(Trends)

Women & The Luxury Watch Boom: What Took So Long?

It’s about time.

Spring Fashion Issue

The watch industry is run by white men. It caters to white men. Its advertisements feature white men. And this has just been the way it has obstinately operated for years — centuries even. So, the biggest, most unquestionably exciting change to hit the industry is the staggering number of women who are now avid watch collectors. Laetitia Hirschy, founder of Kaaviar PR, maintains that the interest has always been there, but there was never an outlet, and lockdown — a life on pause fused with a palpable sense of ennui — pushed women to explore new (or dormant) hobbies on social media.

“Instagram gives people a platform, and people want to join a community — they want to talk, they want to learn,” says Zoe Abelson, a luxury watch dealer who created a WhatsApp group for female watch enthusiasts to ask questions, send pictures, and converse about watches in a safe, non-judgmental space, which amassed 150 women in over 15 different countries in the first 24 hours (to join, DM her on Instagram). “During COVID, people were lonely, they wanted to get involved, and the watch community is so massive. No other platform affects the watch industry as much as Instagram — social media has brought us together.”

As an expert dealing in the secondhand watch market for well over a decade (first with WatchBox and now, for herself), Abelson has had a front-row seat to these seismic shifts occurring in the watch industry, describing the landscape back then as a “very niche hobby.”

“It was typically for men — in their 40s, 50s, 60s — who were passionate collectors buying watches that were meaningful to them, and it continued to be that way for the last seven years [before COVID],” Abelson says. “In the last three years, I started seeing men in their 30s get into watch collecting, and since the start of COVID, it’s become way more mainstream. It’s changed massively.”

The pandemic was, obviously, the root of all change. It started with watches being viewed as an investment — as valuable as say, a Birkin or a Basquiat painting — which led to wealthy people sweeping up the most sought-after timepieces from what Abelson declares are the three hottest, super-liquid brands at the moment: Rolex, Patek Philippe, and Audemars Piguet. This incredible demand drove up prices, forming a bubble that no one sees bursting any time soon. And in fact, the fourth quarter of 2021 for Swiss watch exports saw “the best-ever annual results for the sector, at 22.3 billion francs,” according to the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry.

“The watch category as a whole is being seen as an asset class that you can invest in — prices for some of the brands have increased much more than the stock market,” says Hirschy, who co-founded Watch Femme, a community that unites female collectors, writers, and women who work in the watch industry, last February. “Of course, when you’re purchasing something, telling yourself this is potentially going to increase in time is a great way to convince you further to purchase the piece, especially because it’s not cheap.”

And it’s for this reason that if you were to enter any of the big luxury watch storefronts, there is extremely low inventory, if any at all. “That makes people resort to the secondary market — and because you can’t get them new, you pay a premium, so you’re paying higher than retail,” explains Abelson, who since launching her business in June 2021 as a luxury watch dealer has been flooded with client requests. “Five years ago, you could’ve walked into a store and probably gotten them at a discount, but today, it doesn’t matter if it’s used or brand new. If it’s hard to get at retail, you’ll still be paying a premium.” (According to a 2021 McKinsey report, the current pre-owned luxury watch market is valued at $20 billion, and it’s set to become the industry’s fastest-growing segment, expecting to reach up to $32 billion in sales by 2025.)

Nordstrom also clocked the rise of the pre-owned watch market, which is why the popular retailer partnered with pre-owned watch specialist Watchfinder & Co. to offer its consumers a curated selection of luxury offerings. “There has been a momentum in conscious consumerism and buying pieces that will last for some time now,” says Denise Junell Johnson, vice president and divisional merchandise manager for accessories, handbags, and jewelry at Nordstrom, noting that customers are gravitating toward luxury watches and the luxury segment is performing strongly. “Investment watches have a lifetime value — they can be loved and worn, then passed down.”

This outsized interest in watches makes the timing of Brynn Wallner’s Dimepiece, an outlet focused solely on women and watches (through a pop culture lens on Instagram, through an educational lens on the site), rather fortuitous. She originally conceived the idea in 2019 when she was helping the editorial team at Sotheby’s create watch content — and quickly learned that the narratives behind legacy brands all centered around white men (her loophole: sourcing photos of female celebrities of color, like a street-style image of Rihanna wearing a Patek Philippe Nautilus, as a way to sneak them into the story). In the summer of 2020, she officially launched Dimepiece — and before she knew it, she had the attention of the watch world.

