As the season’s trend pendulum swings towards classic, something rather interesting is happening on the wrists of the nation’s consumers. In a climate of financial hand-wringing and prophecies of doom for the fashion industry, the desire to invest in something solid and, excuse the pun, timeless is palpable. The watch has languished as a fashion afterthought for too long. Now it is having its moment.
‘Classy, super-hero, gentleman chic’ is Women’s Wear Daily’s European editor Godfrey Deeny’s opinion on the new generation of watches, citing Jaeger-LeCoultre’s Master Compressor Extreme model. ‘These designs are masculine and timeless,’ says Deeny, adding that, right now, your money is safer on your wrist than in your bank account. In 2010, Swiss Watches reported a 11.5% rise in exports, as luxury brands such as Bulgari, Montblanc and Breguet saw their versions of understated, ultra-luxurious design become more coveted than ever.
Wearing a Piaget Rectangle à l’Ancienne in 18-carat pink gold, with a silver-coloured dial and a cinnamon leather strap, is an almost defiantly anti-fashion stance; a stand that says the tide of trends may ebb and flow, but a piece such as this will stay the course. Piaget has reported a boom in sales over the last two years. ‘As a brand, the expansion in emerging markets has been generating momentum,’ says its CEO Philippe Leopold-Metzger. ‘It’s not down to genius – a watch is still a sign that shows people you’re successful.’
And what ebb and flow there has been over the past few years, with a number of high-fashion houses dabbling in the field of ‘costume’ watches. Brands such as Gucci and Miu Miu blazed a trail, creating playful, witty timepieces in non-precious metals. Even Casio, a name synonymous with durable, chunky watches in the 70s and 80s, is creating fashion ripples with its retro digital number. It has been re-introduced in neon colours and is proudly sported on every wrist passing through the coolest neighbourhoods in Europe’s fashion capitals. When recession descended to wreak its havoc, this shift made sense.
That’s no longer the case, however. ‘Yes, a Cartier watch will be expensive, but I think people are realising that, unlike luxury jewellery, for example, a watch is something that you actively use,’ says model Jacquetta Wheeler. ‘It makes more sense to put your money into that than something that is essentially decoration.’
An Omega Seamaster Planet Ocean in steel and red gold, with a constellation of diamonds around its face, may cost upwards of £10,000, but it will also keep time with a precision that borders on military, not only on land but at up to 2,000 feet beneath the ocean, should you find yourself deep-sea diving in diamonds. Another important factor driving the purchase of classic timepieces is that costume watches struggle to cut it with every outfit in your wardrobe. That DayGlo number in bubblegum pink, however pleasing and au courant, would look totally out of place with an evening gown or a dinner jacket. A timepiece that could double as a Zaha Hadid installation will only work in certain sartorial situations. The style of classic luxury watches rarely offends, reliant as it is on restraint and discretion.
For the modern shopper, the watch is, arguably, the last bastion of luxury. Useful though they are, no one actually needs a watch these days, with mobile phones, computer monitors and the nearest clock rarely out of sight. But in buying a Jaeger-LeCoultre, for example, the consumer slips seamlessly into an elite club, the likes of which rarely exist in fashion any more. Just as silver-haired couture patrons would pledge their allegiance to one designer and enter into a rarefied orbit, 21st-century shoppers can feel part of a distinct clan by donning a Montblanc watch. As Jeremy Langmead, editor-in-chief of online menswear retail site Mr Porter, says: ‘Like it or not, the model you choose says something about you.’ It’s well worth seeking entry to this private members’ club.