Are Watches Going Away?

The watch has been around for a couple of hundred years.  Early versions weren’t wristwatches, but were pocket watches, attached to your pants by a chain so you could pull it out of your pocket to look at the time.

A fossil watch
A Fossil hybrid smartwatch

The wristwatch became popular after World War I, and for the next seven decades or so, became a fashion staple.  If you needed to know the time, you just looked at your wrist.  Or you could ask whomever was standing by, because for decades, pretty much everyone wore a wristwatch.

That started to change a few years ago when cell phones became popular.  Cell phones displayed the time as a matter of course, and if you were going to carry around a phone that had the time on it, why would you also need to wear a wristwatch?   A lot of people stopped wearing watches, and a lot of younger people simply never got in the habit of wearing one in the first place.

That’s changed a bit in the past three or four years, as the smartwatch has come along.  The smartwatch is worn like a wristwatch, and can offer the time, but it can also act as an interface between you and your smartphone, allowing you to receive notifications and text messages and also allowing you to track your stats during workouts.  Many of them have other features, as well.

A lot of people have started wearing smartwatches, and a few have started wearing one instead of a traditional watch, but watchmakers are a bit mystified at the fact that they’re not becoming a huge hit with the public.  Worse – for some manufacturers, sales of all watches are down.

The Fossil Group, which makes watches under that name but which also owns a number of other companies that make watches of all kinds, recently released a quarterly report that shows that sales were down 13% in the most recent quarter.  Keep in mind that this is a company that does sell smartwatches alongside their regular traditional models, so it’s not as though they’re selling old technology and hoping that people will buy it.

A very expensive Breguet watch
A very expensive Breguet watch

Odd thing, though – people are buying old technology.  Luxury brands of watches, that is, the companies that sell unusually expensive watches, rather than the several hundred dollars apiece models that Fossil offers, are actually doing OK.  Granted, when you’re selling to ultra-wealthy collectors, you don’t have to worry too much about economic instability.  You also know that the people to whom you’re selling aren’t people who are following trends.  If you’re buying a high end Breguet watch, it’s because you want one, and not because you weren’t aware that Fossil could sell you a smartwatch instead for $100,000 less.

Still, most of the market for wristwatches falls in the sub-$1000 range, and for those companies that sell watches exclusively in that market, they have to be worrying a bit.  There was a panic in the 1970s when quartz watches hit the market that they’d put all makers of mechanical watches out of business.  A few did go away, but luxury brands managed to stay afloat.

That was then, however.  There’s no guarantee that people will continue buying watches in the future.  On the other hand, there does still seem to be a market for quality wristwatches, and it’s possible that the Fossil Group is just having a rough year.