Objects of masculinity: Watches

As those who know me as more than Critical Masculinities could probably attest,  one of my other interests (aside from dissecting and poking at understandings of men and masculinity), is watches.

As I started this blog and started looking at everything through the lens of a masculinity blogger, I began taking a more serious look at the role gender played in the watch industry and among enthusiasts of watches. And I reckon it’s quite a rich and fertile area for analysis.

In a general social and cultural sense it’s not uncommon for masculinity to be invested in objects, and moreover in objects that inspire strong feelings in their owners; cars, sporting goods, computers, etc. All these things can be markers of perceived masculinity – mine’s bigger than yours, mines more expensive.  This isn’t a particularly new or novel observation. It’s also not particularly novel to suggest that one’s identity (not just one’s gender identity) is often heavily invested in the physical  objects we possess. I think that for men, watches are a particularly useful social marker of self; if a man wears a watch it is a material possession constantly present and visible as an indicator of self, as well as a whole host of other social or cultural meanings.

I’m just as susceptible to the lure of expensive, pretty objects as the next person, but as I don’t drive, understand computers to any great degree, participate in sports – I’m stuck with watches (which is probably a good thing) as an object that I can invest time and money into owning and fetishising.

Now, when I saw “watches” I don’t just mean the sort of watch most people wear; I generally mean mechanical watches, and the people who are really into mechanical watches, (in my experience) are overwhelmingly, men. And moreover I know many men who enjoy talking about and analyising the simultaneously highly technical yet archaic mechanics that they wear on their wrist. The people who make these very expensive luxury items also know this and market their product accordingly.

This print ad, for Zenith (specifically their tellingly named “Defy” line) ticks a lot of obvious macho image boxes – other ads in this range featured scantily clad women. This is all pretty obvious in terms of visual images of masculine identity and Zenith’s desired product association.

Now this is an image of Che Guevara wearing a Rolex,  an image Rolex used in an ad campaign. This image has several things going on in it masculinity wise: Che is a pretty great example of a tough guy (ergo Rolex is a tough guy watch), but also important for Rolex (the leaders of the watch industry in terms of sales and influence) is the strong association with Rolex and important history, adding to their prestige. That Che is puffing on a cigar only helps add to the manliness.

Now, this last ad is from another prestigious swiss company – Patek Philippe. This ad, in addition to giving a clear indication as to the lifestyle owners can expect, takes a slightly different approach. The tag line of this campaign is; “You never actually own a Patek Philippe – You merely look after it for the next generation.”  Now, looking at this ad it’s clear that by “the next generation” Patek don’t have the girl children in mind. Patek are selling, along with their very expensive watches, an image of paternalistic patriarchy, and implicitly a physical link to a less complicated, better time.

It isn’t just in the ad copy that watches are closely linked to masculinity. Many models and styles of watches themselves are derived from watches used for highly masculine purposes; watches worn by pilots, sailors, mountaineers, divers, race car drivers, astronauts, soldiers and even polo players have inspired an industry of watches. An industry heavily invested in the maintenance of myth and legend around their product, even if that product is very, very really used for the purposes it was originally designed for.

Another aspect of the relationship between masculinity and watches (and here I may be reading a little too much into things, but I honestly don’t think I am) is the size of watches. The last 10 – 15 years have seen, in the world of horology, the emergence of what has been called the “big watch trend.” I own a watch from the 1930’s – it’s a mans watch, and it’s about 24mm across and maybe 42mm high. It looks ridiculously tiny on my (maybe slightly larger than average wrist) mens wrists have not changed that much in the last 70 odd years, our taste in watches clearly has. even up until the 80’s a watch with a diameter of 36mm was a standard sized mans watch. Of late that size has crept up and up, with a 42 – 44mm diameter becoming increasingly normal and 36mm positively “petite” (code for effeminate, btw). I’m not saying that this size thing stems from a global, deepseated anxiety about masculine identity that needs to be assuaged through large wristwatches (that’d be just CRAZY) – but manufacturers are not creating these size watches out of a vacuum, they are responding to the desires of the market, and the market is overwhelmingly men.

POSTSCRIPT: The Guardian has this article on it’s website, dealing with similar stuff – the comments section is illuminating also, in terms of attitudes towards wearing expensive watches and the impact on perceptions of masculinity this may have.

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4 Comments on “Objects of masculinity: Watches”

  1. Hohoho Says:

    Uh, hang on. You say “if a man wears a watch it is a material possession constantly present and visible as an indicator of self”. Whether or not the watch I wear is an indicator of myself, it’s not constantly visible. For the great majority of the time, it’s hidden by a shirt, jacket, sweater or fleece. That’s because it’s firmly and comfortably attached to the narrowest part of my arm, which is slightly above (i.e. to the elbow side of) my wrist and normally hidden.

    Of course, if I were on a conspicuous consumption trip I’d have a looser bracelet so that the bauble could flop below my wrist, to the admiration (I’d hope) of all. But I’m not so I don’t.

    Yesterday I wore a charming and discreet Ricoh, perhaps 45 years old. The damn thing stopped on me. Today I’ll wear some quartz cheapie — but still firmly attached to the narrowest part of my arm.

    You might enjoy the little thread at http://www.orientalwatchsite.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=4&t=6223

    • Well, your watch – even though it’s not constantly visible it is still present, and a lot more constant than other physical markers of self. We have lots of clothes, don’t always drive, etc etc – but if you wear a watch, you usually wear it everyday (or at least most folks I know do). The only other material possession I can think of that is like this in a broad social context is a wedding ring.

  2. Hohoho Says:

    Well that’s what happens when I read a message without sufficient caffeinacious fortification: I parsed it as “constantly [present and visible as an indicator of self]”; whereas of course it could just as well have been “[constantly present] and [visible as an indicator of self]”, with which I wouldn’t have quibbled at all.

    I decided after all to be stupid today and to wear another ancient Ricoh. This one didn’t stop today. Xe.com tells me that it cost 40 AUD, so I bet mine’s cheaper as well as smaller than yours!

    A couple of decades ago, as I hazily recall, an infallible way of being one up on somebody who took this kind of silliness seriously was to wear or display something conspicuously cheaper and/or less pretentious. Stephen Potter (“Lifemanship” et seq., which I recommend) put all of this much more wittily than I could hope to; but, crudely, if after you flash your Pathek Philippe I flash my Omega, you’ve won; but if instead I allow my Alba to be noticed, you’re washed up. These days the world seems to be far more awestruck by brand names and far less amused by buyer stupidity than it used to be. Resistance is futile.

    I try to look on the bright side: Every moron who pays a fortune for a wristwatch has that much less money available for a SUV.

  3. Aaron Says:

    I believe the reason we should wear watches is it makes a good impression.

    A man with a watch is a man who has somewhere to be (job, etc).

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