Several years ago I was on a train chatting to an old friend, an obsessive collector of vintage watches. Halfway through the journey he gripped my arm and, eyes bulging, hissed: “Look at that Panerai!” Opposite us was a man who had a hint of gold peeping from beneath his shirt cuff. The two men locked eyes; my friend’s gaze slid down to the stranger’s wrist and back again; the stranger raised his eyebrows. Almost imperceptibly, one fanatic acknowledged another. And then the other man’s female companion rolled her eyes at me. She had clearly spent years witnessing horological bottom-sniffing on trains.
The usual assumption is that only men are enthralled by watch-porn, by calibers and escapements, by how many times this cog hits that spring. Women, according to this theory, stick to quartz (aka battery-powered) watches, preferably crusted with diamonds. But about ten years ago a shift occurred. Watch manufacturers say they noticed a surge of customers coming into their shops and asking for “women’s complications”. This sounds like a Victorian medical condition, but actually means mechanical watches that display particular tricks, such as winding themselves automatically, or having a second hand you can pause.
The best of them feel almost alive as you hold them, like a heartbeat in your hand
Watches like these are marvels of miniaturised engineering. The best of them feel almost alive as you hold them, like a heartbeat in your hand, and it seemed women wanted to feel the rhythm too. Perhaps this was because more of them were getting to board level, where some men regard themselves as incomplete without an expensive watch. But the trend hasn’t been confined to the ruling classes or the upper price bracket. On the high street there has been as much of a fashion for boyfriend watches – big watch, small wrist – as for boyfriend jeans.
Expensive mechanical watches are overwhelmingly made by Swiss manufacturers who, while producing only 2.4% of the 1.2 billion watches made each year, sell 95% of those that cost more than SFr1,000 (£690). Within this top tier, women’s watches account for around 36% of sales. That share is growing, especially in India, China and America – though the manufacturers won’t say how many of those sales are traditional, heavily bejewelled women’s dress watches, and how many are baldly mechanical.
That may be because the lines are blurred. Five years ago, Omega relaunched its mechanical Ladymatic range from 1955. “There was never a question of just creating a reduced version of one of our men’s watches,” Omega’s president, Stephen Urquhart, tells me. What that meant in practice was a range of 73 artful mechanical watches, 72 of them gussied up with diamonds and mother of pearl. Patek Philippe’s chief executive in Britain, Mark Hearn, believes that women have a growing interest in the technical inner workings as well as in the aesthetics – yet Patek’s mechanical range for women is top-heavy with diamond-trimmed options. “Women want complications for what they do, rather than how they work,” the chief executive of Audemars Piguet’s British arm, Jose Torrens, says. But his latest line of (diamond-set) mechanical women’s watches makes a point of displaying their delicate inner workings through transparent oval faces.
There seems to be a confusion here about what women want, along with more than a touch of the old maxim about designing for The Ladies – shrink it and pink it. It was high time someone conducted a (not very scientific) experiment. So we asked four women – a scientist, an opera singer, a businesswoman and a lawyer, all with different incomes, but all curious about quality watches – to go fantasy-shopping with us. If they had an unlimited budget, would they be more tempted by jewellery or by engineering?
We begin at Bulgari in central London. Glass-topped ebony cabinets hold discreetly colourful jewellery with an impeccable Italian pedigree and a faintly 1970s sensibility: tourmaline and amethyst rings, black-and-white-enamel and gold necklaces. Tucked at the back, across an expanse of taupe marble, is a case of big fat bossy men’s watches – thick, gold cases, riveted, skeletonised, ticking with tourbillons. To one side are the women’s watches, all more or less bejewelled, mostly quartz.
Heather Hudyma and I wander along the cabinets. Tall, slim and crisply dressed, Heather is a 24-year-old Canadian mezzo soprano who studies in Amsterdam and travels abroad for recitals. She’s not wearing a watch (“I use my phone to tell the time, though I know it looks incredibly rude”), just a peridot ring given to her by her parents, who are entrepreneurs in the restaurant business. “What I want”, she says, “is something simple and modern, with a large dial so I can see the time easily. Practical. Elegant, but not too flashy. Not too expensive, either” – even if she had the cash, “spending thousands of dollars on a watch isn’t how I want to present myself.” We stop at a case of relatively plain, round-faced Catene watches with diamond rims and gold double bracelets. “When I was in the Marc Jacobs store in Boston, I saw a watch with a double strap like that,” she says. “I liked it because it felt fun.” Once she has her first hit album, will she consider spending £40,000 on Bulgari’s version? “No,” she says, with a tiny toss of her head. “But I would have someone give it to me...” That, as we shall see, will change.
