On any given day, many of us will have three or more devices in our handbag that we can use to tell the time – think a personal smartphone, work cell, tablet and maybe a fitness tracker. These days, there really is no excuse for being late – even if you don’t wear a watch. However, according to data captured by retail analyst GfK, the total value of UK-based watch sales increased by 34 percent in July 2021 compared to the same month in 2019. Despite these troubled times, it appears business is booming. But why are we turning to watches when their functional role has all but been usurped?
“In my opinion, functionality has never been the primary reason for purchasing fine watches,” says Misha Daud – a keen collector with an impressive roster of fine timepieces. “Watches have always been purchased for their beauty, their prestige and a genuine passion for exquisite craftsmanship and horology,” she explains. Suzanne Wong, a notable watch journalist who received her first timepiece aged eight (an analogue Casio on a black rubber strap) agrees that watches are no different to any other luxury item when it comes to their whys and wherefores. “We buy them for the same reason that we wear chic outfits even though we could just march around in a denim jumpsuit every day; [for] the same reason that we eat complicated, hard-to-prepare food even though there are nutritionally complete meal units available,” she explains. “It’s for the sheer pleasure of it – there will always be people who delight in fashion and cuisine; there will always be people fascinated by things with spinning gears that whir and click,” she concludes. Wong also points out that traditional portraiture didn’t disappear with the advent of photography, it simply became more prestigious and more closely associated with the expression of personal identity. Perhaps the same can now be said of fine timepieces.
A rise in commissions for bespoke and customized watches suggests this may be the case, with some collectors turning to fine jewelry designers such as Jacquie Aiche and Shay to give their iconic Swiss timepieces an individual stamp, replacing standard-issue elements with more unusual materials, sourcing alternative straps or unusual colorways – an off-line service that NET-A-PORTER’s Personal Shopping team are on hand to facilitate. “The market is getting more sophisticated, and buyers with mature consumption sensibilities [are] naturally gravitating towards purchases that more closely reflect their identities,” explains Wong. “Often, that leads to a rise in popularity of custom-made or customizable products. For those who value their status [as] a connoisseur, a custom watch can also signal a certain level of insider knowledge – it’s like asking for something on the secret menu at Starbucks,” she quips.
As technology evolves and we become more dependent on screens, we’ll be yearning for analog items like watches. Try taking a walk without your cell phone and rely on your watch to keep the time – it’s a good antidote to tech burnout”Brynn Wallner
Furthermore, a watch is rarely just a timepiece these days. “Watches are often brushed off as unnecessary, excessive luxury items in the digital age,” says Brynn Wallner, the founder of Dimepiece – a new digital platform that creates watch-themed content for the next generation of enthusiasts. “What I’ve found, however, is that so often – especially amongst women – watches are more than an object: they’re tangible items that can represent resilience, family history, self-worth,” she explains. “They feel more personal and intimate than your average luxury item.” Wallner recently bought her first luxury timepiece (a Cartier ‘Tank Française’) to celebrate both her 31st birthday and her success in the industry so far. “It’s especially compelling when a woman buys herself a watch in honor of a promotion or some other personal achievement,” Wallner says. “I also think that as technology evolves and we become more dependent on screens, we’ll be yearning for analog items like watches. Try taking a walk without your cell phone and rely on your watch to keep the time – it’s a good antidote to tech burnout.”
Watch purchases are often linked to momentous events and this has cemented their value as precious items. “My favorite part about collecting fine timepieces is the relationship you create with a watch and the sentiment of how it can be passed down,” says Reve Dagher, the tastemaker behind @istealwatches. “I think it’s beautiful when you link a feeling to a watch; it’s like remembering your first love when you listen to an old song, or recalling a place when you smell that particular scent – it triggers a beautiful memory,” she explains. The collector’s first luxury watch was a graduation gift from her parents, but she has since received timepieces to celebrate her wedding and the birth of her son, too.
Wallner maintains that this symbolism means we are much more likely to pass a watch down to generations than a handbag, for example. “Due to the price point, you have to be particularly intentional with the purchase and, for most consumers, it’s an item that will transcend generations,” she explains. “[Watches] are prestigious items that endure in quality, performance and hopefully value, and also happen to be extremely portable,” agrees Wong. “That makes them ideal intergenerational artefacts [and] potential heirloom objects,” she says. “Also, they literally record time – people enjoy the poetry of using a timekeeper to mark a memorable period in their lives.” This poetic quality is perhaps the most potent weapon a watch has to remain relevant today. The digital age has undoubtedly changed many things, but poetry, art and beauty are still intrinsic treasures to us all, enabling fine watches to truly stand the test of time.