Swiss watchmakers’ greatest fear isn’t the Apple Watch—it’s men wearing jewelry

Men of wealth and taste.
Men of wealth and taste.
Image: Reuters/Denis Balibouse
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Switzerland’s fabled watchmakers are in a bit of a tizzy about the Apple Watch, which threatens to undercut the country’s dominance of the mid- and high-priced wristwatch markets. But a even hugely successful Apple Watch might not be the industry’s worst-case scenario.

Sebastian Vivas, the museum director for Swiss watchmaker Audemars Piguet, told the New Yorker’s Ian Parker that the Jony Ive-designed Apple Watch bears watching: “We’re not afraid; we’re just a little bit smiling.” But Vivas said it would be an even greater threat to the industry “if men widely accepted that they could wear gemstones without a time-keeping pretext.”

What does he mean? Well, the modern standard is for even the wealthiest men to wear only minimal and nominally functional jewelry—a watch, wedding ring, and maybe some tastefully expensive cufflinks or a tie pin. That’s the masculine paradigm that prompts status-conscious men with a lot of disposable income—both in the developed world and in emerging markets like China—to buy a fancy Swiss watch.

But it was not always thus.

“From the accession of Henry VIII in 1509 until the death of James I in 1625 men wore just as much jewellery as their female counterparts,” notes a research project by the British Museum. “In this period, male ownership of jewels was about much more than just adorning the body. Jewellery had the power to reflect magnificence, lineage and wealth, as well as sustain social bonds and networks of exchange.”

The shift toward men wearing mostly functional jewelry really took hold in Victorian England, and continued through World War I, when men’s wrist watches became popular among sailors and soldiers, and eventually evolved into the signifier of wealth and taste that they are today.

Vivas’ comments suggests that the biggest challenge for watchmakers is not just technological but social. If wealthy men suddenly decide it is acceptable to splash out huge sums on purely ornamental jewelry—like the gemstone-laden necklaces, bracelets, and rings that are mostly favored by rappers and rock stars today—then they will have less money to spend on Switzerland’s exquisitely handmade watches. And then the Swiss watch industry may face an existential threat that has nothing to do with Jony Ive.