Why are men obsessed with watches?

A common, low-cost watch from a comparatively unknown manufacturer has sold millions of units recently in America and is expected to do the same here. Its popularity stems not from its design or extensive marketing, but rather from the fact that the US president currently wears one of these watches. Barack Obama received the Jorg Gray 6500 Chronometer—originally intended for US Secret Service agents—as a birthday present from a member of his security detail.

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After Jeff Stein, an Atlanta-based lawyer and horology enthusiast, recognized the £260 model, which subtly surfaced at Obama’s Democratic nomination in Denver, his victory speech in Chicago, Inauguration Day, and the G20 summit in London, its commercial success was assured. Not because of its functionality as a watch—the battery-operated model can only tell the time and function as a stopwatch—but rather because of its association. Having one of these places you in the same elite as the most powerful man on the planet, and men enjoy belonging to elite groups.

These days, watches are a huge business. Additionally, the industry has grown extraordinarily over the past five years. For instance, the exports of the Swiss watch industry increased from £2.5 billion in 1986 to £10 billion in 2008. All of this is true even though the development of the mobile phone and the BlackBerry has essentially rendered the watch’s primary purpose—telling the time—obsolete. Why do we still purchase them, then? On the occasion of state visits, why do heads of state still give their hosts watches? (Tony Blair must have received dozens from Silvio Berlusconi over the years.) Why did Bernie Madoff own seven Cartiers and seventeen Rolex watches? Why are watches, not sports cars, the most frequently taken goods from wealthy footballers in Cheshire? Why are glossy advertisements featuring A-list celebrities wearing watches that cost thousands of pounds each plastered across the pages of men’s magazines like Esquire and GQ, or publications like the Spectator and the New Yorker?

Your father used to give you a gold-plated watch on your 21st birthday, and that was it, not too long ago. A man never considered the possibility that, by the time he turned thirty, he might need to add two or three more. Nor did it ever occur to him that he might be appreciative of a classy wooden box with several felt-lined compartments to store his “collection” of watches when he turned forty.

For an industry that believed its time had come in the early 1970s, to pardon the pun, it is greatly relieved that men are still purchasing and treasure fine watches. Though it was first hailed as a great technological achievement, the invention of the quartz watch (either analog or digital) in 1967 soon came to be seen as the biggest threat to the traditional watch since the wristwatch gained popularity at the end of World War I. The world was in dire straits economically in the 1970s, and the fact that every young hipster soon wanted a cheap Casio with a flashing LED time display was a recipe for disaster.

A few strong and creative figures in the industry returned in the mid-1980s with a design philosophy and marketing plan that pulled the industry back from the precipice, but it took several years of introspection and reassessing the true purpose of a watch. These pioneers of horology made the decision that watches would be more than just timepieces; they would be miniature masterpieces that embodied tradition, displayed extraordinary craftsmanship, integrated technology, and welcomed innovation. In essence, they would be a neatly packaged combination of a Ferrari sports car, Mayfair member’s club, NASA spaceship, and Savile Row suit that could be worn on your wrist.

There may even be a hint of sport, danger, and adventure about watches despite their diminutive size and unassuming appearance. For instance, when Tag Heuer signed a contract with the Formula One McLaren team 25 years ago, its timepieces became instantly connected to one of the most glamorous and intense sports in the world. Even if the closest a man could go to the Monaco Grand Prix was a 15-minute ride on the Circle line of London Underground, what man wouldn’t want a little piece of that?

The notion that technology would destroy the watch has just not materialized. Men now own BlackBerrys and cell phones in addition to their timepieces, not in place of them. One of the few things a man can wear that he feels shows true character, shows that he belongs to a certain club (be it Swatch or Audemars Piguet), and allows him to indulge in a little extravagance without, most of the time, drawing criticism is a watch. Watches represent the appropriate form of jewelry for men; bangles can be risky, signet rings suspicious, ear studs inappropriate, and gold chains ridiculous. But whether it’s made of gold, platinum, or stainless steel, a Jaeger LeCoultre or a Rolex is seen as totally appropriate.

