Watches Are Rediscovered by the Cellphone Generation

By Alex Williams

Published: July 6, 2011


Michael Williams, who runs A Continuous Lean, a men’s style blog, ditched his Timex when he got his first cellphone in 2001.

Tyler Thoreson, the head of men’s editorial for Gilt Man, the flash sale Web site, often kept his forgettable watches stashed in a drawer.


And Eddy Chai, an owner of Odin New York, a downtown men’s boutique, gave up wearing watches regularly in his mid-20s, when he outgrew his Casio.


But after going watch-free for much of the last decade, the three men — all in their 30s and considered style influencers — are turning back time. Mr. Thoreson, 38, is shopping for a vintage gold IWC with a white dial or a Rolex GMT-Master. Mr. Chai, 38, has been wearing a vintage Rolex, loosely dangling around his wrist, “not as a timepiece, but as a piece of jewelry,” he said.

And Mr. Williams, 32, splurged on three watches: an IWC Portuguese, a Rolex GMT-Master II and an Omega Speedmaster, also known as the “moon watch,” since that is what Apollo astronauts wore.


“The men’s-wear set has recently rediscovered the joy of proper mechanical timepieces,” Mr. Williams said. “Right now there is no clearer indication of cool than wearing a watch. If it was your grandfather’s bubbleback Rolex, even better.”


As recently as a half-decade ago, time seemed to be running out for the wristwatch. With cellphones, iPods and other clock-equipped devices becoming ubiquitous, armchair sociologists were writing off the wristwatch as an antique, joining VHS tapes, Walkman players and pocket calculators on the slag heap of outmoded gadgets.


The wristwatch “may be going the way of the abacus,” declared a news article in The Sacramento Bee in 2006. The Times of London had it “going the same way as the sundial.” The Boston Globe, in a 2005 lifestyle feature, was more definitive: “Anyone who needs to know the time these days would be wise to ask someone over the age of 30. To most young people, the wristwatch is an obsolete artifact.”


Or, not.

The “sundial” of the wrist is experiencing an uptick among members of the supposed lost generation, particularly by heritage-macho types in their 20s and 30s who are drawn to the wristwatch’s retro appeal, just as they have seized on straight razors, selvedge denim and vintage vinyl.


"It’s an understated statement about your station in life, your taste level,” Mr. Thoreson said.

He got a taste of the pent-up demand last fall, when Gilt organized a high-end vintage watch sale with Benjamin Clymer, 28, who runs an online magazine for watch enthusiasts called Hodinkee.com. (Mr. Clymer, a former UBS manager, said his site attracts 250,000 unique visitors a month, more than half of them under 40.)


Fourteen of the 17 watches, with an average price of $4,800, sold in the first six hours. Gilt now holds a watch sale every month. “In certain circles,” Mr. Thoreson said, “if you don’t have a substantial timepiece with some pedigree, you feel like you’re missing out on something.”

To be fair, the doomsayers were not entirely wrong. Few people actually need a watch to tell time anymore. Melanie Shreffler, editor in chief of Ypulse, a Web site and market research company that tracks youth trends, observed, “even the high school and college students who wear watches usually pull out their cellphones to check the time.”

But that’s the point. A watch these days may strike some people as an impractical, frivolous and often costly way to express individual style. But that is just another way of saying that it’s fashion.


“Considering how casual most people dress on a day-to-day basis, a glamorous watch is one of the few accessories that can be at once sporty, luxurious and utilitarian,” the designer Michael Kors wrote in an e-mail. Mr. Kors has a line of oversize chronographs, manufactured by Fossil, that is popular among women (they are a current must-have accessory among under-30 fashion assistant types in Manhattan).


For a generation raised on Game Boys, however, the appeal seems to go a little deeper than just a desire for another fashion accessory. In a world surrounded by ever-glowing LCD screens, there’s an analog chic to wearing a mechanical instrument.

“A cool machine that is all moving parts has got to be intrinsically interesting to someone born into this generation, because there’s just nothing like that in their life,” said Mitch Greenblatt, a founder, with his brother, Andy, of Watchismo, a California online retailer of design-forward watches.


Increasingly popular these days, Mr. Greenblatt added, are so-called skeleton watches that have clear cases to show the whirring gears. “You want to see the parts moving,” he said.

Steven Alan, a designer who carries a curated selection of vintage watches in three of his boutiques, compared it to the techno-lust for McIntosh stereos with vacuum tubes. “Having some analog component in your life is refreshing,” he said. “I’ve noticed there are a lot of people shooting with film recently. People like that return to things that are very tactile.”