We move to the back of the store where Blondel Cluff is waiting. A stately Anguillan-British woman in a gold-buckled red coat, with a soft voice and an authoritative intelligence, Cluff is a solicitor who sits on the boards of several major charities. She married into a mining family, “which is why I became interested in jewellery”. She’s wearing a gold Rolex Yacht-Master with a blue face “for telling the time”; as a rule she sticks to buying watches as gifts for the men in her family, but today she wants to try on some of Bulgari’s archetypal snake-bracelet watches for women.
First, the saleswoman – a raven-sleek Italian with neat make-up, a lovely manicure and a thorough knowledge of her employers’ history – shows Hudyma and Cluff a £50,000+ mechanical watch from the Berries range. This is a bit like one of those heraldic beasts that have an eagle’s head bolted onto a lion’s bottom: a deeply technical mechanical watch with a high-jewellery dial, partly obscured by a swirl of diamonds and emeralds. The saleswoman spends some time explaining its “jumping hour” complication – a minute hand that suddenly zips backwards to zero – and the confounding retrograde numerals on the face; even so, no one is able to use the watch to tell the time. This won’t necessarily matter. It’s the skill involved in making a watch like this that appeals to Cluff. “It’s a serious watch, though it’s framed in playfulness with all those diamonds. It’s not a silent statement piece – you have to talk about it. This is a talkie!” Still, £50,000 is a lot of money just to break the ice at parties. Hudyma is polite but unconvinced: “If anything draws me to this watch, it’s the design.”
Next up is a tray of Serpentis, elaborately sprung metal bracelets that coil like asps around the forearm before ending in dials shaped like a snake’s head. An entry-level Serpenti is around £3,000, but Cluff tries on a version worth over £100,000 in 18-carat rose gold with a dial entirely surfaced with small brilliant-cut diamonds. As the pinkish gold glows gently against Cluff’s skin, everyone stops talking. After a moment, she sighs. “With a watch this beautiful, you wouldn’t need to buy any other jewellery. It’s what wrists were made for.”
The only mechanical thing about it is the clever engineering of the bracelet, but that doesn’t put Cluff off. “It’s not my philosophy to buy lavish gifts for myself, but I do believe a watch should be capable of becoming an heirloom, so I would buy a smaller Serpenti as, say, an engagement gift for a daughter-in-law.” Lucky daughter-in-law.
Next, Hudyma tries on a watch that may have seen her coming: a Diva. This is a £100,000 confection of concentric diamonds, rubellites and amethyst beads around a mother-of-pearl dial face, on a gold-and-diamond bracelet. Simple and practical it isn’t, but she is entranced, cooing at it as if it was a kitten. Again, the only mechanics are in the extremely complicated clasp. Would she ever buy it for herself? “Now that I’m wearing diamonds, my views have changed. So perhaps if my [as yet unborn] children’s education was paid for…Yes.”
The score seems to be Mechanics 1, Jewellery 2.
The next day, we head for Watches of Switzerland, a multi-brand, multi-level store that opened last year on Regent Street. (Is there an unwritten law that all watch shops must be decked out in cream and brown marble?) We’re here to meet two more women. The first is Louise Devoy, a 34-year-old British astrophysicist who looks after the collection of scientific instruments at the Royal Observatory. Her job has given her a fine appreciation of the skill that goes into making mechanical timepieces. A slight, fair woman dressed in a quiet blue dress and black knee boots, she’s wearing a round, steel Citizen Eco Drive watch with a few rock crystals set unobtrusively in its bezel (the outer rim of the dial). It was a present from her husband, which she helped to choose. With her fantasy budget, she would like to buy a mechanical watch with some link to astronomy.
She’d wear it, she says, on a yacht. Well, we did say fantasy
We start in the booth for Jaeger-LeCoultre, where Devoy is served by Mike Ahmed, a dapper, attentive man who has one black glove and a Londoner’s way with grammar: “Is this the sort of thing you was looking for?” he asks, politely. Devoy is staring at the dials-within-dials of a Duomètre Unique Travel Time, a man’s mechanical watch costing £31,500 that displays two different times at once, as well as the Greenwich meridian that she straddles every day at work. But Ahmed leads her firmly towards a women’s Rendez-Vous watch: diamond bezel, pink face, a “moon-phase indication” – which in this case means a rather underwhelming revolving picture of the moon. “I like that sort of technology,” she says, “but it’s not really showing you the phases, is it? It’s just a symbol.” After a brief diversion to the Lady Reverso tray (art-deco-ish watches with dials that flip through 180 degrees), Devoy heads back to that Duomètre and its GMT cleverness. But when Ahmed puts one on her, her face falls. “I can really feel it weighing down, and it’s quite confusing telling the time.” The mechanical genius appeals to her, but it’s too heavy and complicated for every day. “It’s something I’d have to enjoy as a treasure at home.”
