Louis Vuitton watches are moving at the highest level

“This is perhaps the most significant launch for Louis Vuitton since the launch of Tambour 21 years ago,” Jean Arnault, director of watches at Louis Vuitton, said just hours before friends of the brand, collectors, influencers and media representatives from around the world joined Bradley Cooper, Alicia Vikander and Michael Fassbender at the Musée d’Orsay overlooking the monumental Seine watches.

But the star-studded gathering on July 5 wasn’t just to present the redesigned Tambour case, for the first time as a sports watch with an integrated metal bracelet, in five iterations. In keeping with the recent trend of Swiss watches – and much of the rest of the luxury world – Louis Vuitton has announced that its watch line is on the way up.

While the brand will continue to produce Tambour connected watches, it primarily plans to introduce more precious materials, upgrade its craftsmanship, reduce production, refocus distribution and raise prices. “Starting today, we will remove 80 percent of our current entry-level collection to make room for the new product,” said Mr. Arnault, 24, adding that the brand will remove all quartz-moving men’s watches from its offering. “We are repositioning Louis Vuitton as a premium luxury brand in the watch sector in general.”

The new Tambour line is physical evidence of the brand’s strategic transformation. Packed with fine watch finishes and intricate design details, the watches range from $18,000 to $52,000.

And from September 1, when the watches are due to hit stores, they will only be available in a quarter of the 500 Louis Vuitton stores around the world. (Vuitton does not disclose how many watches it makes each year, and Mr. Arnault has only said that new Tambours will be made in “hundreds, not thousands” annually.)

Gone are the days when you could go to any Louis Vuitton boutique and buy a fashion-oriented men’s quartz watch for $4,000 to $5,000.

Made in stainless steel, yellow gold, rose gold, and a bimetallic version, the new Tambour is a complete—though still recognizable—redesign of the cylinder-shaped case Louis Vuitton has used since it began making watches in 2002 (the French word tambour means drum).

According to Mr. Arnaud, the original tambour case had a “flaw: its thickness. It was always a thick watch that could be seen from across the room. We have now gone from about 13mm to 8.3mm.

He added, “And the 40mm diameter feels like a 40, because the bracelet goes straight into the case.”

The model is Vuitton’s first sports watch with an integrated metal bracelet. Such watches are among the most successful of all time, said Pascal Rhapsod, vice president of the industry organization Fondation de la Haute Horlogerie. “This is due to their ubiquity,” he wrote in an email, “as they can be both sporty and elegant, and therefore appropriate on most — if not all — occasions.”

Mr. Arnault acknowledged that integrated steel sports watches “are not a revolution in the industry, but they are a revolution for us. There have been many in the past and we may be the last to enter.

“But we stayed true to our DNA,” he added. “It looks like a Tambour, and by removing the lugs it looks a little more modern, more in 2023.”

The curved bracelet is smooth and appears to be seamless. A subtle etched logo is the only hint as to where the bracelet can be opened. “For us, the number one aspect of a compact steel sports watch was making sure the bracelet was second to none when it came to fine watch finishes and comfort,” said Mr. Arnault.

The multi-layered dials, delicately finished in grey, blue, white or brown with gold indices, show that Louis Vuitton takes pride in being a French brand: along with the words Louis Vuitton Paris on the dial is the more subtle word “Fab”. en Suisse” (fab. is short for fabriqué, the French word for made).

The approach has its roots, according to the watch’s website onthedash.com, in French consumer protection laws dating back to 1892, which require a product imported into France to indicate its origins – in French. “This gives off a vintage feel, which has resonated with the brand in general. It makes sense for a French brand—and we’re French at the end of the day,” said Mr. Arnaud, who noted that he likes to add little bits of history through small design details. “It’s like the low-voltage pattern on a 22-karat gold miniature rotor. If you know, then you know.”

A collaboration between La Fabrique du Temps, specialist in movement for Vuitton-owned watches, and a movement specialist workshop in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland, called Le Cercle des Horlogers, has produced a new Tambour movement, LFT023. “We have never done a three-handed movement in LV, so it would be bold to say that we can develop such a movement in-house without problems,” said Mr. Arnault.

He pointed out that the movement’s traditional manual finishes are on par with those found in Vuitton watches, which sell for between $400,000 and $500,000. “We want the expertise of all our craftsmen to be valued in all of our collections,” he said. “It’s not just about high watchmaking anymore; it’s about all of our watches.”

The movement’s reliability and efficiency prompted Vuitton to include a five-year warranty, instead of the two it previously offered—another industry trend that began in 2015 when Rolex began offering five years. “It is very good to see the industry investing significant amounts of money to improve quality,” said Mr. Arnault.

The strategic shift and the redesigned Tambour are two of Mr. Arnault’s most significant announcements since his appointment to the post in late 2022, and then his creation of the Louis Vuitton Watch Prize for Independent Creators, an award for young watchmakers that will debut in January. He came to LVMH Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy, the world’s largest luxury conglomerate, after earning master’s degrees from Imperial College London and MIT. He is the youngest child of Bernard Arnault, founder and chairman of LVMH.

The trend of Swiss watch exports over the past five years certainly supports Louis Vuitton’s decision to focus on the pinnacle of watchmaking.

By 2022, the export value of Swiss watches will increase to 23.7 billion Swiss francs, which is a record ($27.32 billion), up 26 percent from the value in 2017 — while the number of watches shipped fell to 15.8 million in 2022, down 35 percent in the same five-year period, according to the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry.

And the trend of increasing value shows little change: numbers for 2023 through May, The record may be broken again this year.

Mr. Rhapsod of the Watch Foundation writes: “Some watches are viewed as investment-grade assets, and so the perception of value has spread to almost all of the watch industry, in a sort of spillover effect.”

According to Jack Forster, global managing editor at WatchBox, a platform for buying and selling luxury watches, the $18,000 price tag for the Tambours watch with a gray and blue dial is “just right.”

“I think it is in line with what the market expects,” he said. With the build quality and build quality, it just feels right. I think they’ve done a great job of turning the Tambour, which is a very interactive design to work with, into an ‘everyday driver’ watch (industrial slang for a watch that’s good for everyday wear).

Mr. Arnaud agreed that the prices aren’t insignificant, but noted that all models come with a trunk-shaped storage box measuring 24 cm by 17 cm (about 9.5 inches by 6.5 inches), covered in brown canvas with the LV Monogram pattern and trimmed in black leather.

If the box were to be available in stores, he said, it would be worth 4,000 to 5,000 euros ($4,448 to $5,561). It’s a fitting accessory for the Tambour, he said: “It would be a shame for us not to use our nearly 170-year history of stem-making.”

As for the sheer commercial potential of the new Tambor, it’s “a bit of a guessing game,” said Mr. Arnaud. “But we know it’s the right thing to do.”

And he is sure the watch follows what he describes as the most important industry lesson he has learned so far: “It’s not just about the movement, it’s not just about the finishing, it’s not just about the dial, not just about the bracelet. Everything has to be good and it all comes together.”