I have been struggling to identify the appeal behind the Michael Kors watch phenomenon, and finally figured it out, upon the release of the designer's Lexington and Chronograph designs. In case you live under a rock, Switzerland-based Rolex is the single largest luxury watch brand in the world, and boasts an array of design patent protected watches - which are worn by everyone from tennis star Roger Federer and actor Daniel Craig (when he's not playing James Bond), to Lindsay Lohan (who notoriously had hers stolen by the Bling Ring).
Michael Kors, on the other hand, has been experiencing quite a bit of success as of late stemming from his collection of accessible luxury watches, which retail for around $200, and adorn the wrists of a vast amount of teens and twenty-somethings. However, it seems to me that Michael Kors' success is quite heavily resting on two things: 1) The accessible price tags of the brand's watches; and 2) Their similar appearance to some of Rolex's most famed styles, such as the Daytona, Yachtmaster and the somewhat basic Submariner. See more examples after the break ...
Swiss-based Rolex has been making watches since 1905, and has a variety of design patents (in the U.S. and internationally), which protect the appearance of the famed watches for a total of fourteen years. (FYI - A single watch design can consist of approximately 14 U.S. patented inventions). So, while a large number of those patents have since expired, some of the brand's design patent filings that cover the design of wristbands, for instance, are as recent as 2009, making them active.
This means that Rolex has a monopoly over the patented design, giving the company "the exclusive right to make and sell the innovation." One such patent (US 20090113870 A1) covers the design of "a strap with articulated links, in particular for a watch, comprising at least three adjacent longitudinal rows of links." The patented design is depicted in the two watches directly below on the left. Due to the fairly complex nature of patents, in general, I can't say for sure whether Kors has infringed any of Rolex's design patents.
If Rolex cannot make a case that Kors has infringed any of its patents, the watchmaker may have a trade dress argument. A form of trademark protection, trade dress refers to characteristics of the visual appearance of a product or its packaging to the extent that it has developed secondary meaning in the eyes of consumers. While the distinctiveness associated with secondary meaning takes an extensive amount of time and resources to establish, I don't think it would be a stretch to say that Rolex has met that standard, as the brand is world-famous. As for whether Rolex's legal team will take action, there's a chance. You may recall that they brought suit against Brooklyn-based Rolex Deli. More to come ... Maybe.
from left: Rolex Submariner, Rolex limited edition Daytona & Michael Kors Everest Chronograph
Rolex Datejust (left and second from left) & Michael Kors Blake Glitz Watch (right)
Rolex Daytona (left) & Michael Kors Lexington Trilogy (right)
Rolex Yacht-Master II (left) & Michael Kors Chronograph (right)