On Diamond Watch

January 17 2013

Marilyn Monroe could not have imagined it when she starred in How to Marry a Millionaire, or in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. She didn't ever know that a company named Swatch existed, coming to prominence in the 70s with disposable fashion poppy plastic watches. She certainly wouldn't have thought that one day Swatch would add the company she invited to "TALK TO ME!" in "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend" to their stable of companies.

Yesterday, it was announced that Harry Winston, the renowned Fifth Avenue jeweler known for their fabulous and fabulously expensive diamonds, had been purchased by Swatch for the tidy sum of $750M. That could definitely buy some ice! I learned that Harry Winston was the first jeweler to lend beautiful baubles for a walk down the red carpet at the Oscars in 1943. And interestingly enough, that they also own Omega watches. Harry Winston is apparently going to focus on diamond mining rather than retail sales, and so was open to being purchased.

Now, I totally understand why Harry Winston might want to get out of the retail business, and focus on mining and supplying high quality diamonds to other jewelers and wholesalers. No doubt it makes sense from a bottom line perspective, as they already have a tremendous amount of brand equity after years of adorning celebrities and socialites. To me, the interesting part of the story is that the choice they made was to sell to Swatch, a company that is looking to expand into the high end of the market (or way high end). It's almost as if they abandoned the brand by selling to a buyer with no real credentials in the uber luxury market.

Established brands sell for many reasons and to wildly different suitors. Family businesses in the third generation are frequently uninterested in carrying on the family business, or want to expand beyond what is possible with their existing capital. That is what happened with Kiehls, when they sold to L'Oreal for an estimated $100 million. They simply couldn't build out the brand, or service the customer in the way they were known for, or move squarely into the global economy and 21st Century without an influx of cash, and so decided to sell.  I don't know if they had to sell, or chose to sell their venerable brand. And I don't know generationally about Harry Winston, but I am a bit curious about this particular suitor winning their hand. What would Marilyn say? 

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