From the late 18th Century onwards, keeping a watch in your pocket meant you were, in the words of latter day style guru Ron Burgundy, “kind of a big deal”.
Ever since, the humble timepiece has always doubled as a status flag: an ornament built for social peacocking as much as deducing the hour. Savile Row suit or not, a watch traditionally said a fair bit about you: your social standing, your education, your style nous and taste. Two and a half centuries later, not much has changed, only more of us have them – over 1.2 billion watches were sold worldwide in 2015, many in the luxury sector. Demand remains high, and when selected well, a good timepiece is very much still a ‘big deal’ – functionally, stylistically and expressively.
Watches as status symbols
If you ask Hannah Gray, corporate and personal stylist with The Style Agency, watches are as important for mens’ style as much as jewellery is for womens’. “A way for men to adorn themselves, to express who they are in a non-verbal way, to feel like they are representing their true selves to the world,” she says.
A classy watch, it seems, still exudes a good dose of ‘peacock’-power: a reflection, as in the old days, of modern status and pay-grade.
“Society has not evolved past status symbols,” says Gray. “If anything, they are more powerful now with the prevalence of social media, particularly Instagram, where you might oh so casuallytake a snap that happens to feature your Panerai.”
Suffice to say, when it comes to flaunting, we haven’t evolved much.
“Until the entire globe is psychologically reprogrammed by the greatest therapist of all time,” says Andrew McUtchen, Founder of Melbourne-based publication and watch authority Time+Tide. “Certain people will never lose the drive to express their status, on their wrist or anywhere else.”
As well as a style necessity, McUtchen sees the wristwatch as a practical essential – largely as a respite from overbearing digital creep.
“Personally, I’m device saturated,” he says. “There’s something blessedly simple about putting on a nice watch that fits your look for the day, and not having to think at the same time: where’s my damn cord to charge this thing?”
It’s no secret that the watch game has blown wide open in recent years – not just through tech evolution and the rise of the ‘smartwatch’, but from a growing list of micro-brands that are challenging the ‘old guard’ with compelling new prototypes.
Given the options on hand, what’s a guy to wear these days? A tried and true classic? Or something a little more modern?
“On a deeper level” says McUtchen, “it’s a much more educated market than ever before. So getting a TAG Heuer, or a Rolex, just to show you’re a legend may not cut it like it used to. These days it’s about showing success, but also wearing brands that send a more nuanced, personal or specialised message.”
McUtchen highlights how wearers of Richard Mille watches, for example, are effectively the ‘Billionaire’s Club’ – “a bling mating call you don’t even have to open your mouth to make.”
Fresh micro-brands, meanwhile, are diversifying the market, offering savvier style choices that enable the wearer to express something new and unusual from the traditional.
“Kickstarter has changed the game for smaller watch brands who can use crowdsourcing to make their dreams and designs a reality,” says McUtchen. “It’s led to a rush of creativity that is having the effect of speeding up the innovation cycle in the wider watchmaking industry.
McUtchen cites REC as a chief exemplar, a micro-brand that incorporates parts of vintage cars in their construction (including the 901 Series, crafted uniquely from salvaged Porsche 911s).
Gray agrees that micro-brands are having their moment, gaining currency with younger wearers in the same way that being part of the start-up culture has a savvy appeal to it.
“Micro-brand watches are designed by watch enthusiasts, so they are made with consideration and respect for the craftsmanship, unlike fashion brand watches that are simply made as another product amongst apparel or jewellery. Wearing a watch made by a micro-brand shows that you have your finger on the pulse of what’s cool, and confidence in your style,” she says.
Watch mechanics: make or break
Beyond the name of the maker alone, one also needs to consider the ‘make’. To begin with, mechanical watches were the industry standard for centuries, until the ’80s when battery-powered quartz overhauled the market with a more efficient and affordable technology
“Quartz watches are for the functional, fashionable, practical people who want accurate timekeeping that’s on-trend and doesn’t cost an unreasonable amount of money,” McUtchen says.
