Time for a Women's Movement
Over the past decade, we’ve seen an industry rooted in centuries of tradition begin modernizing. One major shift has been in the gender binary of watches. Conventional gender roles have slowly transformed in response to female income rates and buying power changes. One of the two key forces reshaping the consumer market is women’s rising economic power, with women controlling more than 60 percent of all personal wealth in the U.S. (Federal Reserve) and 40 percent of working women in the U.S. out-earning their husbands (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics).
Within the past few years, the pace of change in the watch industry has increased thanks to brands asserting a more substantial presence on social media and on their e-commerce platforms, making the once insular world of watches more accessible to a wider audience, including women. Women’s watches have long been typecast in a supporting role. When we traditionally consider a ladies’ model, we think of small case sizes, pastel-colored enamel dials, quartz movements, and diamond accents. Hence the trope “shrink it and pink it” has long been associated with the approach to designing women’s watches. Marketing toward women often presents an image of a man gifting a watch to a woman instead of her buying one for herself. However, if you look closely at the history of women’s watches, it reveals a different story, one that’s seldom told.
She requires a timepiece with substance, one that’s made expressly for her.”
While women’s watches have often been relegated to narrow stereotypes, they have, in many respects, led the way in innovations and trends. Color play has long been a part of designing women’s watches and has only become prevalent among men’s watches in recent years. Consider the widely popular rainbow trend: there was a time when these would have been considered women’s watches, and a man might never have conceived of wearing one. Now, no catalog is complete without at least one rainbow model, and we see them in bold, oversized, traditionally masculine proportions from brands like Zenith, Rolex, and Hublot. In addition, women have been serving as watch ambassadors long before official ambassadors became a mainstay of every brand. Mercedes Glietz’s famous swim across the English Channel in 1927 wearing a Rolex Oyster Perpetual was one of Rolex’s greatest advertisements.
Though watches remain gendered in brand catalogs, there’s a clear movement toward unisex or genderless watches. If you look at today’s female brand ambassadors, they are often sporting so-called men’s models, like Rosamund Pike with IWC’s Portuguese or Serena Williams with Audemars’ Royal Oak Offshore. And many female celebrities with highly respected collections, like Ellen DeGeneres, primarily consist of models designated for men. This is not entirely surprising if you look at broader trends in fashion; women have long adopted men’s style from the pantsuit to the more casual plaid flannel button-down. The difference is that apparel brands have embraced these styles within their women’s collections—a woman doesn’t have to go to the men’s department to buy said suit or flannel. She can buy her variation with a cut and size that will suit her feminine proportions far better than a man’s garment ever could.
This is precisely what women are looking for in watches. The modern woman is no longer satisfied with a bracelet or jewelry that happens to keep time. She requires a timepiece with substance, one that’s just as capable and technically complex as the watches made for her male counterparts—one that reflects her command in business and politics—but one that’s made expressly for her.
There are a few brands that are doing this well. One example is Patek Philippe. Patek has been a pioneer of women’s wristwatches since the 1800s, introducing its first ladies’ wristwatch in 1868. Fast forward to the modern era, Patek launched its first line specifically created for women, the Twenty-4, in 1999. While the original Twenty-4 housed a quartz movement, the brand updated the model with an automatic caliber in 2018. Before that, the brand debuted its first in-house chronograph movement in the Ladies First Chronograph watch in 2009, which has since seen numerous updates including one of the most recent additions in 2018 with the Ref. 7150. And just last year, in 2022, Patek introduced its first self-winding ladies’ chronograph in the Aquanaut Luce “Rainbow,” a 39.9mm rose gold watch that epitomizes the rainbow trend and includes a highly useful complication with the bonus of a flyback function and a sporty rubber strap. Here, we see Patek employ two stereotypical style elements of women’s watches—enamel and gem setting—with contemporary finesse. The meticulously handpicked stones have been set on metal rails that can’t be seen from the outside of the case, a technique called “invisible setting,” and the mother-of-pearl dial is rendered in the Aquanaut’s signature checkerboard motif.
Another watchmaker leading the charge in women’s watches is Breitling. When Georges Kern arrived as CEO in 2017, he set out to bring more diversity to the brand’s offerings and partnerships. By 2020, the brand had debuted its first line of Navitimer watches for women, followed by the Chronomat in tandem with three new ambassadors joining its Squad on a Mission concept: actresses Charlize Theron and Yao Chen as well as American Ballet Theater’s Misty Copeland. In the three years since, Breitling has expanded its women’s offerings with models from each of its core collections, including the Superocean, Avenger, Professional, and Premier. Some of its most recent additions launched in 2022, including the Super Chronomat Automatic 38, offering a new size for the lineup, and new colorways of the Superocean Automatic 36 as well as the Navitimer Automatic 35 and B01 Chronograph 41.
Brands like Patek and Breitling are considered more traditional or mainstream. Since 1839, Patek has been designing classic timepieces focused on dress watches and complications. Starting in 1884, Breitling designed purpose-driven watches with a sportier look and feel. Seeing these industry pillars modernize their women’s collections is undoubtedly a sign of progress, yet there’s still another significant gap to be filled. With the rise of independent watchmakers in the past several decades, men now have a slew of options beyond the timeless dress watch or everyday sports watch—ones that are more unique, avant-garde, and complex that genuinely embody the art of the art form.
While fewer and far between, there are a handful of brands providing these types of offerings for women. One such maker is MB&F. MB&F is one of the most daring and playful watchmakers. Like most independents, each collection is highly bespoke and produced in limited quantities, adding to the intrigue and exclusivity. Its designs aren’t for everyone, encompassing a futuristic aesthetic that often feels as if it came straight out of a sci-fi film. However, the allure of MB&F’s watches isn’t purely aesthetic.
These “horological machines” are highly technical and breaking records, like the Legacy Machine Thunderdome, the fastest triple-axis tourbillon ever made. This particular model was inspired by MB&F’s first-ever ladies’ line: the Legacy Machine Flying T. The brand began development of the Legacy Machine Flying T back in 2015 and unveiled the first model in the collection in 2019, which went on to win the Ladies’ Complication prize at the GPHG awards that year. The line combines founder Maximillian Büsser’s knowledge of jewelry and gem setting (thanks to his seven years at Harry Winston) with MB&F’s signature style. Since its initial debut just a few years ago, the brand has iterated on the LM Flying T with new variations, some of which have crossed over into its Performance Art line.
If you look closely at the history of women’s watches, it reveals a story seldom told.”
The latest additions, launched in January of this year, were designed in collaboration with the independent French jewelry designer Emmanuel Tarpin, who has famously created pieces for celebrities like Rihanna. With the LM Flying T Ice and Blizzard, MB&F and Emmanuel Tarpin take gem-setting in women’s watches to new heights while retaining the line’s signature complication: the flying tourbillon. These impressive watches also boast highly wearable proportions of just 39mm despite smaller case sizes long being cited as the reason women’s watches couldn’t house high complications.
Though it still feels like the luxury watch business has a ways to go before reaching full gender equality, it has come quite a long way. This is a centuries-old industry that deeply values tradition. It is only natural it would take a great deal of time and intention to make meaningful shifts. The good news is that things are undeniably moving in the right direction, as is evident by the brands and watches we’ve highlighted here that more accurately reflect the modern woman’s desire for a timekeeper that’s beautiful but also offers substance and complexity.