But Mr. Zhao also represents the future: He is part of a new generation of wealthy mainland Chinese men — one with more varied watch tastes than their elders — that industry experts say is now coming into its own.
“A new affluent Chinese class has become a more globalized kind of consumer,” said Ellen Hou, chief executive of Carat China, a communications agency based in Beijing.
The country’s older generation of watch buyers was less sophisticated and had little brand awareness, she added, citing one of the findings in a recent report on what her agency called China’s “mass affluent males,” issued in partnership with Jing Daily, a website that covers the country’s luxury industry.
Ms. Hou said the shift required brands to have a new “product logic,” advertising through social media and emphasizing the uniqueness, authenticity and craftsmanship of their watches.
Some watch brands and fashion companies already are adapting well, she said, but many others — especially ones that primarily cater to older Chinese buyers — have been slow to catch on. “Now is really a time to refresh the whole watch category to see who will survive” in the Chinese market, she said.
As for Hong Kong, it “was once the place where Chinese consumers would come to shop,” said Luca Solca, a luxury analyst at Exane BNP Paribas who is based in Switzerland. “Now they can buy in China or elsewhere when they travel.”
The Chinese government has been reducing official import duties on some luxury goods, including watches, and cracking down on people who buy such items overseas and then don’t declare them to airport customs inspectors on their return.
The global drop in demand for Swiss and other watches has been especially significant in Hong Kong, which lost its status as the top Swiss watch market to the United States last July. Swiss watch exports to Hong Kong fell 33 percent in the first half of 2016 compared with the same period of 2011, according to a September 2016 study of the Swiss watch industry by Deloitte, an American accounting and consulting firm.
While all five major watch markets — Hong Kong, the United States, Switzerland, mainland China and Japan — reported import declines in 2016, the downturn in mainland China’s imports of all watcheswas the most moderate, at 1.6 percent year over year, according to a recent study by the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry.
And 2016 sales totals for Swiss watches in mainland China declined just 3.3 percent, buoyed by 9.1 percent growth in the second half of the year, the study said. (In contrast, Hong Kong sales of Swiss watches declined 25.1 percent last year.)
“Business is growing dramatically — double digits — for most brands in mainland China,” said Julien Tornare, chief executive of Zenith Watches, “when it’s kind of stable in the rest of the world.”
To nurture that growth, said Jules Boudrand, Deloitte’s head of corporate finance advisory for western Switzerland, there was a clear need for Swiss watch brands to engage with younger audiences across the entire Chinese market and adapt to their changing tastes. He noted that some brands were now advertising through WeChat, the popular Chinese messaging app, and recruiting young Chinese celebrities as brand ambassadors.
Ms. Hou of Carat China said some fashion companies were taking a similar approach to their watch marketing. A good example, she noted, was Louis Vuitton’s recent announcement of the 27-year-old Chinese singer Lu Han — a former boy band star — as a brand ambassador for the Tambour Horizon smartwatch that it debuted in July.
Kings Lau, a Deloitte analyst who specializes in southern China, said that young Chinese buyers were especially interested in “affordable luxury” smartwatches with personalized design features. “For the young, it’s more and more important that their watch provides an identity” rather than a marker of social status, Mr. Lau said.
Deloitte says that it defines the “affordable luxury” smartwatch category as starting at around $300 and including the Apple Watch, the Tag Heuer Connected and Frédérique Constant’s Horological Smartwatch.
At Tag Heuer, the core customer base in Greater China (a sales category that includes Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan) are still people 35 to 50 years old, said Leo Poon, the company’s general manager for the region. But its number of 20- to 35-year-old buyers has roughly doubled since 2014, now providing about 20 percent of the region’s sales at storesas well as more than 55 percent of all online sales.
The company recently dropped its prices in greater China, Mr. Poon said, and has been seeking a younger customer by marketing its watches around sports like surfing and basketball.
He added that the company would soon debut a China-specific version of its Tag Heuer Connected Modular 45, a sporty smartwatch introduced in March that starts at $1,495 online. (The watch’s current Android operating system is blocked in mainland China.)
“We are not creating a classic watch,” the kind of timepiece that was prized by older Chinese buyers and usually had a gold case and a white band, Mr. Poon added. “We’re creating something different.”
Mr. Tornare of Zenith Watches said Chinese male buyers 20 to 35 years old were still willing to pay for mechanical watches, often at prices of $5,000 to $12,000. But, he added — echoing some of Ms. Hou’s comments — they are far more discerning than their parents about timepieces and their tastes increasingly resemble that of their peers in Europe and the United States.
In October, Zenith plans to woo this demographic with the Defy El Primero 21 — a redesign of a classic Zenith watch, the 1969 El Primero chronograph, but with what Mr. Tornare described as significantly improved technical performance. He said he hoped the new watch’s back story and innovations would convince young Chinese men that its price tag of about $10,000 was justified.
“They don’t need to show they’re wealthy because they’re second generation,” he said. “They were born wealthy. They just want to buy what they like.”
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