There’s a new sheriff in town. That was the message gleaned from the massive images of the Michael Kors Jetmaster Automatic plastered all over Baselworld this year: on billboards, the sides of buses, everywhere. This campaign looked expensive and confident, even bold amidst the natural high-end habitat of Rolex, Omega, Patek, et al. It seemed to be intentionally placed in the absolute heart of the watch industry, at the exact moment when it had the unwavering eyes of the media on it. Michael Kors, which is sold and manufactured by the dominant Fossil group, was letting the world know it had arrived, and with a “real” watch to boot – “real” being a watch-snob synonym for a mechanical, automatic watch you might not be embarrassed to be seen on your wrist around other enthusiasts.
Funnily enough, one would think Michael Kors had nothing to prove to the greater watch industry. Kors is, by a large margin, the most successful name in the United States in terms of sheer sales, and is beginning to become a global powerhouse. Indeed, it has become a kind of default symbol for timepieces in the non-watch-nerd population. And the Michael Kors Jetmaster is one of Kors’ true success stories: getting our hands on one proved near impossible for some time – it had sold out in stores across the nation and depleted warehouse reserves.
It was one of the biggest watch releases of 2014, but one you didn’t read about in the “mainstream” watch media and blogosphere. Still, the Michael Kors Jetmaster is, in my opinion, an important release, and a bit of a weather vane. It remains an interesting watch to wear and contemplate, largely because of the tropes of the “fashion watch” it sidesteps – and it also, in this moment of relentless forecasting in the wake of the Apple Watch’s release – leads the way to some key developing trends across the entire watch industry. The Michael Kors Jetmaster has proven kind of ingenious in its own way – and its popularity should have some pointed lessons for the more traditional watch industry
It’s particularly significant which watch trends the Michael Kors Jetmaster pays fealty to: this is defiantly not a smartwatch, but a fully mechanical creation that intentionally hearkens back to the glamorous era of aviation and space travel that produced horological classics like the Speedmaster “Moonwatch.” (Really, how is it possible that Omega missed nabbing the very cool Jetmaster name?) But does it earn a place in that legacy? Especially considering the hardcore watch geek hive mind may never entirely accept what is sometimes derisively referred to as a “fashion watch.”
Broadly speaking, a “fashion watch” is generally thought of as a timepiece made by a company that did not begin as a dedicated watch manufacture, and instead sells clothing and accessories, of which their watch collections are but one. This prejudice came about largely because fashion companies wanted to get in on the watch game, without a thought to appealing to the hardcore watch consumer. This typically resulted in fairly anonymous, sometimes incoherent watch designs with movements that were subpar from a horological point of view (and typically weren’t mechanical at all, but powered by the same relatively inexpensive, banal battery-powered quartz engine one might find in other watches far below the “fashion watch” branding markup). Take it from our fearless leader Ariel Adams himself, scourging the tradition in his review of this limited-edition Breitling Navitimer.
“If you’ll notice, we tend to not write about ‘fashion watches,’ A segment of typically inexpensive watches so unfairly named because they make actual fashionable watches look bad,” Ariel opines in his review. “‘Fashion watch’ is a polite term used to describe most of the illegitimate wrist trash unsuitable for people with much taste or knowledge. It isn’t about money either, if your budget is $200 there is plenty out there for you too that isn’t a rapidly cobbled together design using elements from 12 popular ‘big name watches’ into a final result that even Frankenstein would shun.” For some who prefer fashion brands to heritage watch names, however, the Kors watch is more than a mere fashion statement – it’s the foundation of a timepiece collection:
On the one hand, the traditional “fashion watch” mode remains a seemingly unshakeable pillar of contemporary retail – just go into any large department store and peruse the banal “fashion” timepieces typically on offer. But on the other hand, many fashion brands have stepped up their commitment to watchmaking. Hermès, so beloved for their handbags, has evolved into a true manufacture able to create serious complications. Louis Vuitton has made similar strides, and Ralph Lauren has begun making serious timepieces, some in conjunction with iconic watch brands like Jaeger-LeCoultre. Even Chanel is making timepieces that reflect the height of Swiss watchmaking craft and go beyond the power of its brand name and logo.
The Michael Kors Jetmaster doesn’t aspire to such horological heights. Still, it gets closer to them than many of its peers – carving out its own distinct niche in the spectrum between “fashion” watch and “real” watch. First, let’s discuss what remains problematic via the Michael Kors Jetmaster’s example. The biggest drawback for me is the choice of a Chinese-made automatic movement, and this one in particular. It appears to be a chronograph with the pushers and the various subdials (and is even referred to as a chronograph in certain company materials).
