For decades, traditional luxury watch brands have designed some watches explicitly for men, and others for women. Now, shifts in society’s understanding of gender are moving some watchmakers to rethink this approach — and present watches as genderless. At the same time, though, not everyone is united around a unisex approach.

The debate around gendered watches has been building, but it was heightened earlier this year when an opinion piece was published by the influential online watch magazine and retailer Hodinkee. “Watch brands make incredible products that can be worn by anyone, but only speak to one demographic,” says the piece’s author Cara Barrett, who has since left Hodinkee to establish her own unisex children’s watch brand. “For me, it’s about how women are advertised to. There’s lack of inclusion.”

It used to be believed that men’s watches accounted for the lion’s share of sales. However, new analysis suggests otherwise. According to a report published in May by Allied Market Research, women’s watches are already worth more to the industry than men’s. The report calculated that sales of watches priced above $1,200 to women were worth $23.7bn in 2019, or 54.4 per cent of the total market. And it estimated that this figure would grow to $26.7bn by 2027.

Brian Duffy, chief executive of the Watches of Switzerland Group of retailers, also believes the need to distinguish between men’s and women’s watches is coming to an end. “There’s no doubt that from a consumer view point there’s a complete convergence of gender,” he says. “Historically, watches were created for professions that were dominated by men. But life has changed. Now, we have women pilots, racing drivers, submariners and so on. The gender relevance has diluted.”

While Duffy says his female customers are still more likely to buy diamond-set watches with dials made of materials such as mother-of-pearl, he notes that they are buying larger watches than even five years ago. A Watches of Switzerland market report produced this summer said that, in 2016, a third of the watches sold to women were under 28mm in diameter. In 2020, that proportion had shrunk to just 14 per cent. Over the same period, the proportion of watches between 28mm and 31mm sold to women increased from 39 per cent to 62 per cent of the total.

Some argue that genderlessness is already built-in to luxury watchmaking. “A Swiss manufacturer doesn’t care who the watch is for,” says Aline Sylla Walbaum, the head of luxury division at Christie’s auction house. “They want to make spectacular objects. It’s almost irrelevant who it’s for. They don’t bake in the idea of gender.”

Catherine Rénier of Jaeger-LeCoultre, one of the few female chief executives in the Swiss watch industry, agrees — and adds that sales of the brand’s signature Reverso model are split almost 50:50 between men and women. “If you try too much to be for men or women, it wouldn’t be natural. We first have to be a watchmaker and expert in crafts.”

Catherine Rénier says sales of Jaeger-LeCoultre’s most popular watch, the Reverso, are almost split down the middle between men and women

Not everyone in the industry is comfortable with the genderless watch idea. “If you become unisex, it puts restraints on creativity and that goes against diversity,” says Edouard Meylan, chief executive of the independent watch company H Moser & Cie. “We could end up with a very homogenous presentation of watches. This is driven more by media than by trends — there have always been ladies wearing men’s watches.”

He is not alone. “Unisex is not something we have on the table,” says Jean-Marc Pontroué, Panerai’s chief executive. His brand’s origins lie in making oversized watches for the Royal Italian Navy in the 1930s. “We took our time to get to be one of the biggest brands in the world,” he says. “We don’t need to change. Harrods and Selfridges don’t have unisex floors.”

Panerai recruited travel influencer Jeremy Jauncey to promote its masculine watches

Nevertheless, other brands are making root-and-branch changes — rethinking their communication and retail strategies. “We are about to modify our communications, even in the speeches I’m making,” says Julien Tornare, Zenith’s chief executive. “I want to make beautiful watches that can be worn by either men or women. We don’t need to have a difference in today’s world. And who are we to tell someone a watch is for a man or a woman? This is what the car world used to do, and now it’s in no way like that. Women drive big SUVs. I want the same in watches.”

