Are Gendered Watches Still Relevant?
Watches of different sizes and styles are a must, but are special designs for men and women really necessary? We look at contemporary examples of brands trying something different
In the non-binary world that we are lurching headlong towards, it seems the wristwatch is once again out of step with the times. This is a strange position for timepieces to (repeatedly) find themselves, being that they are meant to move in lockstep with the passage of time. From a purely functional perspective, watches are meant to reliably track the motion of our lovely little blue orb as it turns on its axis and spins around the class G star that we vaingloriously call the sun. Whatever our cultural or societal proclivities, the watch has been on the job for centuries now — today a new class of tools called wearables is also making its mark here.
Media titles as influential as Wired and The Atlantic think these devices might even make wearing time on one’s wrist relevant again, after the era of the smartphone put time back into people’s pockets. Unfortunately, even new technology cannot keep things from going pear-shaped.
At issue here is whether there is really such a thing as gendered watches – watches meant for one sex or the other. This first problem is “sex” versus “gender” of course, but thankfully this is not exactly relevant here because this is not that kind of story. What is a recurring issue for watch magazines like this one (others have previously weighed in too, as will be pointed out) is the matter of timepieces made and marketed specifically to one sex or the other. Leaving aside aesthetics, the main question is about the size of the watch in relation to the size of the wearer’s wrist. Since sexual dimorphism is not that extreme in humans, the size issue (to address attendant differences in men and women) is not that relevant. In other words, watch brands might as well offer products in small, medium and large sizes rather than target males or females.
“Leaving aside aesthetics, the main question is about the size of the watch in relation to the size of wearer’s wrist”
Indeed, for brands as diverse as Apple and IWC, that has been the response for the most part. In the case of the Apple watch Series 5, there are only two sizes, and the implication is that one might be better suited for bigger wrists. Where Apple goes, others are sure to follow, and most such wearables do not distinguish between the sexes – when they do they often stumble into the same traps that watch brands do. That aside, while there are certainly sociological and perhaps even psychological perspectives that could be relevant here, everything starts with the user experience. A larger person – including a person with bigger hands and wrists – might have a better experience handling a bigger watch where everything is scaled up appropriately. It is sincerely irritating to have to adjust watches with tiny crowns, for example, when you have thick fingers – big and meaty mitts in other words.
SURVIVING HAUTE HORLOGERIE
Not for nothing, a small watch looks positively ridiculous on a big wrist – imagine Dwayne Johnson rocking a 34mm ticker with a leather strap. On the other end of the spectrum, think Timothee Chalamet or everyone’s favourite cantankerous nebbish Larry David pushing boundaries by wearing the Audemars Piguet Survivor model. Now think of how those two would look wearing any one of the Richard Mille Bonbon watches…
This is an issue that tracks in traditional watchmaking too, especially when it comes to all that delicate handwork. As covered in previous issues, the watchmakers who handle the critical task of making overcoils for the balance springs and attaching them to their collets are typically women. These watchmakers are called regleuses, which is a colourful term in traditional Swiss watchmaking that is actually feminine. More broadly, when women entered the workforce during the industrial revolution in Europe, many found employment in watchmaking. There are no statistics on that – and this story does not purport to present such facts – but if one examines the photographs of people working in watchmaking, it certainly seems there was a demand for women with nimble and dextrous fingers. Of course, things are different today, with the Bonbon for example created by Cecile Guenat, the chief designer of women’s watches and jewellery at Richard Mille.
Watchmaking professionals aside, size is really the only thing that distinguishes what is made for men and what is made for everyone else. A clear case in point is the so-called boy’s watch sizes, such as from IWC. This brand also has a nifty father-and-son pair of watches that can also be a his-and-her set, if one is so inclined; given that luxury watches are somewhat exclusive, it only seems right that adults get to enjoy them, regardless of sex. Some commentators attempt to include jewellery watches as a specific type typically reserved for women, but this does not take a variety of Asian markets into consideration.
I personally know Richard Mille and Hublot collectors who insist on gem-set watches, even if they have to appeal to the brands to make special editions for themselves. Speaking of which, the aforementioned Bonbon watches are actually purpose-made as unisex offerings. This is literally horological eye candy that acknowledges that everyone likes a bit of creativity. It is the first properly unisex collection from a major name in horology that calls itself that; on the brand’s website, it is listed under both men’s and ladies’ watches, with the same watches listed for both.
Excluding gem-set watches from male wrists also ignores hip-hop, EDM and a whole host of pop culture stars. One only needs to recall how Franck Dubarry combined plastic and diamonds with Techomarine watches to see how ridiculous it is to assign a sex to a watch based on the presence or absence of gems.
