Watch This Space…

29th November 2013

Heather Harris thought the timepiece had had its day.

How wrong she was…

Ever since bankers emerged as winners in the ‘whom do we trust the least’ stakes, we have been looking for alternative places to put our hard earned cash – and under the mattress is no longer the preferred alternative. More and more people are, apparently, choosing to keep it close at hand: on the back of their wrists, in fact. According to Watchfinder, the UK’s largest pre-owned retailer, sales of luxury timepieces are ‘holding steady despite the recession, with consumers buying them as an investment as well as a fashion item.’

Since its launch in 2002, this online company has sold over £62 million worth of watches and now boasts an annual turnover of £13 million. “We recently sold 21 watches to a single customer!” their spokesperson confirmed, gleefully.

This trend for multiple ownership is, on the face of it, a surprising revelation. As Paul Smith (all names have been changed to protect people’s marriages) from St Albans confessed, “I bought a Patek Philippe about six years ago for £17k. Then a Breguet for about £11k around four years ago, and also have Rolex Deepsea - so, yes, I love watches!” Another male friend admitted, rather sheepishly, “bought my first in 2007 but did inherit my father’s Omega. I currently own four 'luxury' watches and have three others.”

A certain anonymous company director adds his confession: “I have had a fascination with watches since I was nine or ten years old, associating the type of watch I like with my early heroes like James Bond and the Apollo astronauts who wore the Omega Speedmaster! I now have five watches… the most expensive cost £5,000.”

While diamonds may be a girl’s best friend, when it comes to a man’s best mate a top brand timepiece ticks all the boxes. “A nice watch is an investment and a fashion accessory and as such requires the same attention as women pay to shoes and handbags – which is why you need more than one,” says Mr Jones, who, tellingly, has five watches all given to him by ex-girlfriends (clearly when calling time on the relationship).

For a more professional opinion I called on David Herring from the highly respected repairers, The Watch Doctor in Tring, Hertfordshire. “Men are the true obsessives when it comes to watch ownership,” he told me. “Women may have one but, without sounding sexist, they chose it to go with their outfit, men are the ones with the real passion and interest.”

Despite a universal eagerness to justify their purchases on investment grounds – “My first expensive watch was a Rolex Submariner which cost £1,750 when I got it in 1993/4. These now resell for £4,000. The second one was a Rolex Cosmograph Daytona in stainless steel which cost £6,500 about three years ago. These now resell for £7,500, ” to quote just one guilt-ridden owner – Watch Doctor David is sceptical, as are many horophiles’ partners. As one ‘watch widow’ observed, “It’s all about boys’ toys really, isn’t it? He even buys watch magazines and can’t pass jewellers without gazing lovingly at the latest model. He says it’s an investment, but why doesn’t he keep it in a safe then?”

The truth is that, much as it taints the macho image, men make these alarmingly costly purchases for mainly aesthetic reasons. “On the basis that I prefer not to wear jewellery (eg rings, neck or wrist chains) it’s a functional way of ‘accessorising’,” confessed one metrosexual man. Another equally testosterone-fuelled individual from Rickmansworth, who bought his latest £8,000 Breitling from the airport on his way to watch his beloved Chelsea play Barcelona in 2009, said, “They’re just beautiful. I don’t wear any jewellery not even a wedding ring. I don’t like anything ostentatious with diamonds or gold straps, just something classic and understated.” (Much like the man himself).

Look back in time and this is a significant shift in demographics. In the early 1900s, the wristwatch, originally called a Wristlet, was reserved for women and considered more of a passing fad. Men, who carried pocket watches, were quoted as saying they would ‘sooner wear a skirt as wear a wristwatch’.

However, this all changed in World War I, when soldiers on the battlefield found pocket watches impractical and so attached a watch to their wrist by a cupped leather strap.

And so the modern wristwatch was born. Soon every self-respecting child was given an electronic watch with quartz movement (or in the 1970s a hideous LED digital brick-like monstrosity) for a key birthday, or as a reward for learning to tell the time. Ironically, in today’s high-tech world this is one of the minor motives for ownership. Ask someone the time and they’re more likely to reach for their phone – not to ring the speaking clock (at the third stroke the number was changed to its current 0871 789 3642) but to read the display.

Tamara Sender, Senior Consumer Analyst at Mintel, says, “While watches remain highly desirable products, with Rolex found to be one of the most desired watch brands, overall watch ownership continues to decline as consumers are increasingly turning to their mobile phones to tell the time.”

In fact, to put it precisely, in a report on the UK Watch and Jewellery Market 2012 Mintel noted, “Almost a quarter of consumers (24%) in 2012 prefer to use a mobile phone to tell the time rather than a watch, increasing from just under a fifth (18%) in 2011.”

That’s echoed by owners, such as Paul Smith. “It’s not necessarily about the time. If I wanted to really know the time, I can look at my BlackBerry, which is almost as omnipresent as the Patek Philippe on my wrist.”

And this is the reason that the overall UK watch market is slowing down. Whilst the top brands such as Rolex, Omega and Cartier continue to attract those not strapped for cash, the days when a Timex in their Christmas stocking set a child’s heart ticking faster have all but disappeared. The marketing gurus at SWATCH (the brightly coloured brand once seen on the wrist of every self respecting teenager) are trying their best to turn back the hands of time, though, and have just introduced the Trompe L’Oeil Collection. These clever optical illusion watches, including one which resembles a zipper coming down (has to be seen to be believed!) retail at between £38 and £76. “But once they’re broken that’s it. They are a totally different product than the luxury brand which can cost hundreds to service but last a lifetime,” the good Watch Doctor says, adding that skilled watch repairers or ‘horologists’ are much in demand.

This was rectified by the opening in 2006 of the British School of Watchmaking (where no student is ever late for lectures). Director Mark Hearn explains, “There was a real shortage of good watchmakers in the UK because the older breed were dying out or retiring so we set up this school to nurture new talent.”

Given that employment figures among young people are alarmingly low, it was (wait for it…) a timely intervention and, for my interviewees, yet another justification for their purchases. “Honestly darling it’s all about boosting the British job market….” It might just about avoid them being clocked when the bank statement arrives.

Only time will tell…

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