It's Personal: Wristwatches holding their own - in some segments

This sort of iPhone - an Apple iPhone 4 - and even basic cellphones are now our real timepieces. KARLY DOMB SADOF / Associated Press
This sort of iPhone - an Apple iPhone 4 - and even basic cellphones are now our real timepieces. KARLY DOMB SADOF / Associated Press
Posted: April 13, 2012

Cellphone users wondering who, if anyone, wears a wristwatch anymore might consult this charming story out of Russia last week:

A gold Breguet watch worth an estimated $30,000 made headlines when it not-quite-entirely disappeared from the wrist of Russia's top Orthodox Christian Church leader, Patriarch Kirill I.

There was public anger over the display of ostentation by a man of the cloth. But also indignation that a picture on the church's website had been doctored to erase the timepiece from Kirill's wrist. (The Photoshop maestro apparently had failed to snuff out the watch's reflection on a table. The church apologized.)

Beyond the question of ethics it raised, the incident underscored something increasingly true about our iPhone and Android times: Owning a watch is no longer so much about keeping time as about projecting power, social status, or a fashion sensibility.

Mobile phones have supplanted the once-vital function of wristwatches and distorted the market they once commanded, back in the days of rotary telephones and rabbit-ear TVs.

Yet there remains a consumer market, as shoppers spend anywhere from $150 to $300 on so-called fashion watches at department stores and on finer timepieces priced at $1,500 on up.

As luxury-market observer Pam Danziger, president of Unity Marketing near Lancaster, noted, "Nobody needs watches anymore to tell time because everybody has their cellphone."

But a desire has emerged that makes watches attractive accessories, even as demand for them among households with $100,000 incomes and above has ebbed, according to Danziger's research.

"It's status of one kind or another," she said in an interview.

Certainly, a Rolex or a Chopard with diamonds and gold signals monetary status; it has for a long time.

"But there's a new status symbol in watches," Danziger said. Triathlon watches - elaborately designed, high-end timepieces peddled by manufacturers such as TAG Heuer - are hot.

According to Danziger, these watches are gaining traction as more people complete the challenging races and boast with a Watch as Bling (my words, not hers).

"I need this watch because of who I am inside," is the mind-set of these consumers, Danziger said. "I am an athlete."

News out of King of Prussia mall this week may partly confirm the trend. Two of five new retailers set to open at the East Coast's largest shopping mall are high-end manufacturers Omega Watches and TAG Heuer. Each will open a boutique in the Plaza's "luxury wing" in May.

"Demand is very strong for our watches," Alyssa Mishcon, vice president of strategic planning at TAG Heuer, said in an interview this week. The King of Prussia store is to be its fourth stand-alone boutique in the country; the first opened last year in Las Vegas.

TAG Heuer's core customer has an average household income of $75,000; its core product includes watches retailing from $1,000 to $5,000.

"We're the No. 1 market-share brand within that segment," Mishcon said.

Unit sales of watches (excluding those sold for below $150) have increased in almost every price segment annually since 2009, according to LGI Network, a division of retail-market research firm NPD Group. The only category that saw declines: Those listing from $1,500 to $10,000.

LGI Network president Fred Levin said unit sales among the more modestly priced luxury watches "are not exploding" in the United States because manufacturers are reapportioning inventory to overseas markets instead.

Similarly, the move by manufacturers to open their own U.S. boutiques is fueled more by a desire to boost profits than to meet a demand surge, Danziger said. They make more money selling watches at their own stores than wholesaling to other retailers.

Consumers may remain charmed by watches, but it would be wrong to conclude that cellphones are a benign threat. Even TAG Heuer will feature more than just its famous watches at the King of Prussia store:

It will sell its own line of smartphones.

Contact Maria Panaritis

at 215-854-2431 or or @panaritism on Twitter.

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