Pocket Editions

The pocket watch, one of Western society’s oldest timekeepers, is enjoying a revival in popularity, spurred by today’s fashions, style-setting music stars, and consumers’ desire for “something different” in timepieces.

Over the past couple of years, pocket watches “have had a big resurgence in sales and demand,” notes Alan Grunwald, president of Belair Watches. Jack Carpenter, president of Tissot (U.S.) says today’s non-wristwatch business is “all over the field, from young people to fathers.” Tourneau, America’s leading watch retailer, “now stocks more pocket watches in more varieties, styles, and price points than ever,” in both its downtown Tourneau stores and in Watch Gear, its new chain of mall stores, says Tourneau vice president Anthony D’Ambrosio.

While suppliers and retailers agree that pocket watches remain a small niche in the $40 billion watch market, there’s “significant demand” within that niche, notes D’Ambrosio. That’s indicated by the rising sales reported by top-end suppliers like Jean Marcel and Aéro Watch, a leader in Swiss-made luxury pocket watches; upscale brands like Tissot; and suppliers of more affordable models, like Croton, a long-time provider of quality watches, Colibri, whose pocket watch sales have doubled annually for the past five years, and Charles-Hubert, which offers a $75 mechanical pocket watch.

At the same time, suppliers of private-label and promotional timepieces, such as Belair, Bulova, and Pedre, are enjoying healthy business in pocket watches, and they expect it to keep growing for the foreseeable future. Pedre, for example, does 15% of its fashion watch business and 40% of its promotional business in pocket watches and plans to add more models.

Other brands are taking note. Zodiac, the upscale Swiss sports watch, plans to add one or more models to its line. Seiko, which had pocket watches years ago, last fall added a classically styled model-in response to “years of requests” from jewelers, says brand manager Bob Swanson-and is designing a commemorative model for the 2002 Winter Olympics (for which it’s the official timekeeper). Timex in May began delivery of its new under-$100 pocket watch collections, produced under license by Golden State International of Oakland, Calif.

“There has been a rebirth of this category,” notes Helen Prial, Timex vice president of licensing. “Customers are asking for it. We’re seeing it in private label [for jewelers and other retailers], and it’s become a fashion accessory for kids.”

Suppliers. Why the renewed popularity of a watch once identified with granddads and train conductors?

Some of pocket watches’ new vogue is supplier-driven. Exclusive Time, the U.S. distributor of Aéro Watch (250 models, $320 to $10,000 retail), “revived the [U.S.] market and brought it back to life” during the 1990s, claims president Michael Shapiro. “This is an attractive category for jewelers but wasn’t getting enough attention from them,” he notes. “So we reminded them that this is a wonderful product for them. We innovated and offered a wider selection, including complete collections and smaller sizes for women. We developed a full support program, including in-store displays that call attention to the product and enhance sell-through, a special-order hot line, corporate marketing materials, catalogs, and European-style presentation boxes.”

Tissot ($150 to $895 retail) took similar initiatives in “better pocket watches,” says Carpenter, including new selections and merchandising. “We drove the market,” he adds. Other long-time pocket watch suppliers, such as Croton, Colibri, and Belair, have cultivated the under-$200 market, offering a variety of new models, in both traditional and contemporary styles, supported by catalogs, displays, packaging, and ad support.

Also stoking the market is watch enthusiasts’ continued interest in fine Swiss-made mechanical pocket watches, such as the upscale timepieces of Aéro, the price-competitive sterling silver models of Jean Marcel, and, at the under-$500 level, models from August Reymond or Tissot. Business in vintage pocket watches (especially on the Internet) by connoisseurs, collectors, and retailers also helps the market.

Young people. Suppliers and enthusiasts may have laid the groundwork, but much of pocket watches’ current popularity is spurred by three trends: young consumers’ fascination with off-wrist timepieces, changes in fashion, and consumers’desire for something new in watches and gifts.

The interest in pocket watches displayed by young adults (and even teenagers) may seem surprising, but it stems from some obvious factors. One is the influence of pop stars like Ricky Martin and rapper Sean “Puffy” Combs, who wear expensive pocket watches as accessories, especially in photo spreads and music videos.