Indeed, a certain intimacy develops between the wearer and the mechanical watch that requires winding. “A mechanical watch relies on you as much as you rely on it,” Mr. Clymer said, with a hint of paternal affection. “Without you, it dies.”


The retro appeal also plays into the resurgence of heritage brands like Red Wing boots or Filson bags. Putting on a vintage Rolex “shows you’re interested in craft and well-made things,” said Matthew Hranek, a New York photographer who runs a men’s lifestyle blog, the William Brown Project, which celebrates vintage watches. “It’s the same thing if you’re wearing a pair of Alden shoes or go down to Beretta to buy a field coat and shotgun.”


Big retailers are trading on the nostalgia. J. Crew markets a line of simple, traditional Timexes (a brand not long ago associated with drugstores) as a heritage staple, the accessory that ties the whole Bobby Kennedy-does-Williamsburg J. Crew look together. “Timex brings a smile to your face,” said Frank Muytjens, the head of men’s design at J. Crew. “We all grew up wearing Timex.”


American Apparel is making a similar push with retro watches of a more recent vintage, betting that Generation Y consumers who were too young to remember when V.J.s ruled MTV will covet the Casios and Seikos from that era. The clothing chain started selling watches last December, when Dov Charney, its founder, had a hunch, perhaps after seeing old digital Casios embraced by the Brooklyn Flea set.


“Something inside me said, ‘Kids are going to love this object,’ ” said Mr. Charney, speaking by telephone from Seoul, South Korea, where he said he was shopping for dead-stock Japanese timepieces. The watches are now showcased in store windows nationwide.

HIS hunch is supported by industry figures. After plunging 35 percent in 2008, and another 13 percent in 2009, sales of moderately priced watches (between $150 and $1,000) have rebounded and are up 15 percent for the last three months, compared with the same period last year, according to Fred Levin, the president of LGI Network, a market research company that tracks the industry.


Luxury watches are faring even better. Sales of timepieces priced between $10,000 and $25,000 — Ferraris of the forearm — are up 33 percent.


The Swatch Group, the largest watchmaker in the world, is scrambling to add factory capacity after net profits rose 42 percent last year (the company, which owns Omega, Longines and a more than a dozen other brands besides Swatch, is also a dominant supplier of movements for other brands). Fossil Inc., which manufactures a jaunty mall-friendly line of watches under the Fossil brand, as well as licensed watches for design labels like Burberry and DKNY, saw its global watch sales shoot up 44.4 percent in the first quarter, after sliding 1.8 percent as recently as 2009.


But the newfound cachet of watches goes beyond a taste for the simple and the retro. Younger consumers continue to gravitate toward jumbo “statement” watches that are flashy, retailers say. If you are going to strap a clunky anachronism on your wrist, the thinking goes, people better at least notice it.


Consider, for a moment, a wrist Frisbee like Diesel’s all-black SBA chronograph. At 65 millimeters (2.55 inches) wide, it is nearly twice as big as many standard timepieces worn during Don Draper’s era.


And wrist armor like that turns heads, particularly in an era when everyone already seems to have the latest iPhone.

“The coolest electronic gadgets they buy now are owned by everyone else they know, too,” said Mitch Greenblatt of Watchismo. But “a really unusual watch is very likely to be one-of-a-kind in their circle of friends.”


A few years ago, Casio reached out to younger buyers by introducing bigger and more colorful models and marketing them with surfers like Gabe Kling and skateboarders like Stevie Williams. Since then, sales of its hefty rainbow-colored G-Shock and Baby-G watches have doubled year over year, according to Shigenori Itoh, the chairman of Casio America, in a statement issued through a spokeswoman.


But perhaps the most robust sector is the youth-friendly “fashion watch” category: watches licensed by labels like Tommy Hilfiger, Hugo Boss and Lacoste. Fossil reports that sales of its Michael Kors watches were up 142 percent in the first quarter this year; for its Armani Exchange line, 129 percent.


“The increases are phenomenal, significant strong double-digit retail growth,” said Jon Step, president of licensed brands at Movado Group Inc., which has several such designer licenses. Manufacturers have courted younger buyers in part, he said, with exuberantly styled watches using extravagant or offbeat materials: brightly colored plastic, rubber, ceramic.

But for some newly minted watch geeks, the appeal of a timepiece that has endured for decades is more emotional.

“James Bond wore a Rolex,” Michael Williams said. “Who really needs more convincing than that?”


A version of this article appeared in print on July 7, 2011, on page E1 of the New York edition with the headline: Tick, Tick, Tick, Chic.


© 2011 The New York Times Company