How women collectors are shaking up the watch industry
Female watch enthusiasts are the new growth area for watchmakers. And not just as luxury consumers, but as investment buyers too
The zeitgeist of the 90s has now made its way back into our wardrobes, and oversized shirts aren’t the only thing we’re borrowing from our boyfriends’ collections. One of the biggest trends amongst the financially savvy is buying and wearing our boyfriends' luxury watches, too.
Intricate movements, attention to detail, and timeless designs are the defining features of any luxury timepiece. While we often take watches for granted, perhaps as a piece of technology that is older than most of us, the classic watches feature the most high-end technology and precision engineering to coordinate tiny mechanical parts.
All of this is suggestive of the fact that, while some may view a watch as a simple “wrist accessory”, it is closer to a living thing that chases time just like us.
Nowhere is this starting to resonate more than in Ireland; statistics from the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry reveal that luxury watch sales in Ireland have skyrocketed by 60 per cent since 2021.
While buying watches is a very mainstream affair – watches come in third as the most popular accessory to buy after handbags and shoes – there is a class of watch buying that sets a tiny number of people apart: luxury collectables.
In fact, it’s not so much about the buying of luxury watches than the collecting and re-selling of them that has piqued global attention. Traditionally a men’s sport, women are now finally entering the watch collecting space and making some noise. If you never knew anything about collecting and investing in luxury watches before, here’s everything you need to know.
Watches as an investment class
Many people think about their retirement in terms of stocks, bonds and property. Indeed, very few people tend to think about the number of Rolexes or Patek Philippe’s in their cupboard that will be used to pay for their children’s education. These people, however, do exist – and they belong to a small but rapidly growing group of luxury watch investors that buy and sell watches in a fashion similar to stocks on the NASDAQ.
Part status symbol and part mechanical art, luxury watches started their appeal due to their craftsmanship, engineering and style. Traditionally, watches have offered long-term value as a sentimental object that would have been passed down from father to son, a reflection of the beauty of passing time through minutes and hours as well as generations. It is often said that watches were a way for men who were historically unable to communicate the depth of feelings for their children to show their enduring love.
Now, sentiment has been moved to the side and it is the second-hand watch market which is stealing the limelight, which may come as a surprise. Who wants second-hand watches, you might ask? Men. Along with a rapidly growing number of women.
As such, the luxury watch market has more to do with money than fashion. In fact, the return on investment when buying and selling some watch models on the second-hand luxury watch market is significantly higher than the traditionally high-performing stock index, the S&P500.
The key to building an investment portfolio that will endure and outperform the stock market is in being able to hunt down the exclusive watches that are in high demand and can sell well in one, two or even ten years from now. And this is surprisingly difficult. Not only are the established collector items very hard to find, but it is also next to impossible to know which upcoming watches will become the next watch icon to generate high returns.
So what are these watches, and how do collectors acquire them?
Zooming into the watch market
When you think of second-hand watch buying, you may imagine having to go into a dark alley and haggle a price with Del Boy – and this couldn’t be further from how these prestigious luxury markets work. Where there is money to be made, there is precision and expertise.
And most importantly, there is a lot of discretion. The world of luxury watch investing is a very secretive one. Second-hand watch dealers today are what stock brokers were in the late 1980s – sophisticated middlemen who make money by acting as a conduit between the people selling and the people buying watches.
Some established dealers have offices where you can bring the watch, and they will buy it from you for an agreed price. After this, they will spend considerable time getting the watch “sales-ready” which includes maintenance, a deep clean and maybe even repairs. Likewise, you can set up a meeting to discuss your collection and what pieces you might be looking for with the dealers, who have memorised which clients own which pieces.
For example, if you are missing an important or rare piece and willing to pay a handsome price for it, a good watch dealer will know whose collection will have exactly this piece, and start the brokering process. These dealers know everything about who owns what.
When a dealer finds a watch, however, the big question is always: how exactly do they know how much it is worth? And for most dealers, it’s pretty easy. While there is no formal “watch price index” for different models, they keep a note of what people are willing to buy and sell them for. A lot of the time, they turn to websites such as Chrono24.com and WatchCollecting.com where they can compare a model they are looking at to what is happening in the global auction market.
One specialist dealer in Boston, whose bullet-proof office is so discreet that it doesn’t even have a sign, says that his clients will pay anywhere between $100,000 and $2 million on average for a watch. “Lunchtime is our busiest time; our clients come in during work so that their wives never know how much they’re making or losing on their watch collections!”.
Women as watch collectors
It is the smaller, classic designs that are driving a lot of the value for luxury watches instead of the nouveau styles that favour bigger dials and trendier “fads” that will come and go as a fashion statement. Think old-school Rolex instead of a diamond-encrusted Chanel, just as a vintage Mercedes will age better than a second-hand Tesla.
As with any investment class, the price and value are driven by scarcity. The more people want hard-to-get pieces, and the less they can find them, the more valuable they inevitably become. And in the last five years of extreme consumer demand, the top investment watches have been making collectors rich.
But regardless of the difference in style, there is one thing that is nearly universally the same about high-return luxury watches - they are mostly men’s watches.
One of the most surprising things about this accessory-as-investment class is that women, who usually create a high demand for luxury goods, are a tiny minority of the asset holders. This is a culture that has existed for as long as watches were collector items. Because women have historically preferred new instead of second-hand watches, the resale value of luxury models has been lower than the original, not higher.
However, in the last eight years, women have moved from making up only 2 per cent of luxury investors to 15 per cent today, a trend that is growing as more women are moving into investing professionally and personally. And so, enter a new class of female collectors who have moved into the men’s space and are starting to create investment value in the women’s space, too.
“I make watch contact before I make eye contact”, says watch influencer Misha Daud (@watch_fashionista). “Wrist power is a big thing in today’s watch world.” For a lot of female collectors, it isn’t just about the money, but also a way of moving into a group of elite men and rebalancing power. “With a power watch, any watch fiend in the room will hear you loud and clear”, Daud continues.
And indeed, men are starting to notice. “I have to say, it’s cool when I see a woman rocking a men’s watch. I had a female colleague who wore an Omega Speedmaster, and by all means – we noticed”, says a London-based investor and collector.
Not only do these oversized watches signal power in meetings and boardrooms, but they just look good. In fact, there isn’t an easier way to combine the current trends of quiet luxury with boyfriend je-ne-sais-quoi.
And for a taste of what’s being collected, here are the top five watches that these new influencers are picking up this season.