However, the registers actually display a bevy of non-chrono complications – day, date, month, and 24-hour time – set by the pushers. I don’t know what movement this is a mirror of. The pusher controlling the day of the week is recessed like those on many Valjoux movements (requiring a small tool like a paperclip to set it), but I don’t know of any particular references that feature all of these complications at once. It’s an odd choice for a set of complications, and the subdial information is rendered in such tiny text that the info you’d glean from them has real readability issues. I personally think a simpler complication and layout executed clearly – a true panda chronograph, say – would have seemed more luxurious (and more bargain for the money). A Japanese automatic movement from Miyota et. al., would have increased the price by $50 to $100, perhaps, but it would’ve been worth it, and I don’t think the target consumer would’ve blinked before purchasing the Michael Kors Jetmaster at the extra cost.
As it stands, the Chinese mechanism is more attractive to look at through the Michael Kors Jetmaster’s exhibition caseback than a blah quartz, of course. (I cannot tell if the jeweling is done traditionally, or if they and the screws are merely painted blue and magenta; I am guessing the latter.) But as with many Chinese movements, the Michael Kors Jetmaster has a thin, tinny, uniform metal quality that seems to have been (and probably was) punched out by anonymous factory machines in, say, Shenzhen rather than in a Le Brassus, or Shiojori, workshop. And while it kept quite accurate time in my time wearing the Michael Kors Jetmaster, winding its mechanism had an unpleasant gritty, grinding feel and sound – nothing like, say, the gliding, smooth feel of similarly priced Orient models, for example.
As well, per Ariel’s Frankenstein quoted Frankenstein comment, the Michael Kors Jetmaster is clearly amassed from a variety of cues taken from iconic watch models and popular brands. The clear dial revealing the skeleton of the mechanism suggests Hublot, while the symmetrical pile-up of subdials evokes an Audemars Piguet Grande Complication. The chunky brushed satin of the bracelet’s links combine the trad Rolex oyster with a slightly rounded, TAG Heuer-reminiscent look. And the Michael Kors Jetmaster’s name certainly seems like an homage to Omega’s epochal Speedmaster and Seamaster models when you consider what it borrows from them – from the diver-styled uni-directional bezel (which actually functions and isn’t decorative) to the case shape and Moonwatch-derived crown protectors. The red accents, meanwhile, evoke Dior’s sublime Chiffre Rouge collection (a fashion watch I actually can vouch for heartily in its choice of movements and design).
Michael Kors’ watches do typically make such derivations: I remember being at a restaurant wondering if the gold wristwatch on my server’s hand was a Datejust, but when she came to clear my plate it revealed itself as a Kors. Similarly, while paying for my order at the Kogi food truck during the Coachella music festival, I noticed what appeared to be a Seiko 6138 on the wrist of the woman behind the cash register; lo and behold, though, it was another Kors. However, I think the Michael Kors Jetmaster actually combines its various references with a sense of postmodern style and fun that even heritage watch brands might want to pay attention to. There’s a reason this watch flew out of the stores: it’s just plain stylish. Whatever you think about it, the Michael Kors Jetmaster is kinda sexy and looks handsome on the wrist.
That’s because there’s an overall aesthetic that keeps the armada of disparate style notes balanced: it’s not a surprise that Kors’ designers know what looks good, what’s going to stand out in the case, and what watches/brand icons to nod to, after all. There’s a design savvy, a nous, at play here which makes the Michael Kors Jetmaster fun to wear. I also think that that the usual Michael Kors branding being removed due to the clear dial gives the Michael Kors Jetmaster a clean look missing from the other models. Instead, it subtly spells out Michael Kors just below six o’clock; charmingly, the word “Jetmaster” is hidden on the inside of the bezel, serving as a sort of low-key mark of authenticity, à la the Omega symbol carved on the crystal. Kors’ “MK” logo actually looks great on the signed crown, too. This kind of attention to detail makes interacting with the Michael Kors Jetmaster enjoyable for day-to-day wear.
As Ariel exclaimed while he was photographing the Michael Kors Jetmaster for this piece, “This watch is compulsively photographable!” It’s also compulsively wearable. The dial/bezel combo is quite attractive and surprisingly readable (for regular hour/minute time, anyway) despite its busy composition. And one of the best things about the Michael Kors Jetmaster is its bracelet and case: they are substantial feeling, of much higher quality than is typical at this price point, and sit very comfortably and confidently on the wrist. At 45mm, the Michael Kors Jetmaster’s case diameter is hefty, but doesn’t overwhelm the wrist due its artful proportions and nicely tapered, symmetrical lug style.
