No one needs one. They tend to be seriously expensive. There’s a recession on. And yet magazines today are stuffed with adverts for power watches – and the industry is booming
An ordinary, inexpensive watch by a relatively unknown manufacturer has recently racked up millions of sales in America and is set to do the same here. Its success has nothing to do with its design, or a huge marketing campaign, but the fact that it is the timepiece currently favoured by the president of the US. The Jorg Gray 6500 Chronometer, originally designed for members of the US Secret Service, was a birthday gift to Barack Obama from a member of his security team.
When the £260 model – which made subtle appearances at Obama’s Democratic nomination in Denver, his victory speech in Chicago, Inauguration Day and the G20 summit in London – was identified by Jeff Stein, an Atlanta-based lawyer and horological hobbyist, its commercial success was guaranteed. Not because of what it offered as a watch – the battery-powered model does little more than tell the time and provide a stopwatch – but because of its association. Owning one of these puts you in the same club as the most powerful man in the world; and men like being members of clubs like that.
Watches are big business these days. And the last five years have seen extraordinary growth in the sector. The Swiss watch industry, for example, saw its exports grow from £2.5bn in 1986 to £10bn in 2008. All this despite the fact that the primary function of the watch – to tell the time – has been rendered pretty much obsolete by the invention of the mobile phone and the BlackBerry. So why are we still buying them? Why do heads of state still give watches to their hosts on the occasion of state visits? (Silvio Berlusconi must have handed dozens to Tony Blair over the years.) Why did Bernie Madoff own 17 Rolexes and seven Cartiers? Why are the most common items stolen from wealthy footballers in Cheshire not sports cars but watches? Why are the pages of men’s magazines such as Esquire and GQ, or publications such as the Spectator and the New Yorker, festooned with glossy advertisements featuring A-list celebrities wearing watches that cost many thousands of pounds each?
The economy has also dictated a shift in what men are looking to buy. Sarah Carlsen, head of press at Cartier, says that its customers are also no longer looking to make an ostentatious statement. “The showy buyers of a bull market are long gone,” she says. “We are now selling to men looking to make an intelligent purchase; looking to be part of an unspoken club of those who know, understand and appreciate the complications of an haute horology timepiece.”
And speaking of intelligent buys, it’s true that if you choose a watch carefully it will hold on to, or even increase, its value. One reason that auction sales of timepieces remain buoyant is because buyers recognise that the quality of a pre-owned watch is a safe haven for cash. One timepiece, a Patek Philippe Henry Graves Supercomplication from the 1930s, was sold a decade ago by Sotheby’s for a record $11.5m.
But it’s also about simple pleasure, of course. I own five watches – a Jaeger LeCoultre Reverso, a vintage 1960s Rolex Submariner, a Tag Heuer Carrera, a Manometro by Giuliano Mazzuoli and a Swatch – and I enjoy them all equally. And, like it or not, the model you wear does says something about you. And it isn’t necessarily about the price: as Obama has illustrated, you can be the leader of the free world and your timepiece cost no more than £260, while Diego della Valle, the billionaire owner of the Tod’s fashion empire, always sports a humble but perfectly designed Swatch.
Whether it cost £50 or £5,000, men clock the watch in the same way some women might take note of another’s shoes. It’s what we do. And the watch industry is very happy about that.