Changing Times: What Your Watch Choice Says About Your Social Status Today
Mr Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street, 2013. Photograph by Paramount Pictures/Alamy
“Why do we wear mechanical watches today?” asks Mr Bruno Belamich, the co-founder of watchmaker Bell & Ross. “It’s certainly not for the function. Then you’d just wear a quartz or an Apple watch. Is it the pleasure of owning and wearing a beautiful object? Sure. But let’s be honest, it’s also about satisfying one’s ego and impressing those around you. Whether it’s expressing financial power, affiliation with hero figures, association with some horological nobility or finding some kind of legitimacy in becoming a member of a community, watch ownership is about status.”
It was ever thus, of course. Once, simply owning any kind of portable timepiece – hugely complex, hugely expensive – was an indicator of your place in the pecking order, suggestive as it was too of your literal command over time. Add in precious metals and the financial power such watches connoted was clearer still. It’s an idea we retain centuries on: the big, gold wristwatch tells us more than the time.
“It’s deeply ingrained in human nature to like those things that announce that we’re important people, and we tend to believe we’ll be treated better if we can display a degree of status through the things we wear, like watches,” says Dr Russell Belk, professor of marketing at the Schulich School of Business, York University in Canada. “And that’s all the more important when most of us no longer live in villages in which we’re known personally by its people.”
Not for nothing does the stratified world of investment banking, for example, enthusiastically demarcate seniority not by the cut of one’s tailoring – which can be hard to read, especially as dress gets more casual – but by the code of one’s watch. The analyst, according to a report, typically wears the Submariner; the vice president a Vacheron Constantin; the director a Breguet or Jaeger-LeCoultre; and the managing director an A. Lange & Söhne or Patek Philippe. To wear a watch above one’s station is not the done thing.
But while a watch may have the benefit of being a portable status object – just try driving your Lambo into a restaurant – reaching for the rapper’s delight that is some heavyweight, blingy wrist candy may not be the best choice for your ego-boosting endeavour. We’re on increasingly shifting sands, not least because, according to Dr Belk, our relationship with status objects has been thrown into disarray over lockdown: if you’re not interacting with others, there’s less need to telegraph your status. Equally, many of us have come to understand with more clarity the importance of love and connection rather than material things.
What’s more, Dr Belk speaks of a broader movement from what he calls vertical signalling to horizontal signalling. Increasingly, it’s less about indicating one’s social position to all and sundry with, say, the well-known brand Rolex, and more about broadcasting it to specific members of one’s peer group. This is especially relevant if there is a shared appreciation for watches to start with. “That’s where more obscure watches and objects come into play, because they can only be decoded by a fellow cognoscenti, by others in the know,” he says.
“Perhaps it’s less about projecting wealth as knowledge – and there’s a status in having knowledge”
Time was when wearing a Roger Dubuis watch or a Ressence would be seen as investing in a less-effective status object. According to Dr Silvia Bellezza from Columbia Business School, and one-time brand manager for Chaumet, inherent to status objects is the idea of cost. That used to mean simply financial expenditure: one role for your watch was to signal how much you spent. But with increased wealth, increased availability of materials and increased production, and so increased access to more mainstream status objects the value of that cost has changed. The rarity of vintage watches might be seen as more desirable than something that simply cost a lot of money.
“Now the cost is that you’re giving up the visibility of that mainstream signalling by making a more esoteric choice,” she says. “Your Rolex was the gateway to status watches – when you want most people to recognise what you’re wearing – but you upgrade to the increasingly niche and run the risk that only some people will, but the right people.”
In other words, if status objects are, for the many, about keeping up with the group and fitting in, for the few they’re about standing apart. That’s why brands balance the benefits and the dangers of mainstream cultural cachet: maybe Patek Philippe, often regarded as a pinnacle of watchmaking craft, rues the day it nudged aside Rolex as a subject of rap lyrics. “Had to find other ways to invest / Cause you rappers found every way to ruin Pateks”, as Pusha T complains in “Hard Piano”.
This also means some people will peer intently at your cuff. The peacock power of precious materials in watches being replaced by the appreciation of the name of its maker means you now have to get up close to a watch to understand its message, reckons Mr Benoît Mintiens, the founder of Ressence.
“Of course, there’s still a demand for more ostentatious watches, like those from Richard Mille, the shape of which, cleverly, makes them so recognisable on the wrist,” Mintiens says. “But we’re not a well-known brand, and it’s hard to impress someone with something they haven’t heard of. But in wearing a Ressence perhaps it’s less about projecting wealth as knowledge – and there’s a status in having knowledge. It all begs the question whether a watch is for the wearer or really for others.”
“Post-Covid conspicuous consumption is, for some, just bad manners, and people are starting to trade in the fancy for the anonymous”
Indeed, because our conception of status is now so in flux, blurring with changing ideas of cool or with changing ideas of social standing, we’re deep into unspoken psychological gamesmanship, and of what Mintiens calls “the watch as avatar”. For some, signalling status merges with signalling virtue: your watch is made of gold, the mining of which can have profoundly negative environmental impact, mine is a Panerai made of mostly recycled materials. For others, signalling is to signal understatement or “good” taste: your watch is loud, mine is IWC-style minimalistic. And for some signalling status sends the wrong signal altogether: online journal Premier Christianity has debated whether it’s morally dubious for preachers to wear expensive watches.
As Mr Paco Underhill, environmental psychologist and author of Why We Buy, notes, “post-Covid conspicuous consumption is, for some, just bad manners, and people are starting to trade in the fancy for the anonymous”. Perhaps the status competition now is to be seen to live more simply, not more expensively, more as an individual. “For some divergence from consumerism is the status signal: the mentality of ‘I could wear a Patek, but I choose to wear a Swatch’,” says Dr Bellezza.
But then maybe that’s the particular privilege of those whose status is so high, they don’t need to signal it; so they wear a simple Shinola, like Mr David Solomon, the CEO of Goldman Sachs, or – like JP Morgan chairman Mr Jamie Dimon – they don’t wear a watch at all.
“That’s the interesting question to me: if status signalling is not the simple choice of wearing the traditional big gold watch anymore, what do you choose? It’s a constantly changing dynamic now,” Dr Bellezza adds. “But it’s clear that we’ve been concerned about status signalling from the time we could accumulate anything, and that it will be with us forever.”