WHAT EVEN IS A WOMEN'S WATCH, ANYWAY?
Jun 8, 2023
“Shrink it and pink it” will no longer suffice. Why the watch industry is (finally) undergoing a gender revolution.
When you shop for a watch, a basic starting point might be narrowing your search by gender. But this approach is becoming less relevant to modern watch shoppers, women in particular. Men can (and increasingly do) wear small watches, and women can (and increasingly do) wear sporty chronographs, bulky dive watches or any watch they so desire.
Some antiquated attitudes persist, but watch collecting and the appreciation of mechanical movements today seems far from the "boys' club" it once was.
Which begs the question: what even is a "women's watch" in our modern culture? Are brands that design for and market to a specific gender perpetuating problematic stereotypes? To break down this obviously loaded topic, we got key insights from a handful of women who collectively share decades of experience in the industry.
Women's Watches Have Long Been Dismissed as a Subset of Jewelry
It's important to provide some context on how women's watches have been viewed in the past.
The approach to women's watches has remained largely unchanged despite the remarkable evolution of women's role in society over decades and centuries. While men's watches have been made for scuba diving, piloting two-seater planes, jet setting around the globe or ringing the opening bell at the stock exchange, women's watches have been considered a jewelry item — an accessory, not a tool.
In the design and production of women's watches, there's been little emphasis on function beyond basic timekeeping. You'll seldom find complications, and quartz movements are favored over mechanical.
"Women want watches built with them in mind — not something that was made as an afterthought."
The focus is all too often on aesthetics, with the overuse of pastel colors, bling and "feminine" motifs. It all merely emphasizes a watch’s role as jewelry rather than an object of substance. Even more practically oriented timepieces for women are often little more than smaller versions of existing men's models — instead of something expressly designed with women in mind. "Shrink it and pink it," goes the common lament about women's watches. (This lament has sadly applied to a number of other products, including hiking boots and snowboards.)
Like every watch by Abingdon, the Jane dive watch is a rugged tool/sport watch designed for women.
It’s no wonder that women who appreciate watches' mechanics, history and durability have been drawn to models marketed to men.
The Times They Are A-Changing
In the past few years in particular, we're finally seeing narrow gender stereotypes breaking down in the watch industry. Women are increasingly wearing watches marketed to men, and smaller (or “mid-size” or “unisex”) watches that suit a range of wrists regardless of size or gender are easily the most visible watch industry trend.
Some brands have moved to a model that does away with gendering their watches altogether. Perhaps most importantly, however, women are being acknowledged for their buying power and their place as an important consumer group within the industry.
The Abingdon Jane dive watch.
What's Behind the Shift in Attitudes Toward Women's Watches?
After centuries of gender inequality in the production and marketing of watches, one must ask: why now? What’s behind it all?
According to several women in the industry, social media has played a big role. "There have always been female collectors as well as women who work in the watch industry, but usually behind the scenes,” shares Zoe Abelson, a watch industry veteran and founder of Graal, an online luxury watch marketplace. “Over the last few years, we've finally seen more of a presence from female collectors and women in the industry on social media."
Founder of online luxury watch marketplace Graal, Zoe Abelson
For Julia Azeroual, the dealer and force behind one of the leading watch industry TikTok accounts, @watchbyjuls1 (355,000-plus followers), social media has also helped educate women who are collector-curious: "Many women come to my channel, and they don't know how to choose the best watch or even which size would look best on them. I created a video that went viral where I described how to pick the best size for your wrist using the Rolex Datejust. I also educate them about the history of the watches and the movements."
Social media influencer @watchbyjuls1, Julia Azeroual
This influx of female voices seems to have caught the attention of the community at large and, more importantly, the brands. "The decision makers, who are typically men, are listening now, and they should be," says Abingdon Mullin, founder and CEO of watchmaker The Abingdon Co. "Not only because it’s good business to offer something to the other 50 percent of the population but also because women want watches built with them in mind — not something that was made as an afterthought."
Founder and CEO of watchmaker The Abingdon Co., Abingdon Mullin
Perhaps everything is simply adding up. Kathleen McGivney, CEO of RedBar Group, the world-renowned watch enthusiast and collector community, believes the amalgamation of all these factors is what's inciting meaningful — and much needed — change: "The combination of having voices with a broader reach get the word out and the industry taking the time to pay attention to those voices sparked the conversation that has now broadened beyond gender into inclusivity as a whole."
