Back in the late 70′ and early 80’s, “designer watches” were a massive moneymaker. Tens of millions of consumers bought cheap quartz-powered timepieces branded Armani, Versaci, Lacoste, Gucci, Ted Baker, Ferragamo, Bruno Magli, Fendi, etc. That business has hit a brick wall. Head on. Hard. For example . . .
Richemont has dropped Calvin Klein’s cK watches from their roster. Movado is no longer making the timepieces; cK stores are closing worldwide. cK’s dumping inventory onto the gray market, where deep discounts are the daily dish.
Mr. Klein’s hardly alone in his not-so-long march to horological oblivion. You need only visit one of the few remaining department stores to see designer watches piled high to be sold cheap – and not selling.
The designer watch “craze” – which did just as much to save the Swiss watch industry from the quartz crisis as the plastic fantastic Swatch – is dead. It’s a victim of the explosive, unprecedented rise of the smartwatch and social media’s complete and total cultural dominance.
The smartwatch’s supremacy over the designer watch is easily understood. How can a time-only timepiece compete with a watch that saves Americans the effort required to remove their smartphone from their pocket to read a text or change their music?
Smartwatches are also a money-saving exit ramp for millions of fashion-conscious buyers. Buying a lot of cheap designer watches isn’t cheap!
That’s what status conscious consumers had to do to stay on top of their game. After all, a designer watch’s cachet rises or falls according to the designer’s fame, which also rises and falls. Today’s Michael Kors is tomorrow’s Halston.
The Apple Watch stands apart from the status signaling rat race. Yes, Cupertino releases new sizes and capabilities. But the Apple Watch has maintained its basic look and appeal for five years and counting. Its owner needn’t change their horological style annually, or buy different styles for work, sports or going out.
Well, maybe not the last bit. In fact, the Apple Watch and its ilk are actually anti-fashion fashion. Which is a fashion statement very few people want to make when they’re painting the town red (a pre-COVID thing). Which brings us to the second trend killing designer watches: social media.
Thanks to the all-conquering InstaTwitterGramTube, celebrities flexing high horology have an enormous impact on the mass market. Kim, David, Rafael and the rest rock Rolex, Patek, Mille, Audemars and other Swiss watches. Brands that find their way into rap songs (one with 800m views) and influencers’ multi-million follower Instagram feeds.
One thing these celebs aren’t wearing: a $1595 Versace Palazzo Empire IP Yellow Gold Bracelet Watch. Or any watch marked cK or A/X. And one thing the mass market isn’t wearing: a Rolex. Well, not a real one. Fakes? You bet. Tens of millions of dollars worth.
Meanwhile, the mass market has turned to dedicated fashion-oriented watch brands like Shinola, MVMT, Invicta and Nixon. Believe it or not, they’re the downmarket equivalent of OMEGA, IWC, NOMOS and yes Rolex, Patek and that lot.
These cheap stylin’ watches scratch the same status-seeking itch as the big boys do, in a way that low-cost designer-branded watches can’t.
Whereas an Armani watch has to embody Giorgio’s understated design ethos, a Nixon or Invicta watch can be anything. It can exploit any design trend, from dive watch macho to dress watch elegance to Tiger King blingery. They can do it credibly and they can do it fast.
Designer watches aren’t dead yet. Some are giving it the old college try, rebranding kludgy Wear OS smartwatches. As smartwatch dials are all much of a muchness, and only watch nerds recognize watch cases, the “Is that a . . .?” factor that drove designer watch sales for decades is gone. Fail.
The new mass market watch “designers” are CAD-CAM experts working with Chinese manufacturers to rip-off designs popularized by celebrities wearing Swiss watches, and nameless software engineers creating killer apps for tiny screens.
Will “true” designer watches be missed? Only by the people who made mountains of money selling cheap ass watches to consumers who didn’t care about quality as long as their watch elevated their status to people who also didn’t know any better. Bless their hearts.