Again, the Fossil/Kors ergonomic and design expertise comes into play here. I’ve tried far worse bracelets on far more expensive timepieces, ones that weren’t half as satisfying or visually appealing. And while I don’t love the choice of Chinese movement, as stated, I do still appreciate that Kors made an automatic watch, and a complicated one, for its flagship model. Much as I think the Apple Watch will get a new generation used to wearing a timepiece and thinking about watches anew (much as digital watches did for mine), I think the Michael Kors Jetmaster is a great introduction to the world of mechanical watches. While the choice of time-measuring functions here proves a bit random, they are real complications and, at the very least, fun to toy with; you really get the sense of what it is to wear a mechanical watch with the Michael Kors Jetmaster – especially as the movement is hacking and hand windable, with a most respectable 40-hour power reserve.
I actually applaud this trend of fashion brands at all price tiers embracing mechanical watches that punch above their weight; I actually think it raises the watchmaking quality stakes for everyone. The clothing and retail brand Steven Alan, for example, offers timepieces under its name with 21-jewel Miyota mechanical movements and Horween straps, all for $355! That’s a real value, and a real watch – and one that will probably find itself on the wrist of someone who’d never considered a mechanical watch before. As such, I don’t think the Michael Kors Jetmaster’s target consumer is interested in similarly priced, more WIS-friendly mechanical options from Seiko, Orient, and the like; they want a Michael Kors, and this is as close to a quality mechanical watch as they’re going to get. It’s a great introduction to that world – I personally would rather fashion brands attempt something like the Michael Kors Jetmaster in their sub-$500 watch offerings rather than pander to the lowest common denominator with the cheapest crap they can get away with, at the highest price.
I actually think owning a Jetmaster will prove educational for some – a gateway drug, if you will, into more refined horology. (Ironically, most people who asked me about the Michael Kors Jetmaster when I wore it were watch aficionados with Omegas and Rolexes on their wrist.) Likewise, I imagine many people, once they’ve experienced the Michael Kors Jetmaster’s ticking mechanical heart, its magic pulse able to be viewed through the caseback, will have trouble going back to junky quartz, and will start exploring more upscale options.
I have a feeling Michael Kors is going to be ready to provide those options soon, which is the real bellwether the traditional heritage brands are going to have to pay attention to – especially in the low-to-mid tier. As Kors is currently the brand other than Rolex with the most name recognition amongst the mainstream watch buyers, there’s a good chance they’ll come back wanting more, and better. Fossil has actually purchased a Swiss manufacture of watch movements, and considering the industrial expertise it has acquired via its namesake brand and other watch properties under its umbrella, it’s going to prove to be real competition when it can legitimately have “Swiss Made” down at the bottom of the dial. Hamilton, Tissot, and entry-level TAGs will have some real competition at that point: with the decline of ETA-based movements, the Kors at that point would likely even boast an in-house movement, further differentiating itself from the pack.
If it ever gets a Swiss movement, the Michael Kors Jetmaster will quickly go from being an interesting fashion watch to an interesting watch, period. As such, thinking about the worldwide retail ubiquity and efficient industrialization Fossil has been able to create with affordable timepieces should give the more expected watchmaking titans pause as the company moves into more sophisticated wrist options directed at more sophisticated shoppers. Fossil has proven with its revival of Zodiac that it can create appealing mechanical watches that reflect watchmaking tradition and heritage – something that, current smartwatch bubble aside, seems to still appeal to a large segment of the marketplace. Combining that approach with the widespread appeal of the Kors name may prove a real game changer. And in that competition, the Michael Kors Jetmaster is just the opening salvo. The stainless steel Michael Kors Jetmaster (reference MK9011) has an official retail price of just $395, while an attractive PVD-style blacked-out version (reference MK9012) has a MSRP of $425. michaelkors.com/watches
>Brand: Michael Kors
>Model: Jetmaster Automatic MK9011
>Price: $395-$425 USD
>Would reviewer personally wear it: Yes. I am right now, in fact!
>Friend we’d recommend it to first: Someone who wants to try out a mechanical watch, but to whom a mainstream fashion pedigree and affordable price are more important than watch “heritage.”
>Best characteristic of watch: The attractive, substantial case and bracelet.
>Worst characteristic of watch: The slightly odd, over-complicated Chinese movement.