Why Women Are Making Time For Luxury Watches

In 2019, Brynn Wallner was working in the editorial department at Sotheby’s, a global art auction house, when she was tapped by the watches department and asked to create content for them. “I was like, ‘Listen, I’m down to help, but I don’t know anything about watches,’” the 31-year-old Manhattan resident, whose experience with timepieces stopped at owning a sporty plastic Casio G-Shock, tells Refinery29. But it was her writing style, as opposed to her knowledge of timepieces, that the watch team was after: “‘We just need you to help make it cool,’” she recalls them telling her. She gave it a go and got intimate with the material, sourcing photos, editing, fact-checking, and researching what is arguably the most exclusive accessory in fashion (don’t come for me, Birkin baggers). “In the process of creating watch content, I became really compelled by them,” Wallner says. “I kept thinking, How did I not know this before?, because I was so intuitively drawn to them.”

That she actually had a penchant for watches wasn’t all she learned from the experience. Wallner also discovered how little women have been involved in the watch industry’s lengthy history. “It’s really exciting to see old movie stars, like Paul Newman, making a Rolex Daytona famous,” she says. “But at the same time, I was like, ‘This is an awesome watch. Do women wear it? What styles do women like? What does it look like on a woman’s wrist? Who are the women making [watches] famous?’” According to Wallner, Elle MacPherson, Princess Diana, and Naomi Cambell all wore luxury watches, from Rolexes to Vacheron Constantins, but their stories were never the focal point of the narrative: “Women always remained in the periphery.”

In discovering this missing link, Wallner felt called to fix it. So the writer (who had since parted ways with Sotheby’s) launched Dimepiece — an online magazine designed to round out the story. The website is geared for stylish women who are coming to the watch world unschooled. With profiles, personal essays, and watch 101 features (e.g. a diagrammed anatomy of a watch and its parts — because WTF is a bezel? — and an explainer on buying vintage timepieces), the site both offers a cram course in horology and points to the emotional relationship that can form between women and their watches. In the six months since its launch, Dimepiece has not only set the stage for a women-led future for the industry, but also made it clear that women have always loved watches, even if the watch world never cared to include them. 

With more and more women coming around to the allure of luxury timepieces, designers are waking up to the fact that it would be smart to stoke their interest, especially given the potential value in a market that research firm Mordor Intelligence estimates to be worth $23.6 billion in 2020. The women’s watch market brims with untapped potential, with a handful of style-forward individuals with the means and desire dipping a toe in.  

“I already have a watch that is a family heirloom, but I wanted to buy something with my own money,” says Giulia Torelli, a 33-year-old closet organizer and radio host from Milan, Italy. “After a particularly stressful year at work, I decided to gift myself a Cartier that I’ve always wanted.” Torelli succumbed to her long-held desire for a Cartier Tank, which she purchased from a certified Cartier reseller because the style she wanted — steel-cased with a crocodile bracelet — was no longer on the market. The piece is a constant reminder of how far she’s come. “It makes me feel like a real grown up,” she says.

For many like Torelli, buying a luxury watch is a way of signaling that you’ve made it — much like investing in an expensive handbag, or even putting a down payment on a car or house. In 2018, the average cost of a Rolex watch was more than $12,000, according to the market and consumer data firm Statista. To be able to drop that kind of money on a single, non-essential item isn’t something the majority of people could ever dream of. And for a certain few whose personal finances allow for such an expenditure, it is accompanied by a major sense of accomplishment.

“It was a six-month process for me to even figure out what [watch] I wanted to buy, let alone the emotional and literal labor of saving up enough money to buy one,” says Wallner. Despite founding a watch publication that has over 13,000 Instagram followers and an engagement rate of 4.29% — the median engagement rate for fashion brands on Instagram is 0.51%, according to Rival IQ — she didn’t own a luxury watch until this past spring. (She bought her debut Cartier, a small Tank Française, at the Cartier Mansion on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan.) “I wasn’t ever accustomed to spending that much on [anything],” she says. “So, the mental gymnastics that were required to actually be in the headspace to spend that kind of money was a lot.”

Neither Wallner nor Torelli has a single regret pertaining to their timepiece splurges. In fact, Wallner recently went on to buy her second watch: a two-tone 26mm Rolex Datejust. Apart from being a visual representation of her hard work, Wallner says that a luxury watch is something that, unlike a status bag or an “expensive cardigan from the Row,” she knows she can pass on to her future children. I bought this watch hoping that one day, I’ll have a [child] and they will wear it before they give it to the next generation,” she says. Torelli, too, says that a watch, more than any other fashion item, has the potential to be a future heirloom.

Kate Spencer, a 31-year-old Refinery29 shopping editor living in Brooklyn, is lucky enough to be on the receiving end of the heirloom chain. To commemorate her 25th birthday, her mother handed down a Rolex that has its own history: Her mom acquired the watch as part of an exchange, trading in the Cartier Panthére that had come from her ex-husband, Spencer’s father. According to Spencer, her mom wore the Panthére all the time, but after the divorce, she began researching alternatives until she settled on the Rolex. 

Years later, she decided it was time to pass the timepiece onto her daughter. “She said that she doesn’t need more than one watch — she’s not a watch collector — and she would rather me have the Rolex, because she knew it would go with my style,” Spencer says. Her mother, who had moved onto a Cartier Tank, saw it as a win-win, because if she ever wanted to wear the Rolex again, it was still in the family.

Ann Wang, a 32-year-old New York City-based fashion editor, picked out her Cartier Santos-Dumont as a 30th birthday present from her fiancé. “He had been researching watches and showing me videos that intrigued him,” she recalls. Though she had never put much thought into watches, she says that, in watching the videos, she became enamored with the mechanics involved with every timepiece. “It hit me how special and rare a beautiful timepiece can be,” she says. 

“I’ve never felt that way about any type of accessory before, with the exception of my engagement ring,” Wang says of the trial and error intrinsic to the shopping process. The model that she finally settled on was a testament to her triumphs thus far in life, both in her career and her relationship. “It makes me feel loved,” she says. 

A luxury watch can signal the prinact of a different kind of relationship. For Alexa Katz, a 26-year old publicist in New York, her two-tone Cartier Panthére acts as a reminder to cherish her relationship with herself more than any with a partner. “I broke up with a boyfriend and he was so bitter about it that he took back the Rolex he bought for me,” she tells Refinery29. “Naturally, I went out and bought myself a Cartier watch because, I deserve it, and at least I know this relationship will work out.” 

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