Ahmed takes Devoy over to Piaget, a brand known for making men’s ultra-thin mechanical watches with a mostly restrained aesthetic. Its women’s watches are all about the diamonds: diamonds on the rim, diamonds on the face, even, in the Emperador, diamonds all over the strap. Devoy looks at several styles, almost picking a Limelight Gala with a 38mm round case in pink gold, large Roman numerals on a white face, and a swoop of diamonds that extends beyond the bezel to the white-satin strap. It’s quartz, and the stones bump the price up to £31,800, but this doesn’t seem to bother her: she’d wear it, she says, on a yacht. Well, we did say fantasy.
Ahmed shows her the man’s Altiplano 900p, which has a 38mm pink-gold case with a deeply elegant black-and-white face, partly cut away to show the beating golden heart of the mechanics inside. From £19,600 upwards this range is cheaper than some of the jewelled quartz women’s watches Devoy has been looking at; she says she would “definitely” buy one if money was no object, “and the case was smaller”.
But it is in the Patek Philippe section that she falls in love. Patek’s three main mechanical ranges for women are based closely on the men’s lines, but Devoy spots a quartz watch, the Twenty-4 in white gold with a blue dial and diamond bezel (£30,600), and feels she “must” try it on. The flat rectangular case and metal-link bracelet are both quite masculine-looking, but the scale suits her wrists, and the straight lines of diamonds along the edge of the dial seem to be the right level of sparkle for her. Mechanics 1, Jewellery 3.
Our final test case is Dina Liu, a former partner at Ernst & Young who is now on the board of China’s largest media-communications agency. She has homes in Beijing and London and dresses, no other word for it, beautifully. She “always” wears a watch, and already owns several – a clean-cut, feminine Cartier Tank on a thin gold bracelet, a bling-as-they-come Van Cleef & Arpels diamond number for evening, a sporty Tag Heuer and a Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso. She bought all these herself, and knows what she wants: a watch that displays its manufacturer’s core style clearly and unambiguously, that is chic, with a simple, architectural line, and not so big that it swamps her tiny frame. She also gives Ahmed quite a hard time about the recent revaluation of the Swiss franc and what it means for his prices in sterling.
Liu has been looking for a mechanical Patek for some time, so her first stop is the glass-topped cabinets holding the Calatrava women’s line. But she is out of there like a shot. “It’s not special,” she says, her face steely. “They had diamonds, and lots of watches have diamonds. If I want a jewellery watch, I will go to a jewellery brand.”
To get away from sparkle, we take her downstairs to IWC and its chunky, all-mechanical, pilots’, divers’ and yachtsmen’s watches. Last year IWC launched the Portofino unisex range – round cases in gold or stainless steel, alligator straps, some with complications. Liu likes the “clean face” and the £7,900 price tag, but the design is too far from what she thinks of as the core IWC look to keep her interested.
Louise Devoy asks the IWC salesman if they have the “watch you see in the adverts” – a one-off, £400,000 Portugieser Sidérale Scafusia, which includes a celestial chart, among other complications, and is kept in IWC’s office in Geneva. If they had, would that be where her fantasy budget got blown? “Yes,” she says, “very much.” Mechanics has got a late goal back.
And then we walk past Panerai. This is a small, cultish, mechanical brand that made watches for Italian naval commandos in the early 20th century, and only has four, all-male ranges. They have a retro feel – wide leather straps, round faces in squared-off cases, always with sans-serif numerals, and not a diamond in sight. Liu’s eyes light up as she peers at the hunky, 44mm Panerai Luminor Base 8 Days in titanium (£5,300). “It’s different, it stands out. The shape is the typical Panerai shape.” She has taken up sailing, which is “the toughest thing I’ve ever done”, not just because of the cold, but because of the strength it requires. “And this is a watch for sailors.”
In the end, Mechanics made it to three-all – but only because two men’s watches tipped the balance. The conclusion to be drawn is that manufacturers need to polish up their clarity. If it’s a decorative jewellery watch, they should make it about jewellery. If it’s a complication, make it about that, leave the diamonds in the safe, and offer something more than a pretty-pretty moon phase. There are watch-savvy women out there who have worked their way through all the girlie stuff and now have their eyes on the boys’ toys.
A couple of weeks later Dina Liu e-mails to say she has finally bought the right mechanical watch. She attaches a picture. A bright orangey-tan alligator strap; an ultra-slim, oval rose-gold case with a thin, plain rim; a 1970s look about its flat gold face. It’s a Patek Philippe Golden Ellipse – a man’s watch.
All prices are subject to change