The traditional watch is going the way of vinyl records. In the same way that only hipsters and wealthy audiophiles spin actual records, hipsters and wealthy horophiles are going to be the main market for traditional watches. Right now, this isn’t a big issue for manufacturers. But it should be. Here are are three trends that show which way the winds of change are blowing . . .
No surprise there. For decades, AP’s profitability has rested on the bedrock of the Royal Oak – a watch born in 1972. The Code 11.59’s relative commercial failure led AP to go back for their future.
In the last two years, traditional watches with a vintage vibe have come to dominate the market. In our most recent New Watch Alert, seven out of the eleven traditional watches are updates on models from the manufacturers’ back catalogues.
There isn’t a single major watchmaker that hasn’t released at least one watch relying entirely on horological nostalgia to move the metal. All the mass market manufacturers have gone retro. Seiko, Hamilton, Longines, Timex, Swatch, G-SHOCK, TAG Heuer, Oris – you name the brand and I’ll bet dollars to donuts they sell a “reimagining” of a discontinued watch. Many offer an entire collection of “heritage” pieces.
We’re at the point where new new watches (e.g., the Code 11.59) don’t sell as well as new old watches.
Rolex’s entire business model – their success – is based on this approach. The Swiss behemoth hasn’t introduced a genuinely new Professional model since the Skydweller of 2012 – the brand’s first new watch since the Yachtmaster of 1992. If you’re waiting for the next all-new Rolex Pro watch, keep waiting.
This “nostalgia kick” isn’t a temporary fad. With the advent of the smartwatch, more and more consumers see traditional watches as a thing of the past. A quaint anachronism.
A view that’s going to decimate the traditional watch industry, as hundreds of millions of consumers who can’t read an analogue watch enter the marketplace. No wonder YEMA and Hamilton brought back their horrific digital watches.
Gimmicks Go Wild!
Makers of stupidly expensive watches (e.g., Richard Mille) don’t need to worry about nostalgia; they’re in the braggadociousness business. High horology is now for buyers who wear a smartwatch during the daily grind and/or working out, then swap it for a horological status signaler for important meetings and social events.
But even supposedly smartwatch-immune high horology is undergoing a radical transformation. Where over-the-top understatement was the statement (e.g., the Patek Philippe Nautilus), gimmicks now rule the day. Like . . . every watch that has a tourbillon. Or the million dollar tennis racquet racket known as the Richard Mille RM-27-04.
The trend is down to the fact that the smartphone and smartwatch have relieved the watch of its practical and thus aesthetic obligation to tell the time in a coherent fashion. A watch is now jewelry.
And that means it can be anything. And for it to be really something, it needs a gimmick.
You might consider the Jacob & Co. Scarface Opera absurd, and you’re right. But these days, gimmicks are catnip for those who can afford $360k to say hello to their little friend (and take him home).
Gimmicks are just as popular at the bottom of the traditional watch market, where the words “cool watch” are equally prized. What better gimmick than a tie-in with an intellectual property that tugs at the buyers’ emotions?
Timex slaps a picture of Snoopy’s cross-species fraternization on a bland Chinese-made automatic, adds a yellow second hand and charges customers $279 for the privilege of feeling warm fuzzies about a $15 watch.
The same gimmicky emotional appeal is in play for the ever-increasing number of watches worn as a cult signifier and/or a badge of honor. There’s an ongoing flood of timepieces tied to famous figures, social causes and environmentalism (e.g., Raymond Weil Hendrix, Timex T80 Rainbow and Oris Carysfort Reef).
Just as the smartwatch leaves high horology free to boldly go where Col. Tom Parker has gone before, it allows wearers of cuddly, fan-oriented and socially aware timepieces to put their heart on their sleeve without people thinking they’re time oblivious (i.e., they can’t hold down a job).
Less is More – The Last Hurrah
Once upon a time, consumers convinced themselves that they “needed” a new watch because, underneath that desire, they needed a watch. So why not buy a good one, more than one and maybe even more than one good one? You don’t have just one pair of shoes, do you?
Thanks to the do-it-all (and then some) smartwatch, the traditional watch is now an undisguised luxury. A fashion statement. That’s not a bad thing per se. But it changes the nature of a watch purchase.
If you buy a pair of nice shoes, they’re still shoes. These days, if you buy a nice traditional watch, again, you’re buying a piece of jewelry. One you’re not going to wear on an all-day, every day basis. (By “you” I mostly mean the generation behind you.)
Traditional watch sales are trending upwards at the moment – both in terms of volume and average prices. Makes sense – buyers with Corona-conserved cash are indulging their desire for horological flexing. But I reckon that after this splurge, traditional watch buyers will be buying fewer watches. Stripped of practical pretense, occasional watches become a more occasional purchase.
These three trends indicate that something wicked this ways cometh. Specifically, a new kind of watch that frees the old kind of watch to reinvent itself. Good luck with that.