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Plastic fantastic watchmakers have set aside some play time this spring

The latest craze in watches is proving that time doesn’t always have to be precious.

Cheap-chic watches that emulate details found on fine men’s sport styles in affordable plastic designs have created a buzz on the retail floor. Many industry executives say they haven’t seen this kind of buzz since Swatch premiered its Swiss-manufactured plastic Swatch watches in 1983. Swatch watches sparked a fad that evolved into a lifestyle brand. The pioneers behind today’s lightweight plastic watches are hoping they can do the same. They are gearing up to offer new models with new features for spring.

There are many imitators in the market now, but we plan to stay ahead with innovation, and by being what Kleenex is to tissues,” says Randy Gordon, chief executive officer of ToyWatchUSA, the Chicago distributor in the Americas and Japan of ToyWatch, which spearheaded the recent plastic watch trend when it was launched out of Milan last fall.

Gordon, who introduced the trend to U.S. retailers in spring at $150 to $300 retail, estimates thewatches have had more than 40 percent sell-throughs at stores like Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue and Bergdorf Goodman, among others. ToyWatches feature acrylic link straps, oversize cases, bezels often embellished with Swarovski crystals, mother-of-pearl faces and other details like chronographs.

“Several models are back-ordered,” he says. “We can’t make them fast enough.”

To maintain the momentum, ToyWatch is offering new designs for spring. These include watcheswith automatic movements, as opposed to only battery-operated quartz movements, to mirror the inner working of fine watches more closely, as well as models in chocolate brown, a trendy color for fine watches now.

Observing the rise of plastic timepieces beginning 18 months ago in Italy, Ali Soltani, president of Ritmo Mundo watch company in Los Angeles and Milan, was inspired to create Drops, a secondary line of polycarbonate watches retailing from $120 to $200. The first shipment of chronographs and other styles with bracelet straps in red, blue or black hit Neiman Marcus this fall.

Soltani plans to add mother-of-pearl faces and crystal and diamond accents for spring’s collection of chronograph and fashion styles in black, red or silver with rubber, polycarbonate or leather straps. He hopes that a polycarbonate watch featuring a tourbillion that retails under $5,000 will create a sensation.

“We want it to be like buying a Ferrari at 1/20th of the price,” says Soltani, who adds that the watch parts for Drops are manufactured in China and assembled in Switzerland.

Ben Feigenbaum, president of Locman USA, a designer watch firm with headquarters in Italy, also jumped on the trend in 2006 with Elba Team, a collection of watches with polycarbonate and stainless steel cases, enamel dials, bold graphics and resin straps that retail from $195 to $295 at accounts like Neiman Marcus, Barneys New York and Bloomingdale’s. Three variations include round and square cases, but the chronograph styles in black, blue or pink top sales. Spring expansions will range from new colors to a round watch case with diamonds that will retail for less than $1,000 at Bloomingdale’s.

“It’s important to us to offer totally original designs,” says Feigenbaum.

After being launched in January, it took six months for Milan-based Grimoldi’s VaBene division of acrylic watches to land Stateside, according to spokeswoman Ana Martins. Its Superstar style with pink, blue or white mother-of-pearl faces and Swarovski crystals at the indicators and bezel retails from $145 to $220 at Neiman Marcus. Spring’s items are an all-white chronograph with a rose gold bezel, and a watch with a pink dial and bezel on a clear strap.

“The luxury customer understands the irony and happiness of a high-fashion plastic watch,” says Martins.

The larger scale and classic design make plastic watches cooler and more of a statement than what we have seen in the past,” she says.

According to Greg Thumm, senior vice president of product development for Fossil Inc., Richardson, Tex., women’s interest in what he calls “boyfriend” sports watches is what is driving the trend.

But this twist of combining luxury and common materials takes the another-sports-watch edge off in a sea of sameness in the fashion watch department,” he says.

In October, Fossil shipped 10 acrylic and stainless steel looks with the company’s patented Smart Link engineering and signature vintage styling.

Round cases and bracelets in clear, pink or orange, and a chronograph in silver, black and red retail for $105.

“We predict this category will do very well for fourth quarter and hopefully retailers will build up inventory for an even larger spring sell-through,” says Thumm.

Scoop co-owner Stefani Greenfield says ToyWatch’s pieces retailing between $150 and $250 have blown out on its Web site, and at each store location that carries them, from East Hampton, N.Y., to Miami. Bestsellers are masculine, oversize chronographs with mother-of-pearl faces, crystals and clear straps.

But we probably won’t carry it forever as it grows more mainstream, and because it’s not our main business,” says Greenfield.

Andrew Jassin, managing director of Jassin O’Rourke, a fashion consulting company in New York, says saturation could be the trend’s death shortly after the holidays, though plastic watches are here to stay.

“They’ve been around since post-World War II,” he says, attributing their main appeal to offering a luxurious perk at a significantly lower cost. “But strong design and branding could ensure this round’s continuation.”

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