There are very few restrictions on men’s attire, as noted by Antoine Pin, managing director of LVMH’s watch and jewelry division in the UK. “Our wardrobes consist mainly of suits, shirts, sweaters and jeans, so a watch is one of the few places that you can express your personality, or the way that you are feeling,” according to him.

Pin also makes the point that a man’s car is the only other traditional means of self-expression or ostentation for men. However, the flashy car is losing its appeal. In addition to being large, costly, dangerous, environmentally unsound, and declasse, cars also have a significant drawback when compared to watches: they are kept in garages as opposed to being on display where everyone can see them. A watch is an environmentally friendly way to travel like a Porsche without breaking the bank.

The watch industry has taken full advantage of this by doing three things: first, it has made its products incredibly complex and technologically advanced, making them more and more akin to world-class sports cars; second, it has ensured that it consistently releases new models; and third, it has lavished large sums of money on announcing them to the public. Thus, the endless, glitzy advertisements.

Of course, the technological component is essential. Men are naturally nerdy; they adore anything that is not only well-made but also has a multitude of uses and was painstakingly crafted by many artisans over a long period of time. One extremely sought-after Patek Philippe model, the limited-edition Calibre 89, is the most complicated watch in the world with 1,278 parts, including 68 springs and 24 hands, and 33 functions (such as telling the time of sunrise and sunset, leap years, Easter, and other dates). In 2004, one went for more than $5 million at auction.

And watch companies are able to release new innovations more frequently due to technological advancements and improvements. Every year, at least one new model from the major brands is unveiled at Baselworld, the industry’s annual showcase. All of the companies spend a fortune constructing opulent, three-story, luxuriously furnished temporary stands to showcase their latest designs.

The major players in the market will devote ten to twenty-five percent of their earnings to marketing and advertising; millions will be spent on purchasing magazine pages that appeal to their target readership, and additional millions will be used to sponsor athletes or sports teams who will give their companies the competitive advantage they need. In exchange, the watch companies will hope for the magazines’ support in return for their financial investment, and the magazines’ readers will be interested in learning more about the watches, which is why they will be featured in their editorial pages. For instance, the entire ad revenue of a typical upscale men’s magazine will come from watch advertising, which makes up about 18% of the total.

The luxury watch industry has found this year to be just as challenging as the rest of the world. Exports of Swiss watches totaled £780 million in October of this year, a 22.7% decrease from the same month last year. But things could have been much worse in the UK. Because of the depreciating value of the pound, many tourists have come to the UK to buy jewelry and watches, sparing the British market from a potential 30% decline in sales.

What men are looking to purchase has also changed as a result of the economy. According to Cartier’s head of press, Sarah Carlsen, the company’s clientele no longer seeks to flaunt their status. “The showy buyers of a bull market are long gone,” she states. “We are now selling to men looking to make an intelligent purchase; looking to be part of an unspoken club of those who know, understand and appreciate the complications of a haute horology timepiece.”

Speaking of wise purchases, it’s true that a watch you pick with care will retain or even grow in value. The fact that buyers understand that a high-quality pre-owned watch is a safe haven for money is one of the reasons why watch auction sales are still strong. A decade ago, Sotheby’s sold a Patek Philippe Henry Graves Supercomplication watch from the 1930s for a record $11.5 million.

Of course, though, it’s also about pure enjoyment. I have five watches that I love equally: a Swatch, a Jaeger LeCoultre Reverso, a Tag Heuer Carrera, a Manometro by Giuliano Mazzuoli, and a vintage 1960s Rolex Submariner. Whether you like it or not, your clothing does convey a certain message about you. Furthermore, price isn’t always the deciding factor; as Obama has shown, you can be the head of state and wear a watch that costs no more than £260, while billionaire Tod’s fashion empire owner Diego Della Valle consistently sports a simple yet exquisitely designed Swatch watch.

Men check their watches in the same manner that some women might notice someone else’s shoes, regardless of the amount they spend. That’s what we carry out. And that makes the watch industry very happy.

A common, low-cost watch from a comparatively unknown manufacturer has sold millions of units recently in America and is expected to do the same here. Its popularity stems not from its design or extensive marketing, but rather from the fact that the US president currently wears one of these watches. Barack Obama received the Jorg…