timepieces