The New York minute American Tiffany & Co 2.75m high Atlas clock Fifth Avenue
The New York minute is an American synonym for an instant, or a blink of an eye, reflecting the dizzying pace of life in the metropolis. Tiffany & Co staked a claim to the New York minute before the term entered the lexicon in 1967, when founder Charles Lewis Tiffany installed a 2.75m high Atlas clock above his shop in 1853, the same clock that stands over the doorway of its Fifth Avenue store today. And when standard time was adopted by American railroads in 1883, effectively setting the time for the country, Tiffany’s sent its employees to regulate, once a week, some 400 clocks it had sold to clients in New York, making Tiffany’s time the time of the city.

Introduction of the CT60 modelled on a wristwatch owned by Franklin Roosevelt

Up to now, Tiffany & Co has been legendary for delivering happiness in robin-blue boxes. So renowned is the company for jewellery that not many are aware it was established in 1837 as a “stationery and fancy goods” store, albeit one that became so illustrious as to have Audrey Hepburn gaze yearningly at its jewels as the ultimate status symbol in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. This year, however, the firm is refocusing consumer attention on another of its products – house-made timepieces – with the introduction of the CT60, a line modelled on a wristwatch owned by Franklin Roosevelt.

The watch was given by the White House Press Corps to the legendary president – he rescued America from the Great Depression – for his 63rd birthday. He died just months after, but not before attending the Yalta Conference with it. The historic meeting saw soon-to-be victors of WWII gathering to discuss Europe’s post-war re-organisation.

“The watch witnessed a significant global milestone that changed the course of world history,” says Nicola Andreatta, a 20-year veteran of the watch industry, who is now head of Tiffany’s operations in Switzerland.

The CT60, named after its founder, Charles Lewis Tiffany, and the 60 seconds of the New York minute, takes its cues from the Roosevelt watch, from the pencil-shaped hands and Arabic numerals to the narrow, faceted lugs. Even the Tiffany & Co logo on the dial is a facsimile of the firm’s old logo, rather than the modern emblem it uses today. The watch is timekeeping Americana, blending American history and culture.

Tiffany’s history in watchmaking, however, stretches far beyond Roosevelt’s wristwatch. Tiffany & Co was founded some 60 years after America declared independence, selling its first pocket watches a decade later in 1847. Some of those watches were supplied by the newly established Geneva firm of Patek Philippe, which appointed Tiffany’s as its first retailer in the United States.

Tiffany & Co bullish about the watch business during the Gilded Age

But Tiffany & Co was bullish enough about the watch business during the Gilded Age that it set up its own Swiss watch factory in 1874, located on the Place de Cornavin in Geneva, across from where the main train station is today. American watchmaking in Geneva came to an end four years later, when Tiffany’s sold the factory to Patek Philippe, in return for a renewed and expanded partnership. Tiffany & Co still sells the Geneva watchmaker’s timepieces today, retaining the privilege of being the only American retailer allowed to sign its logo on Patek Philippe watches.

For much of the 20th century, Tiffany & Co relied on others for its watches, ranging from Patek Philippe to Tiffany & Co branded timepieces made by specialists.

But, with the modern Gilded Age beckoning, Tiffany & Co once again ventured into Swiss watchmaking in 2008, in the form of a joint venture with the Swatch Group, Switzerland’s largest watchmaking conglomerate.

That collaboration fell apart in 2011, leading to legal battles that are still being appealed.

Subsequently Tiffany & Co returned to Switzerland on its own, establishing its own facility near the Italian border, an echo of its first foray into Swiss watchmaking 141 years ago. “Now, Switzerland is for watches what New York is for jewellery,” says Andreatta.

Franklin Roosevelt’s Tiffany & Co wristwatch triple calendar Roosevelt watch the rose gold CT60 Calendar limited to 60 pieces
Franklin Roosevelt’s Tiffany & Co wristwatch was a triple calendar, indicating the day, date and month. A complication common during that time, the calendar has been replicated in the CT60 Calendar, the star of the new collection. Inspired by the Roosevelt watch, the rose gold CT60 Calendar indicates the date and month, and is limited to 60 pieces.

CT60 marks a return to Tiffany’s roots, watch strategy prudently calibrated

The new factory and CT60 mark a return to Tiffany’s roots, but in a modest manner. The watches are equipped with decorated movements from Sellita, a Swiss specialist, with a starting price of $5,100.

But the CT60 is just a preamble, with grander plans on the drawing board, reveals Andreatta, adding that “movement (production) will be part of our industrial strategy in the future”.

Beyond the products themselves, Tiffany’s watch strategy is prudently calibrated. Given the global slowdown in luxury watch sales, particularly in Asia, the affordable positioning of the CT60 is sensible.

Tiffany & Co also enjoys notable advantages over its rivals, most obviously its strong American presence. Though a liability during the housing crisis, the American economy is perking up, with watch sales growing faster than in Asia. The accessible price point of the CT60 puts it alongside watch brands that sell well in the US, like Tag Heuer and Breitling.

With nearly half of its US$4 billion (SS$5.4 billion) of sales inside America, where it operates almost 100 stores – its retail network is another major strength – Tiffany & Co is well positioned to capitalise on the American economy.

Sales in the Americas will give it the resources to grow its watchmaking capabilities, by which time the Asian markets would have rebounded. It will take more than a New York minute, but Tiffany & Co has been at it for a long time.