Watches stand test of time

Wristwatches are ticking back to life.

For years, doomsayers predicted the death of the watch as clock-equipped mobiles exploded in popularity. Some said watches would eventually go the way of VCRs and the Sony Walkman.

Not so fast.

After a drop during the recession, watches are experiencing a renaissance. Bulky ones have shown up on red carpets and runway shows. Retro styles have popped up on TV shows such as Mad Men and Boardwalk Empire. And watch companies are rushing out with bright colours, new designs and high-tech varieties to suit every taste.

The Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry reported that watch exports from Switzerland surged 19.2 per cent in 2011, one of its strongest years of growth in the last two decades. Swatch Group said it was cutting back selling watch parts to other companies to meet its own increased demands.

Luxury brand Patek Philippe opened its first stand-alone US store. And in yet another sign of the watch's return, shares of Fossil, a popular brand for teens, recently leaped 31 per cent in one day after reporting a 12 per cent jump in profit in its second quarter.

"Watches are making a comeback," said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at research firm NPD Group. "New trends are emerging, and consumers are back to buying watches."

They are bigger and flashier than ever. Some do far more than tell time, and many are used as much for decor as to tell time.

Industry watchers say that as consumers slowly climb out of the Great Recession, many are hankering to refresh their wardrobes but are unwilling to drop big bucks on entire outfits. A cheap option? Jazzing things up with new accessories — especially watches.

Young people such as 29-year-old Emily Schuman, who works full time on her US lifestyle blog Cupcakes and Cashmere, are buying watches more as fashion statements than necessities.

Schuman said she stuck solely to bracelets to decorate her wrists until two years ago, when she scooped up an oversized gold Michael Kors watch. Now she owns three timepieces and calls watches "an accessory that ties the whole look together."

Watch companies are eagerly courting this potentially lucrative group of consumers that has grown up with mobile devices.

Movado Group, which makes its namesake watches as well as ones under the labels Coach, Hugo Boss and Juicy Couture, rolled out its Bold collection last year, which includes timepieces with bright colours, such as pink and gold accents, said Mary Leach, the company's chief marketing officer.

Leach said that appealing to shoppers in their teens to their 30s has become a "major part of the strategy" at Movado, where sales have climbed 22.5 per cent to $US468 million in the last fiscal year after plunging 17.9 per cent just two years ago.

"We think: How do we use coloration and sizing and materials to really speak to the younger generation who want to take chances and have a little more fun with their watches?" Leach said.

The rise of retro fashions has sent Timex designers digging into its extensive archives for classic watches that Don Draper or James Bond might wear, said Amy E. Goodman, fashion trend director for Timex Group USA. Recent designs have featured metal link bands and bezel faces.

Goodman said that retailers selling Timex and other brands noticed the rising demand and started giving timepieces better real estate in stores.

"Watch displays are now more prominent in accessories areas," Goodman said. "Stores are realising the uptick in sales and the need to make them more appealing."

Wristwatches have gone through cycles of popularity. Watch buffs say that Swiss watchmaker Abraham-Louis Breguet may have created the first widely known wristwatch for the queen of Naples in the early 19th century, said Ariel Adams, a watch consultant and founder of the watch blog A Blog to Read.

In the past three decades, mobiles all but eliminated the practical need for watches. "If you came of age in the '90s, chances are no one is going to buy you a watch," Adams said.

But watch companies are fighting back with high-tech styles offered with added functions. Casio last year debuted its first Bluetooth-connected timepiece. This spring, a Californian startup raised $US10.2 million on the fundraising site kick-starter for its Pebble watch, which can be synced to smartphones to tell time, control music and check emails.

Ironically, watch companies and analysts say the resurgence of watches have a lot to do with the rise of mobile devices.

James Seuss, chief executive of luxury watch store chain Tourneau, said shoppers started gradually gravitating toward the nostalgic appeal of watches after years of obsessing over mobiles and other gadgets.

"If you look back five or 10 years ago, people were using technology as a way to express themselves — who had the latest mobile or latest computer, and did you have the best?" Seuss said. "Now everyone has an iPhone and it's not differentiating anymore."

Tourneau is hoping to capture those tech-savvy shoppers by rolling out stores where salesclerks walk around with iPads to show off watches on its screen.

"Younger people are seeing watches and other fashion accessories as a way to express themselves," Seuss said.

That seems to be especially the case for men, who have fewer accessory options than women and have thus largely depended on electronic gadgets to stand out, said Mitch Greenblatt, a founder of online retailer Watchismo.

"Watches more than ever have become a way for men to express themselves. It's something mechanical they can appreciate — with gears and cogs and hairsprings and other cool things," Greenblatt said, adding that the retailer based in California, has seen sales climb 30 per cent annually for the past three years.

Gamer Nazarian couldn't agree more. The 25-year-old US valet dropped $US200 on a handsome brown Diesel number with a huge face that completely covers his wrist.

"I like it because none of my friends have one," he said. "They still use phones to tell time."

LA Times