Mechanicals Tell More Than Time

Fine mechanical timepieces continue to capture the imagination of U.S. consumers. The number of gold, silver and platinum automatic (self-winding) mechanical watches imported into the U.S. last year jumped more than 16% to 28,000. This increase came even though the average retail price rose to $3,593 and overall watch imports fell 9%.

These numbers indicate a strong market already, and the news may be getting even better. The audience for such timepieces seems to be widening, say many retailers.

The collectors who helped to boost U.S. interest in fine mechanical watches in the late 1980s have continued spending into the 1990s. Now they’re joined by consumers interested in these high-end watches for their technical wizardry or as status symbols.

Advertising in general-interest and male-targeted media have heightened the prestige of automatics, particularly multifunction models. Also fueling interest is the evolution of watches as fashionable accessories, particularly automatic watches.

“There are fewer accessories for men,” says Peter Bigler, head of U.S. distribution for Ulysse Nardin Swiss luxury watches. “The watch, some leather goods and the pen are the items that serve this purpose.” When he arrived in the U.S. about 12 years ago, Bigler says, he was amazed that so many high-income executives wore “cheap plastic digital watches.”

Bigler’s company, along with a number of new higher-end brands and the support of jewelers with strong watch departments, have been working to change that. “I think we are now at a stage in the U.S. where consumers are interested in the intrinsic value of what they buy,” he says. “Buyers are aware that they can purchase something that is less expensive and will not last long or that they can buy quality that retains value.”

Retailers say today’s sophisticated consumers clearly see the value in automatic or handwound, handcrafted watches, many of them with multifunction capabilities. “There is a new type of buyer for this kind of watch,” says Paul White, director of the watch division at Reis-Nichols, a retailer in Indianapolis. “These are typically young men, maybe 35 to 45 years old, who read magazines, are earning more discretionary income now and who have probably had some experience with a fine watch in the past.”

Many may already own a Rolex – the best-selling mechanical in the U.S. – passed down through the family. “That’s one way watch owners are introduced to what we call a timeless timepiece, one that can be passed from generation to generation,” he says. Others are simply conversant in fine watch brands, may own some and want to have another one.

This customer base – including those who received automatics as gifts, new aficionados and those in search of battery-free operation – is growing, say retailers. In response, more top retailers are adding fine watch lines.