One brand making the case for the unisex watch that goes beyond technical watchmaking or technological timekeeping is Gucci. Yes, the Italian fashion brand that is part of Kering S.A. In fact, the Gucci Grip actually sparked this story, as it was covered in L’Officiel and considered for WOW Jewellery. Ultimately, it did not make it into our annual watch and jewellery special because it felt like a low blow to consign such an appealing timepiece to the confines of sex. This is especially true because it was designed to work for men and women, although it could do with a few size options besides 35mm and 38mm. Powered by a Ronda quartz movement, Gucci could also do to offer an option with a mechanical movement – if such a model existed, in proper gold, it would be baller, as they say.
A GRIPPING TALE
Basically, a rounded square case featuring a trio of windows showing minutes, hours and date (top to bottom), the Gucci Grip is one of those rare design winners that everyone raves about (pictured below). If it had a mechanical movement, it would certainly echo the design logic of many digital display timepieces from A. Lange & Söhne to IWC. Its yellow gold (PVD) case and bracelet also make it entirely contemporary, while also offering cheeky commentary on smartwatch aspirations to go upmarket (you know the ones). The Gucci Grip does lay it on a bit thick with the branding (engraved on the case and bracelet) but somehow manages to keep it classy.
Our writer attributed its success to its sui generis quirky design and clean lines but it also owes a debt to the fearless attitude of Gucci design boss Alessandro Michele, and Gucci Timepieces and Jewelry President and CEO Piero Braga. “Gucci creates fashion watches that are different from anything else you will see in the industry. Our timepieces bring together a unique combination of Italian creativity, Swiss watchmaking and Gucci DNA. They are bold and distinctive, and designed to encourage self-expression,” said Braga. The DNA there is likely the story that Gucci pioneered the first “fashion” watches in the 1970s, as the quartz crisis began to challenge the Swiss way of doing things.
Gucci’s fashion pedigree is not what sets it apart here though. Rather, it is the brand’s Italian heritage because the trade press has been reporting that Italian collectors had taken to wearing women’s watch models. This is nothing new, with the likes of WatchAround reporting on it as early as 2015, primarily as collectors began to rediscover certain vintage models, which of course are almost all far smaller than the 42mm contemporary standard. Recall that the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak was considered somewhat hefty at 39mm in 1972. In seeking these older models, perhaps collectors also cottoned on to smaller contemporary women’s watches. Nevertheless, it is not a trend on the order of say the demand for heritage watches or reissues of popular vintage models. On the contrary, brands have reacted by reissuing classic designs in larger sizes, including Rado with the Captain Cook gracing our cover this issue. Certainly, no brands are rushing to push their ladies models to male customers – well, with the exception of Bvlgari.
The Italian watchmaker and jeweller has been using its women’s watches across the majority of its advertising throughout Southeast Asia for the entirety of 2019 (including WOW Thailand). This even extended to a cover of the international watch trade title Revolution for the Bvlgari Serpenti Seduttori in full pave white gold (Asia 59). This was unprecedented as the magazine has never – to our knowledge – featured a quartz model on the cover. The editor did make a little space to note that this particular Serpenti was quite well liked by the (male) editors of the magazine, who would have worn it themselves, if the crown was a little bigger and the lines a little more angular.
Angularity is a matter of taste, and probably does not require the influence of hormones, but on the matter of the crown the paraphrased sentiment of the Revolution editor matches up with our own experiences. Bvlgari doubled down with the Serpenti Seduttori this year with the tourbillon version, which if you are paying attention, means that the brand now has one of the world’s most inventive shaped tourbillon movements. As the Luxuo editor (and our digital savant) confirms, the crown is still a delicate affair and the overall watch is just 34mm (at its widest point). Having said that, this Serpenti is probably already amongst the favourite possessions of a true watch aficionado.
Whatever the user experience of the watch, it seems clear that Bvlgari is making a deliberate point. We think it is safe to say then that Bvlgari, which does have quite excellent mechanical men’s models, is banking on men wanting something other than technical sports watches. Perhaps this is yet another reaction to the dominance of the sports watch overall, as we reported in #55.
So we have a fashion label and a jeweller weighing in favour of the unisex watch, but what about “proper” Swiss watch manufactures? Well, the other spark for this think piece was a comment from Nicola Andreatta, the Swiss CEO of the Geneva watchmaker Roger Dubuis. “For sure I will stop (defining watches as) men’s or ladies’. I want us to stop talking about men’s watches and women’s watches; this is a bit anachronistic today. Why should we limit ourselves in this way?” said Andreatta.
