Women are a growing force in luxury watch market

A “sleeping giant” is awakening in the U.S. luxury watch market, say a number of industry experts—the woman self-purchaser.

American women are becoming increasingly knowledgeable, enthusiastic fine-watch buyers and owners—and not just delicate jewelry watches. They’re buying themselves expensive watches to wear at work, mechanical timepieces with complications, and collectible vintage watches and limited editions.

The industry is just “at the front of this curve,” says Edward Faber, founder of Aaron Faber Gallery New York—a leading showcase for and dealer in collectible vintage timepieces and co-author of American Wristwatches: Five Decades of Style and Design. “It’s just starting, but it’ll definitely keep growing.”

Women’s growing attraction to fine watches is one result of a social revolution in America in the past quarter-century—the influx of women into the workplace and office. “It’s reflective of what’s happening in society, with women earning more money and having more money to spend,” says Faber. “They’re entering the work force in ever-greater numbers, and many are getting through the so-called ‘glass ceiling’ to earn larger incomes. That allows them to make more choices about their wardrobes, and so they’re buying more accessories like fine watches for themselves, independent of their male partners.”

Much of their watch business is in the $500 to $5,000 range, though some experts say most women won’t don’t spend more than $3,500 on a watch for themselves. “Above that,” say one industry veteran, “it [a woman’s expensive watch] is a gift.”

Watch work. Increasingly, more women are buying fine watches to wear for work and business. “In the workplace, the watch you wear plays a key role in differentiating yourself [from co-workers],” says Stanislas de Quercize, president and CEO of Cartier. It’s not only “a way of expressing yourself and showing your personality,” but also can reflect where someone is in her career—and business hierarchy. “More women in America are in positions of power today, equal to men, with many earning more than men,” he says, and the watches they wear can be indicators of that.

“It’s a matter of emancipation, really, a sign of women’s increasing buying power and their progress,” says Alice Rice-Rolley, marketing director of Audemars Piguet North America. “Buying and wearing a fine mechanical watch of her own—not a gift watch with a quartz movement and a couple diamonds on it—is becoming a personal statement for many more women,” she observes. “It says, ‘I’m my own person. I’m successful in my career, and I can afford a fine watch like this, if I want it.”

Paralleling this is growing awareness in the upscale watch business—especially the Swiss luxury brands, which traditionally cater to men—of independent female self-purchasers. This was evident at this year’s top watch industry shows, held in Basel and Geneva, Switzerland, where scores of mid- and luxury-priced brands unveiled timepieces designed specifically for and marketed to female watch buyers. Many, of course, use quartz movements—women prefer quartz over mechanicals, contend many watchmakers—but a remarkable number of upscale brands also are expanding women’s watch wardrobes with hand-wound, automatic, and complications timepieces.

More women are becoming interested not only in watch styles and design, but in what Rice-Rolley calls “the real value—what’s inside.” As more women consumers become more watch-savvy, agrees Helénè Poulit-Duquesne, deputy manager of watches for Cartier worldwide, “they want to know more about what’s inside a watch and what’s happening there,” further stoking their growing fascination with—and purchases of—mechanical timepieces.

For the complete story, see new fall issue of JCK’s Luxury International magazine.