Tornare says his strategy shift is with one eye firmly in Asia, where a new generation of consumers are popularising unisex fashion. Some 80 per cent of his collection will soon feature cases sized between 37mm and 41mm, what he calls “the sweet spot.” He says Zenith’s sales are up more than 25 per cent this year over 2019 levels.

“If we are a 21st century brand, this is where we have to work. It’s totally wrong to make a differentiation between men and women. It’s very old-fashioned. I want to ban this.”

Patrick Pruniaux, chief executive of the Kering Group watch brands Ulysse Nardin and Girard-Perregaux, is on the same page. “All watches are unisex,” he says. “At the point of sale, our watches are arranged by collection, not gender. For us, it’s not even a debate or discussion.”

While the trend for genderless watches appears to be led by women buying watches traditionally thought of as men’s, there is little sign that the opposite is true. “I have never received an order for a man to get a Serpenti for himself,” says Bulgari Watch Division’s managing director Antoine Pin of the company’s famously feminine bracelet watch. “It’s interesting that we call this genderless as if gender is something we wanted to negate. Our watches are inspired by gender but not made exclusively for men or women.”

At Carl F Bucherer, the case for a gender-neutral position is clearer. “Since I took over in 2010, we stopped men’s or women’s collections and just had a watch collection,” says Sascha Moeri, the Lucerne brand’s chief executive. “We sold 6,000 timepieces in 2010, with an 80/20 male to female split. In 2019, we sold 30,000 watches, with a 60/40 split, selling 10 times as many watches to women as before. I’m very positive our position helped increase our sales.”

Those brands pushing for a genderless approach to watchmaking say they are also motivated by changing tastes. “Women want to understand what’s behind a watch more than in the past,” says Pruniaux. “Too often, the [women’s watch] conversation has been around the number of diamonds.”

In the typically conservative watch industry, the debate around a gender-neutral approach is mostly conducted internally. Hublot, however, is advertising its unisex strategy head on. Earlier this year, it introduced the Big Bang Millennial Pink, a collaboration with Garage Italia and Lapo Elkann that it promoted as “Gender Neutral”.

Footballer Kylian Mbappé fronts the Hublot Big Bang Millennial Pink campaign © Hublot

The watch has a 42mm blush pink aluminium case, and was marketed on the wrist of Kylian Mbappé, the superstar French footballer. “It’s not for the brand to decide if a watch is for a man or a woman,” says Ricardo Guadalupe, the brand’s chief executive. “It is the customer that needs to make [their] own choice. When we launched the Big Bang Millennial Pink, we wanted to present a statement together. More than simply a product, we wanted to create something that represents a positive change.”

Some observers feel that addressing gender is an easy win for luxury brands looking to modernise their image. “Speaking of gender is the least contentious way to talk about inclusion,” says Sylla Walbaum of Christie’s. “What is a watch for someone who is blind? What about diversity in terms of ethnicity? Everybody’s uncomfortable about it. But with gender, you can talk to male and female. And if you want to get the young generation interested, you have to think [inclusively]. If a man thinks it’s cool to have a Birkin bag, Hermès can’t say otherwise.”

Increasingly, brands are also being driven by demographic shifts. According to the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry, 15 per cent of exported products now go to China. Twenty years ago, China accounted for less than half a per cent of all Swiss watch exports.

Moeri of Carl F Bucherer believes traditional watch markets will soon be taking their cues from the Far East. “The Chinese consumer decided to wear larger watches than before. There was an evolution. For us, the same watch that was a best-seller for men in China a decade ago is now a best-seller for women. The whole industry has changed.”

For some, though, change is not coming fast enough. “We need to stop putting out the message that women ought to wear only feminine things and men ought to wear only masculine things,” says Suzanne Wong, editor-in-chief of the website World Tempus and co-founder of the WatchFemme community. “A woman who relishes her assertiveness in the boardroom should be able to wear a watch that matches that side of her without anyone looking askance. A man who luxuriates in his own flamboyance should be able to strap on a Chopard Happy Sport. Keep making the things, but stop trying to insist who they should be worn by.”

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