Inside Tiffany’s plan to rebuild its luxury watch business

It’s not every day that a 178-year-old ­company gets to be an upstart again.

Yet that’s exactly what high-end jeweler ­Tiffany & Co. (TIF) is, following the recent launch of its CT60 line of luxury watches. It is Tiffany’s first major new collection of timepieces in years.

Four years ago, a bitter feud with onetime partner Swatch ended a joint venture that had been intended to make Tiffany a major luxury-watch player again. Now the New York City company is attempting yet another comeback, this time with the CT60 collection.

The CT60 pieces take their name from the initials of company founder Charles Lewis Tiffany and the 60 seconds in a New York minute. They range in price from $4,250 to $19,000 and hark back to Tiffany’s long watchmaking history.

The line is inspired by the Tiffany watch that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt got for his birthday in 1945 and that he is seen in ­photographs wearing at the Yalta Conference a few months before the end of World War II.

This watch, given to FDR in 1945, was the inspiration for the Tiffany & Co. CT60 collection.Courtesy of Tiffany & Co.

“It’s really about focusing on something we already have in our DNA since the very beginning of Tiffany,” says Nicola ­Andreatta, a third-­generation Swiss watchmaker and the vice president of Swiss watches for Tiffany. Two years ago, Tiffany hired him to rebuild its watch business nearly from scratch, with a new Switzerland operation.

Indeed, Tiffany has deep roots in the world of horology, going all the way back to 1847, a decade after the store’s founding. The statue of Atlas holding a clock above the entrance of its iconic flagship store in Manhattan, first installed in 1853 when the shop was at another location, was for decades how countless New Yorkers set their watches. In 1868, Tiffany made America’s first stopwatch. And six years later Tiffany also established a beachhead in Swiss watchmaking when it opened a four-story manufacturing facility in Geneva.

At stake in this new effort is winning a bigger piece of the $27.8 billion global luxury-timepiece market, one that Euromonitor International expects will grow 20% a year through 2019.

To get there, Tiffany faces a tough slog. It is placing big bets on China, and the dramatic stock market slump there has raised questions about consumers’ willingness to spend on indulgences such as jewelry. Despite its rich watchmaking history, Tiffany garners only about 1% of sales from watches (largely made up of selling some Patek Philippe super-high-end watches), down from a modern-day peak of 9% in the late 1990s. At that point the company made the decision to focus more on its growing diamond and engagement jewelry business, and its watch business faltered as a result. By 2007, Tiffany hatched a new plan to revive its watch business, enlisting Swatch. The partnership eventually fell apart in a flurry of lawsuits and recriminations, with each claiming the other wasn’t pulling its weight.

If Andreatta gets his way, watch sales will get back up past that earlier watermark and hit 10% of total revenue a decade from now, enough to make Tiffany a top 15 player in the world.

No self-respecting luxury house with global ambitions can afford to remain essentially absent from such an important category. And in truth, Tiffany has long been there, Andreatta points out: It has been making watches for more years than even Rolex and Cartier.

This time around, though, the philosophy has been different, with Tiffany pursuing a much more hands-on approach. One of the appeals of the Swatch arrangement was that Tiffany could tap its partner’s distribution firepower and leading position in parts manufacturing. But it lost a lot of control.

So the company will handle everything from design to operations to manufacturing quality to after-sales service. Tiffany is also looking into buying small components makers and plans to open its own assembly plant soon.

Stylistically, for CT60, Tiffany opted for simplicity, focusing on its American heritage, particularly its New York roots, to distinguish itself. For instance, the hours are written in ­Arabic—not Roman—­numerals. Some include the words “New York” on the face and have numbers covered in poudré (gold or silver powder, depending on the model) to give the numbers subtle relief.

“It has a strength and clarity to it that is very American,” says Jon King, a senior vice president responsible for the management of product and store design.

What was important in this first collection was neither to go too high-end and compete directly with the Rolexes of the world nor to have too many bells and whistles. Tiffany simply doesn’t have that kind of credibility yet with serious Swiss-watch buyers anyway, Andreatta says.

Perhaps not. But slowly and surely, Tiffany appears to be registering on watch buyers’ radars again. In 2014 it was the 37th-most-sought-after luxury-watch brand among 62 brands tracked by Digital Luxury Group, which measures the number of searches performed on the Google (GOOG) and Baidu search engines. And since the launch in April, its ranking is creeping up in Switzerland, a key indicating market.

Designing and making the watches in Switzerland has been essential in reestablishing Tiffany’s bona fides among watch aficionados ready to spend thousands on a timepiece.

“The step we need to make at this very moment is to become a proper watchmaker and not a ­jeweler making watches,” says Andreatta.

A version of this article appears in the September 15, 2015 issue of Fortune magazine with the headline “Tiffany resets its watch business.”

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