the wrist is history?

Not yet; even cellphone-addicted millennials like watches as accessories

The Kansas City StarDecember 22, 2012 

It showed 12:17 p.m. on all of the timepieces carried by students and young workers taking a break at Johnson County Community College in Overland Park, Kan.

Travis Pinks checked both screens of his smartphone: "12:17 p.m." And so it appeared on Johnny Stiles' laptop screen, on Sara Humphreys' iPod Touch and on Garrett Rotert's cellphone.

It should come as no surprise that only one of the four of them, Humphreys, 21, wore a watch — mostly because of how it sparkled on her wrist. After all, that has been the trend in recent years.

That ratio of just one wristwatch-wearer for every four people holds close to national market-research data on the millennial generation.

Most adults in their early 30s or younger don't wear a watch on a regular basis.

Strangely, these watch-tossing trends seem to be showing up everywhere but at the cash register.

Wristwatch buying — that time-honored staple of the holiday shopping season — appeared to be on a fateful slump six or seven years ago, about the same time cultural pundits began to forecast how cellphone clocks would render the watch obsolete.

But in the past three years, sales have recovered for moderately priced watches that speak more to fashion than timekeeping. And the fortunes have surged, sometimes by triple-digit percentages, for certain luxury brands selling for thousands of dollars, said Andrew Talbert of the market monitoring firm LGI Network.

"That's the rich getting richer" and buying a better Rolex even in lean times for most folks, Talbert reasoned. "We're not in the business to understand or ask why. We just track the sales."

Stiles, 32, of Shawnee, Kan., isn't buying even a basic Timex anytime soon.

"Haven't had a watch since before I joined the Army, what — 12 years ago?" Stiles said. "I see a wristwatch as formal attire ... a status symbol. On my (electronic) devices, I've got a whole calendar — no need to strap on a watch."

So at least two schools of thought compete in the 21st-century world of watches: the consumers who couldn't be without, and those who couldn't care less.

"I've taken 100 phone calls, at least, on this topic of cellphones and the demise of the watchmaker," said Jim Lubic of the American Watchmakers-Clockmakers Institute trade group. "Among younger people, yes, you're seeing fewer wear watches on a regular basis. They'll just keep a cellphone to tell time through college.

"But once they hit their 30s and find their career path, they'll get a watch as a status symbol."

True enough, the Jewelers of America said that "fine watches" continue to hang on to about 13 percent of the jewelry market, as it has been in recent years, and that overall sales of watches ticked up 3.5 percent this summer from a year earlier.

Looming over possible future sales are those bare-wristed millennials: Less than a third of Americans ages 18 to 29 report wearing a watch at least most of the time, according to surveys by YPulse, a market researcher.

The most commonly cited reason? "It's unnecessary ... since I always look at my phone to know the time."

Still, more than one-quarter of young adults tell YPulse they will sport wristwatches from time to time as fashion accessories.

If fault lines are forming in the wristwatch trade, Kansas City's Borel family — among the nation's major distributors of watch parts — hasn't missed a beat.

"I can't tell you if cellphones will someday make watches obsolete," Paul Borel said. "All I can say is we're very busy doing what we've always been doing. And that's selling watch parts."

CEO Mark Borel, 90, bends over a bench with a magnifying optivisor strapped around his eyes as he performs surgery on a Mallard watch of his own design.

His nephew, Gary Borel, shows off his own copper-colored timepiece with a vacuum-sealed face surrounded by a ruby case topped with a sapphire crystal.

"I've worn this about 38 years, and it looks pristine," Gary Borel said. "That's what happens when you put ruby and sapphire together. Nothing scratches it."

Imagine a cellphone lasting 38 years.

Lexington Herald-Leader is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service