How Watches Took Over Wedding Culture

When getting ready to pop the question, a jeweller, a florist and perhaps even a photographer may be consulted. But what about a watch dealer? ”We’re definitely seeing a lot of engagement [sales]. This idea of ‘he gives her a watch, she gives him a watch’,” said Carol Altieri, co-owner of the Naples, FL.-based timepiece dealer Bob’s Watches.

While the allure of a diamond as big as the Ritz is unlikely to lose its appeal, demand for traditional engagement rings softened during the pandemic, and recovery has been unsteady as mined gemstones ceded pricing power to cheaper lab-grown alternatives.

The traditional Western — and heteronormative — playbook for weddings is also in flux. Traditionally, wedding rites started with an engagement ring offered from man to woman at the time of proposal, with simpler bands exchanged on the day of the wedding, and perhaps some other gifts for those in the wedding party dotted in.

Watches were not usually a priority — with the exception of Korean culture, where gifting timepieces is a longstanding wedding tradition, or in a few wealthy circles elsewhere.

Now, weddings and engagement rituals are changing. Modern proposals are often a public affair, with content created either directly for social media or as an ancillary benefit, and often have a party or gift “shower” that follows. Weddings often span a whole weekend or longer, and take place overseas, and feature multiple seated dinners or cocktail events. In between, bachelor and bachelorette parties are increasingly lavish.

At the same time that weddings are getting grander, longer and more expensive, couples of all sexualities are eschewing traditions in favour of making their own. “The norms are changing… it’s not always the man that’s proposing anymore,” said Eric Macaire, executive buying director at multi-brand retailer Watches of Switzerland.

Perfect Pairings

For celebrity hairstylist and brand founder Joseph Maine, the choice to propose with a watch to his now-fiancé Jack was a long time coming. “I knew I wanted it for a long time. I definitely wouldn’t be someone wearing two rings — even wearing one [wedding] ring already felt like a lot for me,” said Maine. They could have exchanged rings earlier, but that didn’t hold the same appeal: “One of my good friends just got engaged and he’s wearing his wedding band already… [that] doesn’t leave anything for men to receive on the day of the wedding,” he said. Instead, Maine and his fiancé exchanged watches: a diamond-studded Rolex Presidential Day Date for him, and a Rolex Daytona two-tone for Jack. Maine was “not a watch guy” previously — he didn’t wear any kind of timepiece, not even a fitness tracker or cheap no-name one, prior to getting engaged.

During the shopping process, Maine said he became fascinated with engagement traditions and history — leading him to believe the rituals were due for a shake-up beyond same-sex unions. “I saw a study that showed a staggering amount of men were open to women proposing to them, and vice-versa too,” he said. “I just got to thinking, if that is the case, and women are more likely to propose, what would that gift look like?”

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Women’s Watch Demand

Women are certainly getting more interested in watches. Macaire and Altieri both said they see more hyper-informed female customers in store with a very specific idea of what they want. Brands are clamouring for their attention: Hermès has released a women’s sports watch to try and corner market share from Chanel and Rolex, while Breitling has tapped the actress Charlize Theron and ballet dancer Misty Copeland to front new campaigns to move from its hyper-masculine roots.

Macaire said the growing base of women customers includes both self-purchasers and gifters. “That could lead to more proposals coming with a watch, or instead of. When [a woman] has a genuine interest in watches, she might even prefer that to jewellery at some point,” he said. He said demand is well spread across categories and brands, with sportier, almost men’s-style watches becoming as popular as jewellery watches. Mega-brands like Cartier, Chanel, Rolex and Jaeger LeCoultre remain the most requested.

For gay or lesbian couples, a traditional engagement ring may have never been on the cards to start with, and watches neatly fill that big-ticket gift space. “It was more about how we can commemorate this moment with something that feels really special,” said Maine.

Sharing The Wealth

Watch gifting for weddings sometimes extends beyond the couple getting married. Watches are showing up as a gift for others in the wedding party at high-net-worth unions. One customer bought watches for all his groomsmen, Altieri said: “He got them all a Rolex Submariner from their birth year.” The client and his wife also bought watches for one another.

Watches are increasingly popular as gifts for brides to give to their bridal parties, too.

Much of this phenomenon comes back to the increasing commercialisation of weddings. It’s become more and more common for couples to include touches like champagne towers, custom table decorations and late-night catering vans, not to mention more paraphernalia for photos, like specially designed photo booths and branded props.

Many couples’ priorities are now more geared around memorable moments and experiences than they are around historical markers of relationship progress: According to a Harris Poll survey, almost half of American adults want to get married, but only 28 percent want to have a child. Two incomes and no children leaves much more room for luxury splurges.

The purchasing of the watches is also part of the fun, said Altieri. She said her staff routinely receive requests for “his and hers” watches with matching dial colours or birth years, for example, and one couple even took over the store for an afternoon of shopping.

“They had champagne there, and we did a whole thing… they came in together and they picked each other’s watches for them,” she said, adding that her staff took photos to post on Instagram. “They already had rings. The watches were a gift in addition to everything else.”

A positive experience with shopping for a wedding watch can turn a one-time customer into a long-term one.

“I never would have considered myself to be someone that would get into watches,” hairstylist Maine said. “But now Jack and I both think we might like to collect them.”

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