Smartwatches, he says, appeal to similar types, but more to those who need to be connected, and like gadgets – a functional rather than an aesthetic choice.
Mechanical watches, then, are for the sentimental: “those who appreciate fine engineering, and yes, for the status hungry.”
These babies will set you back – despite being more vulnerable than the wallet-friendly quartz fit-outs, there’s no denying their appeal: intricate, delicate; beauty in action. While some can be snapped up for under $1k, most in the mainstream average around $3k (with the average price on Time+Tide at around $15k – “a crazy amount of money in the real world,” says McUtchen). Nonetheless, they’re made to last – not one, but many lifetimes – something to champion in this era of ubiquitous product obsolescence.
Technology-wise, yesterday’s quartz is today’s CPU. As tech continues to overhaul more or less every aspect of our lives, one can’t help but ruminate on its longer-term effect on the luxury watch game, and whether ‘classic’ choices will persevere.
“Its a cliché,” says McUtchen, “but you can’t improve on perfection. The Rolex Submariner, the Cartier Tank, the Omega Speedmaster, the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak, the TAG Heuer Monaco, the Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso, the IWC Big Pilot, the Panerai Luminor, the A Lange and Sohne ‘Lange 1’ (the most recent classic of this bunch), are simply un-improveable designs. You can bet – literally, it will be a good investment, trust me – these will hold up, and in many cases go up in value.”
Gray agrees: ‘Timeless luxury will always hold up style-wise, as the people who buy luxury are after the craftsmanship and sense of prestige that comes with it,” she says.
“Realistically, there hasn’t been a functional need for an analogue watch for the past few decades. Digital watches didn’t have an adverse an effect on the sales of analogue watches, in much the same way that smart watches won’t. Those that can afford it will probably just buy both.”
The Swiss statement
As for point of origin, historically a Swiss or EU-made rig was considered the dog’s bollocks of time-wear, a must-have for those keen to convey an unquestionably polished sense of refinement. Is it still a case of ‘go Swiss or go home?’
“Local brands are doing well on the fashion and micro front,” says McUtchen, “but in terms of the great houses in the great watchmaking countries, it’s hard to see Japan, Germany and Switzerland really being headed any time soon – they have a pretty sizeable head start.”
Considering annual Rolex sales held steady at USD 4.5 billion in 2015, and in the right condition, Sean Connery’s Submariner 6538 from Dr No still fetches six figures (something Ian Fleming would no doubt be pleased to hear), it also begs the question: is Rolex still king?
“It no longer has the same je ne sais quoi as it used to in terms of contemporary style,” says Gray. “It might be a piece that you set as a goal for yourself at the start of your career, as something you would perhaps buy once you ‘make your first million’, [or] as a symbolic momento.” (In saying that, she adds, inheriting a vintage Rolex probably is the ultimate dream).
“The deeper you get into watches,” adds McUtchen, “the more apparent it becomes why the ‘Big Crown’ carries so much weight. The combination of history, unimpeachable quality and timeless style is as formidable as ever in the current day.”
Still (though certainly badass) even Brian Johnston looks a tad incongruous fanging about in a Rolls Royce. Rolex, Omega, Panerai or not: if it doesn’t satisfy the x-factor – i.e. your own style – then you best keep searching for the one that fits.
“Just go for what turns you on,” Says McUtchen. “You HAVE to feel something when you see it and wear it, or a watch, no matter how expensive, or highly sought will just stay an object. If you feel something, it’s the beginning of a relationship and it will quickly transcend its material sum of parts. After all, you and your watch are going to do great things together, you may as well start off on the right foot, you may as well make it a love, not an arranged marriage.”
Ultimately, you can’t go wrong with good design. As Gray attests, it “endures for decades […] the investment in a high quality watch is something to strive for, something to earn and be appreciative of.”
Just make sure you keep your mind open. “I have worn watches for work that I never would have chosen that have found ways to win me over,” says McUtchen. “Just try lots of them. You might be surprised what works.”