Another factor is fascination with the new or unique. “Many young people are looking for non-traditional ways of telling time,” notes Grunwald. “They don’t want traditional wristwatches like Dad has.” And pocket watches have been out of fashion long enough to seem different and non-traditional. “The last time pocket watches did well was in the Reagan years, so many of today’s consumers just aren’t familiar with them,” says Lawrence Grider, vice president of marketing at Wittenauer. “For them, the pocket watch [as an accessory] is something new.”

Indeed, young adults have sparked a mini-boom in “off-wrist timepieces.” Colibri’s CX series, for example, is aimed at Gen-Xers and offers a variety of analog and digital pocket and clip-on watches with various features, such as moveable bezels, world timers, compasses, digital chronographs, and alarms. “These are a fresh approach to the concept, contemporary pocket watches for a young generation that doesn’t wear suits,” says Jane Mogayzel, Colibri product manager. “They provide jewelers with another option for reaching a new and younger generation of consumers.” Other examples include pocket watch additions to Timex’s Expedition collection-largely intended for outdoor use-which combine leather, nylon, and aluminum with popular colors, innovative styling, and features such as Timex’s Indiglo night-light or water-resistant leather fobs.

Ken Genender of Genender International calls off-wrist timepieces aimed at young people “an explosive category, especially for mass marketers and department stores,” such as Kohl’s, Penney’s, and Sears and even more upscale retailers like Macy’s.

Fashion. Factor in fashion, too, as reason for both young and not-so-young adults to turn to pocket watches. For many young people, pocket watches-whether clip-on or with chain and fob-are a stylish accessory for casual clothes like cargo pants and jeans. Hikers, tennis players, and golfers, meanwhile, find clip-on pocket watches suitable for backpacks or sports shorts.

At the other end of the fashion scale, sales of traditionally styled pocket watches are being boosted by a return to more formal attire for men and a pullback from casual attire in many offices. “After years of casual wear, men are going back to dress suits,” notes Grider. “There’s a return of the vest. The pocket watch makes a nice adornment for that, and remember, men don’t have a lot of fashion accessories.”

Pocket watches appeal to some consumers simply because they’re not wristwatches.

“There are people who don’t like to wear a wristwatch or find it too heavy and prefer using a pocket watch,” notes Oliver Ruprecht, managing director of Timekeepers of Switzerland, distributors of Mondaine watches, including the Bauhaus-design Railway pocket watches. More commonly, a good pocket watch is “a great alternative as a gift or self-purchase for people who already have three or four wristwatches and want something different,” notes Jill Kiviat, president of Pedre Co. “The concept of watch wardrobing needs to be expanded anyway,” says D’Ambrosio. “People now have different timepieces for different occasions and times of the week, for the office, an evening out, or a casual weekend. If you have two or three quality timepieces already, you should have a quality pocket watch to be complete.”

Profitable. All this means that the pocket watch can be a valuable player in a jeweler’s gift business, but many jewelers rarely bring it into the game. “We keep one or two in stock in case someone asks for it, but people don’t buy them,” was a typical comment by a Midwest jeweler toJCK.Yet jewelers who promote pocket watches do well with them. Jeweler Jimmy Smith of Decatur, Ala., does 10% of his watch business in pocket watches, both new and collectibles, and “business is going up,” he says. Some of that increase in business, he acknowledges, comes from cyclical changes in taste and trends. “Grandpop had a pocket watch years ago. Today, with changing fashion, some people want one again, instead of a wristwatch.”

But Smith’s rising sales in pocket watches are largely a result of energetic marketing. He cites a four-step approach: “We stock them, always keeping 10 to 15 models on hand for people. We promote them, putting them right up in front, in proper displays, where people can see them. We do a lot of advertising of them, especially in the fall, which brings young people in. We also suggest them to customers as possible gifts for occasions like retirements or Father’s Day.”

Gifts. Suppliers are doing their part to assist. Many provide packaging (such as leather pouches or wood boxes that can be used as jewelry boxes), catalogs, ad support, and specially designed display stands that draw consumers’ attention and show pocket watches to their best advantage. “For a very little amount of invested money and space, a jeweler can enhance his men’s or corporate gift business and have a profitable niche,” says Carpenter.