“There are women in the industry — at watch brands, boutiques, marketing — but I feel like I was one of the first to really present watches for women by women,” Wallner says. “A lot of women have told me, ‘I’ve always tried to adapt to the world because it’s very male-dominated, it’s very masculine.’ Previously, you had to play the game, with older white men, like the C-suite execs in Geneva, making the big decisions. Nobody had done it for women and with nobody to answer to. So, I had a lot of freedom of presenting it the way I wanted to, and I think that’s why it’s getting a lot of traction.”

The point of Wallner’s passion project-turned-business venture ultimately has to do with representation: When you see people who look like you wearing watches, you can then begin to visualize how it might look on yourself, she reasons. And that concept feels surprisingly novel because, well, watch advertisements historically only marketed timepieces exclusively to one specific clientele — the white man. Or in Wallner’s words, “the finance bros.”

“Beyond women seeing other women [on Dimepiece], I try really hard to include all different types of races and sexual orientations because there’s been a segmented view of who’s wearing watches: dudes wearing starched white shirts with cuff links drinking a glass of brown liquor,” Wallner says. “But really, if you start paying attention, there are different people wearing all kinds of watches. It’s a way more colorful world than we’ve been shown.”

And what we’ve been shown are watches designated by gender: men wearing men’s watches (larger case sizes, mechanical movements, no diamonds), and women wearing women’s watches (under-35mm case size, quartz movements, diamonds). There’s a degree of sexism at play here — a fact that’s made blatantly clear when you look at their resale value. “Women’s watches would not be a good investment just because the market for men’s is so much larger,” says Abelson, calling out marketing as the culprit for the genderization of watches. “It’s a tidbit I give to women who are looking to buy watches for investment: men’s watches are a better buy.”

It’s an indicator of how legacy brands have long viewed women’s watches, and to a certain extent, women — both in and outside the industry. That’s why, before this recent rise of female-watch-collecting collectives, it’s been a challenge for women to enter the space without feeling judged for liking a piece because of how it looks (as opposed to appreciating it for its mechanics) or shamed for asking questions. Isabella Proia, specialist and associate vice president at Phillips, believes it’s a form of “gatekeeping — as in, ‘This is our thing that we only know about.’ That’s something I’ve noticed working in this industry — some people tend to keep their knowledge close to them. But I have met people who are really generous with their knowledge and expertise, and those are the ones you have to latch onto.”

Why has it taken this long for the world of haute horlogerie to change? Wallner offers the lucrative nature of the business as one reason — there hasn’t been a need for change. And in fact, it could be argued that it’s the brands’ steadfast hold on their heritage, their craftsmanship, their tradition that many find appealing. By the same token, Hirschy reasons it’s because the product — this beautiful, intricate object that fuses art and engineering — transcends time and trends.

“These are brands that have existed for almost 200 years, and in luxury, things tend to take a longer time to change — when creating something timeless, changes that are implemented will have to stick for the long term,” Hirschy explains. “When the pandemic happened, brands had no choice but to adapt and create better e-commerce sites and talk to their consumers directly. The industry is starting to listen, they’re seeing more women sharing the watches they’re buying. Social media, especially Instagram, has had a huge influence on opening up this very traditional industry.”

And what the watch industry is hearing is that women don’t necessarily want smaller watches with diamonds. Women don’t care for the traditional white male-oriented ads. Women aren’t waiting for men to gift them watches — they’re buying timepieces for themselves, whether as an investment purchase or as a piece that sparks happiness.

“As women become more successful and have more disposable income, they’re purchasing for themselves, and what better piece to purchase than a watch, which is going to last a lifetime? You might also pass it on to your children, so it’s not only a financial investment, but an emotional one as well,” Hirschy says. “It wasn’t that long ago when men were the biggest demographic in terms of who purchased watches, but follow the numbers: Men were the main consumers and now, women are starting to take up that space.” (Data around women purchasing watches currently doesn’t exist, but Hirschy hopes to make that happen with Watch Femme.)

Stirrings of change are already evident: Audemars Piguet recently featured a Black model to showcase its Royal Oak release, and more brands are eschewing “men’s” and “women’s” categories altogether, opting for size ranges, instead.

“The watch game has completely changed. It’s not going to go back to that niche watch-collecting hobby,” Abelson says. “Watches have become more mainstream, and this interest from everyone means that the industry needs to be more inclusive. Women need to be a part of it.”