What Do Women Want on Their Wrists?
Four female horological experts tell us. (Spoiler: Not one of them was wearing a watch specifically designed for women.)
For centuries, the high-end watch industry has been controlled by men, and the buyers of high-end watches predominantly have been male. But that has been changing gradually, with female buyers, collectors, makers and brand executives now playing larger roles in the watch world.
So, what do women want on their wrists? And how have perceptions changed — among brands and consumers — about that question?
The New York Times recently invited several women who are horological experts (and watch collectors) to get together in New York City for a discussion of those questions and more. They were: H. Jane Chon, a lawyer who is counsel for the Horological Society of New York; Dana Li, founder of the website Tell the Time, which describes itself as “all things watches for women”; Isabella Proia, vice president, head of sale and international specialist at Phillips Watches in New York City; and Katie Reed, vice president of marketing at Watches of Switzerland Group USA.
(One note: On their wrists were vintage pieces by Patek Philippe, Rolex and Vacheron Constantin. But none of the models had been designed or marketed specifically for women.)
The conversation has been edited and condensed.
When you’re looking at watches, do you think about whether they’re for men or women?
KATIE REED Gemstones have always marked, for me, female timepieces. The straps give me female vibes, in terms of a blushed satin strap and things like that.
ISABELLA PROIA Yes. I feel though that’s like something that the brands have done to distinguish it.
Like the little Lange 1 — A. Lange & Söhne put it on this shiny brown strap. But if you put it on just a regular nice gray strap or something, it looks completely different. I feel like the brands sort of tell you what you should be wearing. They indicate it, via the strap and the gemstones — but then you have the Rolex Rainbow Daytona or the Rainbow Aquanaut. Those are men’s watches, technically.
DANA LI I agree with the point that it’s the brands that are figuring out a way to delineate a men’s watch versus a women’s watch, whereas I feel like for me personally, when I look at watches, it’s really just about what fits right for me. It doesn’t necessarily matter the case size. I’ve worn something as large as a 42 millimeter, the Omega Speedmaster — it works great even if you have a small wrist.
H. JANE CHON I guess I’m in a minority: When I first see a watch, I don’t label it men’s or women’s.
LI I think you’re in the majority here.
CHON Over the last maybe two years, since I joined social media, I’ve noticed you can wear whatever you want. Women wear these enormous watches and they rock. It sometimes looks better on them than their husbands, their significant others, their guy friends. Then you see athletes wearing gem-encrusted, colored, flashy, small little things and now it’s OK.
Are celebrities changing the perception of watches?
PROIA People like Bad Bunny; like Harry Styles; like Tyler, the Creator; Frank Ocean — they have this way of subverting their gender, and they express that in watches, too. Then you have women doing the same thing.
REED I definitely think it provides a platform for popularity of different things. Like Bad Bunny wearing a vintage Audemars Piguet, which would’ve been a ladies’ dress watch 20 years ago, even 10 years ago.
LI Even one year ago.
REED Exactly. It’s those kinds of things that create a cultural change and make it a bit more of an open forum related to collecting, and just having insight into what people are wearing and how they’re wearing it.
How do you feel about timepieces that might be considered jewelry watches, like a Bulgari Serpenti?
LI I would love one. On the days where I’m feeling a little bit extra glam, that would be a good one.
I feel like for me, it’s different on different days for different occasions. That’s really what it comes down to. On some days I might be a little bit more adventurous and edgy with what I wear. Some days, if I have something a little bit more formal, maybe that calls for that ladies’ cocktail watch.
REED I think Bulgari does it right for women.
REED Their designers are fabulous. I think they strike the balance of jewelry and watches together, which is really exciting to see. I think their marketing is progressive as well.
PROIA When they released the Piccolissimo, the tiny mechanical movement, I was like, at long last, they finally did it.
In terms of retail, where do women’s watches fit at auctions?
PROIA It’s tough, honestly, because what the brands have made for women in the past 50 years is not commercial for auctions — they’re not collectible. Anything with a quartz movement is very hard to sell at auction, in the kind of auctions that Phillips at least does. Anything kind of small and gem-set hasn’t typically been the trend recently. So we actually don’t auction off that many of what have been called women’s watches.
That being said, there are a lot of watches that we sell because the sizes for the vintage watches are 33 to 37 millimeter, which is perfect. Even a Rolex Daytona or an early Patek Chronograph, they all look great on women. So, in that case, I actually try not to think about women or men — I just think about collectors and what people really want to wear. We don’t offer too many typical women’s watches — diamond encrusted, mother-of-pearl — but we offer what’s collectible, what has long-term value. That’s something that women want, too.
Has the outreach to women from watch stores changed?
REED Anyone on my team will tell you gone are the days of the ladies’ tea events, which are lovely and it’s still an area of focus for a handful of brands, but we push back extensively. We’re inclusive. We call ourselves a very democratic group: Come in, bring your significant other, your pets, your kids, come in and shop and have a look at things. We’re kid-friendly.
Then, from a marketing perspective, we’ve eliminated the gender conversation entirely. So we’ve moved to millimeter size and we track sales based on the millimeter size, not on male/female. We’re looking to convert our e-commerce site. It’s happening.
On “Tell the Time,” do you have a sense of how much of your audience is male versus female?
LI Yes, I do. It definitely skews a little bit more male because I do cover watches. But I would say it’s about 60 percent male, 40 percent female right now.
With that in mind, do you feel that there’s still a perception that the watch world is male-dominated?
LI Yes, without a doubt — especially from people looking in from the outside. I have friends of mine who, obviously as I’ve started doing this more, they’ve gotten interested in watches. But they’re, I don’t know if intimidated is the right word here, but they’re definitely a little bit more reserved because they’re like, ‘OK, well, all I see are the same watches on guys. I don’t see it as often on women. I don’t even know how I would think about entering the space.’
The watch community, especially in New York, I can say, is very, very supportive once you’re actually in it. But again, from the outside looking in, you’re kind of like, ‘I don’t know, how do I even come in here?’ Again, it’s old guys in a room sometimes and still, really truly, you could be one of three women in a room sometimes.
PROIA You used to be one, and now you’re one of three.
CHON It’s definitely changing. Women are far more comfortable, and you’ve just got to break the ice, just jump in. As Dana said, actually once you get in, people have lots to say. They’ll talk to you about anything. But it’s first getting in, and when you open the door the first time. …
LI It’s just dudes.
CHON It is a little, and they’re looking at you. I wouldn’t say this is true anymore for authorized dealers, but it sure was true for me at the beginning: They always assumed I was a plus one, an unknowledgeable plus one. I remember I had to say a couple times, “No, he’s my plus one.”
He’s with me. He doesn’t know. I know something. He’s wearing a quartz piece.
Do you feel it’s getting better?
CHON Definitely. Thanks to certain groups and certain individuals, female collectors who now have social media presence, who are getting attention. But also, the brands are starting to realize women have buying power, right? It’s not just the odd one who goes in and spends her own money and has an opinion, has some taste and wants to buy something for herself.
Brands are business, right? They realize this. You’ve been disrespectful, you’ve been ignoring a good segment that has money to spend, so I think this is only a good thing. At least from what I’ve seen over the last three or four years, women have a lot more confidence to speak up, and not just opinionated women like me.