For decades, traditional luxury watch brands have designed some watches explicitly for men and others for women. Today, changes in society’s understanding of gender are leading some watchmakers to rethink this approach and present watches as gender-neutral. At the same time, however, not everyone is united around a unisex approach.
The debate around gendered watches has intensified, but it intensified earlier this year when an opinion piece was published by the influential online watch magazine and retailer Hodinkee. “Watch brands make amazing products that can be worn by anyone, but only appeal to one demographic,” the piece says. author Cara Barrett, who has since left Hodinkee to found his own unisex children’s watch brand. “For me, it’s about how women are advertised. There is a lack of inclusion.
It was once believed that men’s watches made up the lion’s share of sales. However, a new analysis suggests otherwise. Women’s watches are already worth more to the industry than men’s watches, according to a report released in May by Allied Market Research. The report calculated that sales of watches priced over $ 1,200 to women amounted to $ 23.7 billion in 2019, or 54.4 percent of the total market. And he estimated that figure would rise to $ 26.7 billion by 2027.
Brian Duffy, managing director of the Watches of Switzerland retail group, also believes that the need to distinguish between men’s and women’s watches is coming to an end. “There’s no question that from a consumer perspective, there is complete gender convergence,” he says. “Historically, watches have been created for trades dominated by men. But life has changed. Now we have women pilots, racing pilots, submariners and so on. The relevance of the genre has diluted.
While Duffy says his customers are still more likely to buy diamond-set watches with dials made from materials such as mother-of-pearl, he notes that they are buying watches that are larger than they were five years ago. A Watches of Switzerland market report released this summer indicates that in 2016, a third of watches sold to women were less than 28mm in diameter. By 2020, that proportion had fallen to just 14%. During the same period, the proportion of watches between 28mm and 31mm sold to women increased from 39% to 62% of the total.
Some argue that gender absence is already built into luxury watchmaking. “A Swiss manufacturer doesn’t care who the watch is for,” explains Aline Sylla Walbaum, head of the luxury division at Christie’s auction house. “They want to make spectacular objects. It doesn’t matter who it is. They don’t cook with the idea of gender.
Catherine Rénier of Jaeger-LeCoultre, one of the few female entrepreneurs in the Swiss watch industry, agrees – and adds that sales of the brand’s signature Reverso model are split almost 50:50 between men and women. “If you try too hard to be male or female it wouldn’t be natural. You must first be a watchmaker and an expert in crafts.
Not everyone in the industry is comfortable with the idea of a genderless watch. “If you become unisex, that slows down creativity and goes against diversity,” explains Edouard Meylan, CEO of the independent watch company H Moser & Cie. “We could end up with a very homogeneous presentation of the watches. This is driven more by the media than by trends – there have always been women wearing men’s watches. “
He is not alone. “Unisex is not something we have on the table,” says Jean-Marc Pontroué, CEO of Panerai. The origins of his brand lie in making oversized watches for the Royal Italian Navy in the 1930s. “We took our time to become one of the biggest brands in the world,” he says. “We don’t need to change. Harrods and Selfridges do not have unisex soils.
Still, other brands are making fundamental changes by rethinking their communications and retail strategies. “We are about to change our communications, even in the speeches I give,” said Julien Tornare, CEO of Zenith. “I want to make beautiful watches that can be worn by both men and women. We don’t need to have a difference in today’s world. And who are we to tell someone that a watch is for a man or a woman? That’s what the automotive world used to do, and now it’s not like that at all. Women drive big SUVs. I want the same in watches.
Tornare says his change in strategy is on a firmer footing in Asia, where a new generation of consumers are popularizing unisex fashion. Nearly 80% of his collection will soon include cases from 37mm to 41mm, what he calls “the sweet spot”. He says Zenith’s sales have grown by more than 25% this year from 2019 levels.
“If we are a 21st century brand, this is where we need to work. It is totally wrong to distinguish between men and women. It is very old fashioned. I want to ban this.
Patrick Pruniaux, Managing Director of the Kering Ulysse Nardin and Girard-Perregaux watch brands, is on the same page. “All watches are unisex,” he says. “At the point of sale, our watches are classified by collection, not by gender. For us, it is not even a debate or a discussion.
While the trend of genderless watches seems to be run by women who buy watches traditionally considered to be men, there is little sign that the opposite is true. “I have never received an order for a man to get a Serpenti,” says Antoine Pin, general manager of Bulgari Watch Division, of the company’s famous female wristwatch. “It’s interesting that we call it genderless as if gender is something we want to deny. Our watches are inspired by the genre but are not designed exclusively for men or women.
At Carl F Bucherer, the arguments for a gender neutral job are clearer. “Since I took over in 2010, we have stopped the men’s and women’s collections and just had a collection of watches,” explains Sascha Moeri, CEO of the Lucerne brand. “We sold 6,000 timepieces in 2010, with an 80/20 male / female split. In 2019, we sold 30,000 watches, with a 60/40 split, selling 10 times more watches to women than before. I am very convinced that our position has helped to increase our sales.
Brands that advocate a gender-neutral approach to watchmaking also say they are motivated by changing tastes. “Women want to understand what is behind a watch more than in the past,” explains Pruniaux. “Too often the [women’s watch] the conversation revolved around the number of diamonds.
In the typically conservative watchmaking industry, the debate around a gender-neutral approach is mostly conducted internally. Hublot, however, is announcing its unisex strategy head on. Earlier this year he presented the Big Bang Millennial Pink, a collaboration with Garage Italia and Lapo Elkann which he promoted as “Gender Neutral”.
The watch has a 42mm powder pink aluminum case and was released on the wrist of French football superstar Kylian Mbappé. “It is not for the brand to decide whether a watch is for a man or a woman”, explains Ricardo Guadalupe, general manager of the brand. “It is the customer who must do [their] own choice. When we launched the Big Bang Millennial Pink, we wanted to make a statement together. More than just a product, we wanted to create something that represents positive change.
Some observers believe that addressing the genre is an easy victory for luxury brands looking to modernize their image. “Talking about gender is the least controversial way to talk about inclusion,” says Sylla Walbaum of Christie’s. “What is a watch for a blind man?” What about diversity in terms of ethnicity? Everyone is uncomfortable about this. But with gender, you can talk to both men and women. And if you want to interest the younger generation, you have to think [inclusively]. If a man thinks it’s cool to have a Birkin bag, Hermès can’t say otherwise.
Increasingly, brands are also driven by demographic changes. According to the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry, 15 percent of exported products now go to China. Twenty years ago, China accounted for less than half a percent of all Swiss watch exports.
Carl F Bucherer’s Moeri believes traditional watch markets will soon draw inspiration from the Far East. “The Chinese consumer has decided to wear larger watches than before. There has been an evolution. For us, the same watch that was a bestseller for men in China ten years ago is now a bestseller for women. The whole industry has changed.
For some, however, change does not come quickly enough. “We need to stop spreading the message that women should only wear female clothes and men should only wear male clothes,” says Suzanne Wong, editor-in-chief of the World Tempus website and co-founder of the WatchFemme community. “A woman who likes her confidence in the boardroom should be able to wear a watch that matches that side of her without anyone looking askance. A man who revel in his own flamboyance should be able to put on a Chopard Happy Sport. Keep making things, but stop trying to stress who they should be worn.