It's only fitting that Chicago watch collector Randy Gordon would be in the right place at the right time.
On a visit to New York in fall 2005, Gordon had dinner with a friend who had checked out a watch show in the city. Gordon asked if anything caught his eye. "Yes," he answered: "This watch that's like a plastic Rolex -- it's great!"
That watch was ToyWatch, and the Milanese designer, Marco Mavilla, was looking for a U.S. distributor.
A few introductions later, Gordon, who is 57 and owns a promotions business working with the pharmaceutical industry, found himself CEO of ToyWatch, based in Chicago.
"Since Swatch came out 20 years ago, there hasn't been anything new or different on the inexpensive end of watches," Gordon says. "I thought, this could be that next craze."
Helped along by early fans such as Oprah Winfrey, Owen Wilson, Madonna and Michael Jordan, ToyWatch has sold about 40,000 of the oversized but feather- light timepieces in the U.S. since last year's launch -- at keenly targeted high-end stores such as Bergdorf Goodman, Fred Segal in Los Angeles and Barneys New York. The originals combine a stainless steel bezel with plastic bracelet, crystal and case. Prices start at $150.
"They are so well-designed for the price, and, well, they really look like they have weight -- like a titanium number," said Barneys New York spokesman Timothy Elliott.
"The luxury customer likes them a lot for their amusement. Part of the thrill is the irony, the play of high and low. It's like finding a Rolex in your Cheerios."
On the women's end of his market, Gordon also is being abetted by a trend that retail consultant Patricia Pao has spotted: Watches as the new handbags.
"We have bid farewell to the handbag as the self-expressive accessory," she said. "(Designer handbags) have overpriced their market. When $2,000 is the entry point, I say, you guys are insane!"
Watches, she said, have always been guys' version of a handbag; now they're becoming the "It" accessory for women. And jumbo versions like ToyWatch's carry unisex appeal.
"Stylistically, men's watches are back in fashion," Pao said (adding, "I think girl watches are very sissy").
But men have made ToyWatch their own, too.
Barely a week passed after the March/April issue of Men's Vogue hit newsstands featuring a limited edition ToyWatch -- with a grosgrain band replacing the plastic bracelet -- when all 200 had sold out at Barneys stores.
The day after, one popped up on eBay for about twice the original $250 price.
Still, Gordon knows 15 minutes of fashion fame can go fast.
So, joining variations such as mother-of-pearl faces, chronographs and limited editions such as a complicated tourbillion ($4,000 at Swiss Fine Timing on Michigan Avenue), ToyWatch is introducing ceramic watches this spring.
Priced from $795 to $1,200, with diamonds on some, they're reminiscent of one of Chanel's best-selling accessories, the $3,000-plus J12 sports watch.
"Our catch phrase is `Time is plastic,'" Gordon said. "We're always going to be about plastic, but we are going to evolve the line."
Which means Gordon's Patek Philippe, Breguet and Audemars Piguet will have to pass the time at home.
"My own collection," Gordon said, "is collecting dust right now."
THREE MORE OFFBEAT BUT ON-TIME OFFERINGS
Surf-skate-and-snow brand Nixon has caught fashion-forward eyes with its cutting-edge designs. So have other rubber and plastic standouts. A sampling:
- The IKE Gommato watch sports a colorful rubber strap, $195 at Nordstrom, nordstrom.com and www.ikewatchusa.com.
- For women, the stretch-link Nixon Vega, $60-$100, has been featured in fashion magazines. See nixonnow.com.
- The Zodiac Sea Dragon watch has an Italian rubber strap lightly infused with a vanilla scent, $195 at nordstrom.com.