The Year of the Dragon roared into China on Monday. To celebrate the Chinese New Year, luxury companies the world over have created exclusive pieces that can be considered nothing short of art.
Western luxury goods makers, ranging from watches and handbags to cars and mobile phones, are hoping the auspicious Dragon will bring an upsurge in their sales to help offset weak sales in the West and have made the Dragon a top design choice.
Vertu, a British luxury mobile-phone maker that is part of Nokia, has launched three phones for the Year of Dragon with hand-engraved dragons – an elaborate process that takes around 36 hours for each unit. The handsets cost about 100,000 yuan ($15,831).
The Italian luxury brand, Versace, launched a jeweled handbag with hand-painted golden dragons on the side panels, hand-embroidered dragons on the handles and the words “Year of the Dragon 2012″.
These limited edition bags, designed for the Chinese New Year, are only sold in Asia. About 210 of these exclusive handbags are available at a cost of 31,800 yuan.
Super big ticket items are flying off the shelves or showrooms. Rolls-Royce launched the limited edition “Dragon” Phantoms in August 2011, and the cars were sold out within eight weeks of the launch. The company may extend production.
“The dragon means good fortune, power and success,” said Torsten Muller-Otvos, chief executive of Rolls-Royce.
China became Rolls-Royce’s largest market in 2011 and accounted for about one-third of the 3,538 cars it sold worldwide in 2011.
But luxury watchmakers have had the grandest time with the Dragon, offering an array of limited edition, art-inspired timepieces.
Panerai, an Italian watch brand known for its classic-looking sports watches, has designed a limited-edition Luminor Sealand watch dedicated to the auspicious creature. Released this month, the piece is inspired by the art of Chinese paper cutting and features an etching of a dragon piercing through clouds and mist. It is etched onto a brushed steel cover that protects the watch’s sapphire crystal.
Panerai is not the only brand celebrating the Year of the Dragon. While some brands have occasionally released a special Chinese zodiac watch — especially when the animal had some broader general appeal like the tiger or horse, rather than goat or ox — everybody seems to be offering to the ever-important Chinese consumer a special edition to remember this famed creature of Chinese culture.
“The luxury market is now heavily dependent and supported by the Chinese buying inside and outside China,” Ng Tjeng Jaw, a watch collector in Singapore and editor at large of Revolution, an international watch magazine, wrote by e-mail last month. “The whole haute horlogerie industry is doing everything it can to capitalize on this. With the uncertain outlook of European economies coupled with constant fear of a possible China slowdown, there is now a greater sense of urgency for luxury brands to exploit the Chinese market even more while they can.”
The Chinese watch market continues to grow, and with these new watches squarely aimed at this increasingly lucrative consumer group, several brands are also celebrating traditional crafts that are especially appreciated by the Chinese, like enameling and cloisonné.
The Swiss watchmaker Jaquet Droz is celebrating the Chinese New Year with the Petite Heure Minute Dragon, using the off-center subdial of the Petite Heure Minute watch to depict the dramatic scene of two Imperial dragons fighting over a pearl in finely detailed enamel.
While the brand had previously released watches for the Year of the Tiger and the Year of the Snake in a limited edition of eight, and buoyed by the success of the previous special models, Mr. Benz said the company had decided to issue the dragon watch in a limited edition of 88 (a particularly auspicious number in Chinese, as the number eight signifies wealth).
The Swiss watchmaker Ulysse Nardin is also producing 88 pieces of its Classico Enamel Champlevé Dragon.
Meanwhile, the Swiss luxury watchmaker Piaget has gone all out with a Dragon & Phoenix series that offers watch lovers a choice of 24 different models with engravings, cloisonné or enamel features of dragons or a phoenix, which represents the feminine yin to the dragon’s masculine yang and was usually associated with the Chinese empress. Prices for these timepieces range from HK$193,000 ($25,000) to HK$16 million.
“The response to the collection has been very good. We are seeing important sales in Asia and also in our key boutiques in Europe and the US,” said Dimitri Gouten, president of Piaget Asia Pacific.
Some in the industry offer a word of caution. “The Chinese-related theme watches have been doing well, and the dragon watches probably won’t be an exception,” Mr. Ng wrote. “Having said that,” he added, “brands need to be responsive to market conditions without pandering. The balance is a delicate one.”