The watch of the moment from Roger Dubuis that fits into this conversation is the Excalibur Blacklight Rainbow, which debuted in Shanghai late last year. With a white strap and a riot of colours on the bezel and movement, it seems like what would traditionally pass for a woman’s watch – Swiss brands seem to have collectively decided that white straps denote women’s watches, for some reason. Certainly, a woman could easily carry off the 42mm Blacklight Rainbow but so could a man. Indeed, the Excalibur collection is officially for men, and this new watch is very technical indeed.
The calibre’s sapphire bridges are specially treated to create seven different colours in a process that both penetrates the material completely while maintaining its strength and stability. Movement bridges are functional so when special touches are applied, including skeletonising, care must be taken to preserve structural integrity. The easier way to have approached this would have been a coating, but that would not sit well with Roger Dubuis’ reputation (and price point) as a hyper horology manufacture.
ART OF TIME
Traditional haute horlogerie also offers great examples of what might called “gender-free” watches, mainly in the areas of metiers d’art, dress, and even some complications. Just one very topical example is the Jaquet Droz Petite Heure Minute Relief Rat, which is the brand’s Chinese New Year tribute for 2020. This 41mm watch would not be out of place on the wrist of anyone, especially if born under that sign of course. This is true whether one considers the red gold version or the more elaborately gemset white gold one (below). The rubies representing the pomegranates do make for a better contrast in the white gold version.
Haute horlogerie does have the option of winning hearts and minds with showstoppers such as this. Another case in point here from the same brand is the Magic Lotus watch (top), and indeed the Loving Butterfly. One could even very fairly include all the
Poetic Complications from Van Cleef & Arpels, which are giants in the world of high complications. No one who loves complications can deny the appeal of the brand’s Pont des Amoureux collection — we have been vocal over the years about our love for the Midnight Planetarium watch, and we will do it again right here. The point, one supposes, is that at this level of artistry, it only matters that the watch is for the select few who have both the means and taste to appreciate what it means.
Similarly, the Patek Philippe ref. 7071 (out of production since 2016 so one will need more than means and taste for this) stirred the hearts and minds of everyone who saw it in person, and even in photographs. The movement here was the sublime calibre CH 29-535 PS, which was much sought-after in 2009, and in fact unavailable for men at that time. Despite the fact the Patek Philippe did offer it to men in ref. 5170 and later ref. 5172G, all the public attention was devoted to ref. 7071. I had the pleasure of shooting with this 39mm watch for an in-depth review in 2012, when the white gold version was released, and can report that the mobile lugs helped the cushion-shaped watch sit quite comfortably on all manner of wrists.
In 2018, Patek Philippe revived this chronograph in the form of ref. 7150, a more traditional 38mm round watch powered by the returning calibre CH 29-535 PS. This brings the watch more in-line with ref. 5172G, but the proportions are still better in ref. 7150, in my biased (and not especially relevant in this case) opinion. The shape of the pushers and of course the overall design of the case in ref. 7071 will be sorely missed but perhaps the watch did indeed appeal to too many men, which we will never know. What is certain though is that this reference is hard to come by, pre-owned, and has beat auction estimates the few times it has surfaced (and been reported on).
Capping things off in this discussion is the brand that wears the crown. If any one brand defies expectations — including its own — it must be Rolex. After all, so many people only have one good watch, and it is a Rolex of some kind so that one watch fills every style and societal niche. My favourite example here is the Rolex Oyster Perpetual Cosmograph Daytona of 2012, the first so-called “Rainbow” model. My thoughts on seeing this watch was that it must be for women who want a gem-set party watch that also happens to be one of the world’s most incredible mechanical chronographs. Such a watch must be a very niche model indeed. Obviously, I was completely mistaken here because this wonder is incredibly popular amongst collectors, and will be inspiring proper homages (there is only one I am aware of now).
I later learned that the Daytona model is indeed quite popular with women, based on the narrative at Hodinkee and a few friends who persisted in asking if I could secure Daytonas for their wives (I have not, and cannot; besides I have too many Rolex aspirations of my own to waste any goodwill on anyone else). This makes sense of course because Rolex only offers one traditional chronograph model and this is it; as evidenced by the Patek Philippe reference earlier, plenty of prestigious Swiss brands have chronograph models for women including Omega and Breitling. Unlike every other brand though, Rolex only offers the Daytona in one size (40mm) and this seems to work fine for everyone.
While Rolex certainly makes watches specifically for women, it is telling that its complicated timepieces — from the Daytona to the Sky-Dweller and Yachtmaster II – are only positioned in a neutral style. These are not by any means only offered in one style that Rolex deems suitable for everyone, as demonstrated in the case of the Daytona. Rolex simply invites us all to draw our own conclusions from observing and experiencing the watches. In this era of inflamed passions and stormy teacups, this might be the best approach.