For more than four decades Ralph Lauren has been the master of American good taste. Now, at an age when other men might be spending more time with their golf clubs or burnishing their legacy, he has decided to enter a new world: watches.
Perhaps, rather like Plutarch’s Alexander, Ralph Lauren “saw the breadth of his domain” and was about to weep “for there were no more worlds to conquer.” And then he realized that, as yet, he had not made a watch.
The easy solution would have been to put a polo pony on the dial of a cheap timepiece with a battery-powered quartz movement and let the cash roll in. But instead, like those eccentric explorers who like to do things the hard way, be it climbing Everest without oxygen or crossing the polar ice caps on foot, the American designer decided to make a serious watch.
After about four years of behind-the-scenes activity with luxury-goods group Richemont (whose watches include Vacheron Constantin, IWC, A. Lange & Söhne, and Cartier), Ralph Lauren timepieces premièred earlier this year at a grand banquet at Geneva’s Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie (SIHH). There are three watches in the launch collection: the Slim Classique, the Stirrup, and the Sporting. All are powered by a Richemont Group movement. Translation: The design is strictly RL, but the “guts” of the piece—the micromechanical engine assembled from dozens of tiny wheels, screws, and pinions—are made by respected watch companies: Jaeger-LeCoultre, Piaget, IWC.
Now, the SIHH is to horology what Paris is to fashion or Basel is to art, and watch people have similar ideas about hierarchies and rituals. Except theirs have been established not over seasons or years but over generations and centuries. Lauren’s 40-odd years spent dressing America may seem like an eon in fashion, but at least two of the companies exhibiting at the SIHH, Vacheron Constantin and Girard-Perregaux, trace their lineages back to the 1700s. What struck those at the event, more than the abundance of red roses and candlelight, was Lauren’s humility. The American icon seemed to approach the Swiss watch world with the respect due to a centuries-old industry that’s part of the national DNA. “There is a way of living,” Lauren says, “that has a certain grace and beauty. It is not a constant race for what is next, rather an appreciation of what has come before.”
The watches themselves are vintage Ralph Lauren. In the Stirrup there are echoes of the equestrian world he has always held so dear (polo pony, anyone?). The Sporting recalls the quintessentially Ralph Lauren look: artfully battered chinos and a linen madras shirt at the beach. The Slim Classique is an expression of quiet understatement right in step with the post-bling zeitgeist and would, incidentally, work quite well with a Purple Label tux.
And what was the notoriously insular Swiss watch world’s take on all this? Dr. Gino Macaluso, the cerebral owner of the Sowind Group, which includes the brands JeanRichard and Girard-Perregaux, is intrigued. “The watches are interesting and well done, very traditional,” he says. “Mr. Lauren took a different approach than other fashion designers; he is a lifestyle designer. He likes watches—loves watches—in the right way and is very keen to analyze the details. This is the result.”
The result, by the way, doesn’t come cheap. The least expensive model, the Sporting chronograph, is priced at $9,000. These timepieces need to demonstrate their seriousness if they are to succeed. Lauren seems to understand this. “To design something legendary, that has timelessness,” he says, “is what I aspire to do. That means taking risks and going with what you feel but never losing sight of your vision and conviction.”