Belair tells its customers-all jewelers-that “they’re missing an important gift market if they don’t carry pocket watches,” says Grunwald. “When people come into the store for a gift for someone, they’re looking for something he doesn’t already have. After all, there are only so many pens or ties you can buy a man, and most people already have a watch, be it a Rolex, Timex, or a diver’s watch. However, many people don’t have a pocket watch yet.”

“Pocket watches are intrinsic to the gift-giving times of the year,” says Kiviat. “We always sell more then-for Father’s Day, graduations, and Christmas.”

Pocket watches are also ideal, say suppliers and retailers, for corporate awards, executive gifts, retirement gifts (suitably engraved), and promotions. Croton, a supplier to the Independent Jewelers Organization, encourages IJO members to bolster their corporate business by offering “dial enhancements” (such as company names) and initialing for its pocket watches, which Croton will do for them, says Ron Nolan, Croton vice president.

Don’t forget weddings and wedding parties. A stylish silver-plated pocket watch engraved with the wedding date makes an appropriate gift for groomsmen and ushers, note Kiviat and Shapiro.

And traditional pocket watches are fine “special occasion” gifts, to pass on from one generation to the next. “These are emotional items, meant to be kept,” says Carpenter.

Features. Open-face watches with contemporary styling appeal to younger adults, but traditional hunter case pocket watches-those with a lid (often embossed with designs or pictures) opened by a button on the pendant-still account for a large portion of sales in the category. They’re usually accompanied by a chain, matching penknife, and a deluxe box that’s usable as a jewelry box.

Most new models use quartz movements (Swiss-made for upscale timepieces, Japanese for more affordable models), but pocket watches with high-quality mechanical movements are still popular with collectors and enthusiasts.

Gold and sterling silver are popular metals at the top end of the market. Gold plating and PNP (palladium nickel plating, which offers a silver look) are used in more affordable pocket watches, sometimes in two-tone combinations. The use of stainless steel is increasing in better pocket watches, echoing the white metal trend in wristwatches, notes Jane DiSanto, director of marketing for Bulova. Examples for $200 or less include models from Tissot, Mondaine, and Swiss Army by Victorinox as well as new water- and dust-resistant models from Belair, which are among its biggest successes in private-label pocket watches for jewelers. “We sold out on this new production, sight unseen [by jewelers],” says Grunwald. Meanwhile, in popularly priced models, the use of lightweight metals like aluminum and titanium is on the rise.

Looking ahead. What’s ahead in pocket watches? Look for more variety in uses, shapes, and colors, say suppliers. Colibri, Bedat, and Timex offer rectangular or square-case pocket watches. In popularly priced models, there’s more use of color-especially blue-on bezels and dials. Among higher-priced timepieces, there are textured dials, mother-of-pearl dials, and dials with light and dark zones.

Pocket watches also are becoming multi-functional. Popularly priced digital models offer a variety of functions, and higher-priced ones often include day/date and alarms. Some pocket watches double as table clocks. Luxury-priced Bedat & Co.’s ChronoPocket ($4,950) is a square chronograph with rounded corners that can be changed from a pocket watch into either a wristwatch or a small stand-up table clock. Both Mondaine ($225) and Swiss Army by Victorinox ($150) offer pocket watches that become desk clocks by folding back the cover to make a stand. Wenger’s Standard Issue Pocket watch ($195) can be set up as a bedside travel alarm clock. Pixels of Denmark’s “Bus Stop” clock ($75) resembles a miniature street corner jeweler’s clock. It can be used as a paperweight, and its detachable clock can serve as a pocket watch.

“This [resurgence in pocket watches] isn’t over yet,” says Belair’s Grunwald. “We haven’t really tapped the market. There’s so much potential yet to do so many different things in pocket watches in use, shape, and color, that I believe this pocket watch trend will continue to grow for the next two or three years.”

The pocket watch has “more stretch” than a wristwatch, says Shapiro. “It’s popular with watch enthusiasts and can expand to a jeweler’s gifts and corporate program. It just never is out of fashion.”