The Next Generation of Watch Buyers

By Diana Pearl, The Business of Fashion

The watch market, long focused on men of a certain age, is getting a boost from women and younger consumers thanks to the rise of watch-focused social media accounts and more youth-focused marketing.

The watch industry has spent the last decade wooing young people with global marketing campaigns and A-list celebrity endorsements, with little to show for it. An Instagram account with 8,000 followers and a thing for 90s-era pop culture might just hold the key to unlocking that elusive demographic.

Dimepiece, started by the writer and consultant Brynn Wallner last August, began as a way to showcase the moments when watches infiltrated mainstream pop culture. The twist is that Wallner features women almost exclusively, adding to a growing number of female-led voices in a subculture of high-end collectors and a fanbase that skews heavily male. Recent posts include Charlotte York’s Cartier Panthère on Sex and the City, or Hailey Bieber sporting a Rolex Lady-Datejust.

The account has quickly won a small but influential following in the horological community, in part because Wallner spotlighted women and their timepieces in the overwhelmingly male world of watches. She’s since expanded into blogging — one post explains the purpose of a bezel, others feature interviews with influential watch owners — and was recently tapped by Harper’s Bazaar to write a column. View this post on Instagram

A post shared by DIMEPIECE (@dimepiece.co)

Elite watchmakers are paying attention. For more than a decade, the industry watched as its customers have died off, or worse, abandoned their Swiss timepieces for Apple Watches or Fitbits. Swiss watch exports have dwindled from 29.6 million in 2000 to 20.6 million in 2019, including a 13 percent drop that year, according to the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry.

There are signs of life: sales of luxury watches rebounded quickly from the pandemic, returning to pre-March 2020 levels by October, the Federation said. Demand for women’s watches grew every year between 2016 and 2019. Online sales are also rising, including a booming secondhand market.

Brands are taking notice, embracing digital and perhaps finally jolting the industry into the future to connect with a new generation, one that takes its cues from Instagram accounts like Dimepiece instead of more traditional power players. Though not all change has come at once: You still can’t buy a Rolex from the brand’s website.

“The Swiss watch industry is a slow-moving oil tanker,” said Reginald Brack, consultant and former watches analyst at NPD Group. “It’s not one to pivot so quickly, they’ve been forced to.”

Shaking up the industry

Dimepiece was conceived just as the watch world’s efforts to open itself more to women were starting to pay off. In the mid-2010s, luxury brands rolled out more female-focused campaigns. Once a rarity, female watch executives are more common: Catherine Rénier has been the chief executive of Jaeger-LeCoultre since 2018; Chabi Nouri has led Piaget since 2017.

Traditionally, men’s watches were large styles with special features, like additional dials, while women’s were smaller, and more closely resembled a bracelet. But Brack said in recent years, in particular, he’s seen male consumers buy watches targeted towards women, and vice versa.

The same shift is happening at lower price points. Breda, a digitally native brand that partners with retailers like Madewell, sold nearly 70 percent of its watches to men. Today, the ratio has flipped, according to Kendall Falcon, the brand’s creative director.

Once you notice watches, you can’t unsee them.
Wallner started Dimepiece after a stint editing watch-focused stories for Sotheby’s website, where she gained an appreciation for iconic timepieces like the Rolex Daytona and Patek Philippe Nautilus for Sotheby’s watch department.

She’s leaned into the novelty of a young, female watch enthusiast.

“You have something that was so beautifully made and crafted kind of on us so close to you, on your pulse, it has its own little heartbeat, there is something special about that,” she said. “Because I’m coming to it with such a fresh eye, I feel like I’m in this really sweet spot where I can be mystified by that.”

It’s a less-exclusive tone that brands are adopting too, embracing looser approaches to gendering their products, as well as making a more deliberate effort to connect with younger consumers.

For example, when Cartier relaunched its Panthère watch in 2017, it marketed the timepiece to women, even though it had been associated with men for most of its history since its original launch in 1983, seen on the wrists of men like Pierce Brosnan. Today, the Panthère is now a favourite of stars like Bella Hadid and Zendaya.

“We don’t impose a size for a specific gender,” said Carrez. “Our clients have the freedom to decide the type of watch they want to express their style and their personality.”

Cartier has also put younger faces at the forefront of their marketing. Willow Smith, Maisie Williams and Troye Sivan starred in a 2020 campaign for the Pasha de Cartier watch, for instance, while Omega brought on the then-17-year-old Kaia Gerber, daughter of longtime Omega partner Cindy Crawford, in 2019.

Though watch brands have become less rigid in how they target and market their watches, the future of that branding may see them abandon the idea of “male” and “female” watches entirely.

Brack said that if brands move away from gendering their watch styles, they could see sales grow.

“Let the consumer decide what they like and what they want,” said Brack. “Stop labelling it and alienating half your customers.”

Maintaining tradition in a changing world

Some remain sceptical about the shift towards non-gendered watches, worrying that it could once again exclude women from the conversation.

“If we say, ‘Hey, don’t worry about focusing on women’s watches anymore, just focus on watches generally,’ they just automatically go back to a male watch mindset and not really think about women, because they’re used to making watches for men anyway,” said Barbara Palumbo, founder of the watch blog What’s On Her Wrist. “I don’t want women to be an afterthought.”

And while “horology doesn’t have to be so formal,” as Brack put it, luxury and history still underpin most high-end watch brands. Publishers like Dimepiece are playing to these brands’ strengths by contextualising their place in culture in a digital format that’s familiar to a younger audience.

“Every watch has this amazing story and it just really piqued my interest,” Wallner said. “And once you notice watches, you can’t unsee them.”