CEO of RedBar Group, Kathleen McGivney
Are "Unisex" Watches the Solution to Bridging the Gender Gap?
As mentioned, some brands have moved toward "un-gendering" their watches altogether. In a way, this makes sense. As McGivney so simply and eloquently puts it, "a watch is inherently a genderless object." However, watches have been gendered for so long for a reason. "Labeling them with a gender is largely a marketing tool."
"A watch is inherently a genderless object."
Roberta Naas, veteran watch journalist and author of six books on watches, builds on this sentiment by pointing out, "retailers and brands have also skewed models as 'women's watches' and 'men's watches' as a way to track sales."
While both of these approaches feel practical, they miss the mark. "If a watch is labeled as a 'men's watch,' and you're marketing it only to men, you're omitting a huge potential customer base who might be drawn to it for any number of reasons, whether it's aesthetics, mechanics, status, or brand affinity," says McGivney.
All that being said, is unisex the solution to the gender-gap problem? "Part of me thinks it's a cop out," shares Naas, "because it's easier to just say 'unisex watches.' On the other hand, part of me thinks it’s a necessity in today's world. Regardless, I think women have always marched into a store and bought what they wanted whether it was labeled ‘women's’ or ‘men's’ or had no label at all."
Author and veteran watch journalist, Roberta Naas
What Do Women Really Want (in Watches)?
There's one thing it seems nearly everyone can agree upon at the core of this movement toward gender equality: it's vital for women to voice their thoughts, desires and opinions on watches and the practice of collecting — and for the right people to listen.
"If you want the solution as to how to close the gender gap, do this: ask women what they want before beginning a design," states Mullin, who often solicits feedback from a core group of devotees. "History tells us that women began wearing watches primarily for decoration. Today, I think women are wearing watches for a variety of reasons. Some are wearing watches as a fashion accessory that complements their attire. Others appreciate the beauty of a mechanical movement or a tourbillon.
“I’ve come to find a real sense of empowerment that has emerged from equipping women with a tool to match their ambitious lifestyles." Here, Mullin highlights the simple truth that women are, in fact, attracted to watches for many of the same reasons that men are.
However, there are other factors influencing the next generation of female collectors as well. "There's been a big increase in interest in watches for both men and women," notes Abelson. "It’s become more cultural than niche."
Azeroual has also seen her following and customer base expand beyond niche collectors to those who have been intrigued by the growing presence of watches in celebrity culture as an entry point to collecting. "For many women who are just getting interested in watches, the technical complexity can be intimidating, but the style draws them in," she says. "Then it's my job to educate them so they can choose a watch that will actually fit their lifestyle."
Dana Li, founder of Tell the Time, seems to agree with Azeroual's approach. "There’s a broader focus among today's female consumers to invest in timeless, high-quality items over fast fashion and fleeting trends," Li observes. "And a watch lends itself perfectly to that."
Founder of Tell the Time, Dana Li
Where Is the Watch Industry Still Falling Short in Serving Women?
Even with much progress made, there's still a ways to go. For some, the products themselves — whether labeled as "women's" or unlabeled at all — are still falling short.
"The rhetoric around women buying luxury items frames them as 'frivolous' purchases, while the rhetoric surrounding luxury purchases made by men frames them as 'investments' and 'markers of success.'"
"I see a real lack of women's watches that have substance, that are mechanical, that have functions and features I would want like a perpetual calendar or GMT," shared Naas. "Last year and this year, we're finally seeing some brands put complications in smaller watches. If they could just leave off the diamonds, that'd be great."
For others, it's less about the watches themselves and more about the way brands and the industry at large are engaging with female consumers.
"I think the biggest area for improvement would be to change the conversation about women and collecting," says Li. "In the watch world and the luxury space overall, the rhetoric around women buying luxury items frames them as consumers who are making 'frivolous' purchases, while the rhetoric surrounding luxury purchases made by men frames them as 'investments' and 'markers of success.'"
In closing, McGivney once again distills it to the simplest thing brands could do differently: "Make advertising and marketing more inclusive. I'd love to see more women, LGBTQ folks, and people of color in watch advertisements, wearing all sorts of watches, not just those that are marketed toward their gender or their perceived status."