Why don't we wear wristwatches anymore?

Steve Jobs looking at iPhone
Have smartphones caused the demise of the wristwatch? You might be surprised by the answer.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

In an age when 91 percent of Americans are joined at the hip to cell phones, in which we can almost read by the glow of the LED clocks adorning our kitchen appliances and family room electronics, strapping a timepiece to your wrist might strike you as redundant [source: Foresman]. It's no surprise, then, that blogs and news outlets have declared the wristwatch deader than disco, Dillinger and the dodo. The truth, however, is a little more complicated.

When total American watch sales dipped 4.9 percent between 2001 and 2005, analysts naturally saw it as a sign that the much-anticipated Rolex Ragnarok had begun. But watch sales, like those of dozens of other luxury and durable goods, are cyclical. Despite the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, the industry bounced back in 2010 and 2011 [sources: Gonzalez; Agence France-Presse; Shuster].


Does that mean the same number of people still wear watches? Not necessarily. As of July 2012, the kind of high-end timepieces mentioned in rap lyrics and hawked in Financial Times ads far outperformed the $100-or-less offerings. Brands marketed toward young adults have felt the squeeze the most, although $1,000-plus watches continue to show up on the wrists of image-conscious young up-and-comers [sources: FSWI; Agence France-Presse; Shuster].

As any luxury watchmaker will tell you, timepieces are less about time and more about image, fashion and status. Cartier doesn't market time; it brands lifestyle. Consider the ongoing demand for expensive mechanical watches, which are less accurate than quartz timepieces, or the range of watches featuring nonfunctional elements, such as diamonds, moving liquids and so on. Internationally, the economic boom in China -- where watches, especially mechanicals, have long been associated with prosperity – has driven 40-60 percent of the demand for European watches [sources: Gonzalez; Agence France-Presse; Shuster].

Always conscious of the zeitgeist, watchmakers are also churning out "killer app" timepieces packed with functions targeted at specific activities, including climbing, diving, fishing, golfing, motor racing and sailing. They have also adopted an "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" approach and integrated their watches into our ever-more-wired lifestyle. Today, you can buy watches that alert you when your muted cell phone rings, identify the caller and indicate if he or she left a message. Some watches can play MP3s and videos or pull files from your computer [source: Shuster].

Where will things wind up? Only time will tell. For now at least, it's clear that the wristwatch industry can take a licking and keep on ticking.


Author's Note

Before writing this, I would have thrown in my lot with the wristwatch doomsayers. In truth, I can't remember the last time I saw someone, especially a young person, wearing a watch.

It just goes to show, you should never underestimate the power of marketing to instill a sense of need in the consumer. When the new iPhone came out in 2011, 55 million of us lined up to buy it, disregarding the economy, our budgets or, in many cases, the 2010 iPhone in our pockets. We simply genuflected toward Cupertino and got out our wallets.


Which raises another point: For all our fetishization of cell phones, there's every chance that, in another decade or less, we'll be declaring them dead, too (anyone remember when PDAs were thought irreplaceable?).

Personally, I enjoy the mind-boggling skill and artistry embodied by mechanical watches. I particularly value the scientific and technological history they represent. More than that, though, I value the memories I associate with them. Unlike consumer electronics, old watches are not disposable; they are gifts, hand-me-downs and even lifelong companions.

Will we ever produce the smartphone equivalent of a sentimental, well-crafted timepiece? Now that's something I would like to see. The technical challenges, though significant, are within reach, and our planet would be the better for it. Perhaps it's an idea whose time has come.

Related Articles
  • Agence France-Presse. "Beautiful and Obsolete: The Wristwatch Boom Mystery." The Independent (UK). Dec. 6, 2010. (July 10, 2012) http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/fashion/beautiful-and-obsolete-the-wristwatch-boom-mystery-2152673.html
  • Edwards, Benj. "The 10 Victims of Recent Tech." PC Magazine. Feb. 24, 2011. (July 10, 2012) http://www.pcmag.com/slideshow/story/261035/the-10-victims-of-recent-tech/7
  • Foresman, Chris. "Wireless Survey: 91% of Americans Use Cell Phones." Ars Technica. March 24, 2010. (July 11, 2012) http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2010/03/wireless-survey-91-of-americans-have-cell-phones/
  • FSWI. "The Swiss and World Watchmaking Industry in 2011." Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry. 2012. (July 9, 2012) http://www.fhs.ch/statistics/watchmaking_2011.pdf
  • Gonzalez, Sarah. "It's Time: The Wristwatch Makes a Comeback." National Public Radio. Nov. 8, 2010. (July 9, 2012) http://www.npr.org/2010/11/08/131163403/its-time-the-wristwatch-makes-a-comeback
  • Shuster, William George. "Is the Wristwatch Past Its Time?" JCK magazine. March 2007. (July 9, 2012) http://www.jckonline.com/2007/03/01/wristwatch-past-its-time