W atches are many things. They are pieces of jewellery, mechanical objects, and they are tools. They can be pieces of art and they can be historically important artefacts. They can serve as a luxury item or a daily essential, articles of fashion or functionality, and as a symbol of status or accomplishment. They are sometimes objects of envy, often of discussion, critique and analysis – representing physical pieces of design and engineering, of utility and excess, and of time in real view.
These factors are what have helped make watches so appealing to collectors and enthusiasts across countless countries, cultures, and eras. In Fine Watches presented by Sotheby’s Hong Kong, which comes as part of the famed auction house’s Luxury Edit global sale series, we see an exploration of the many appealing facets of wristwatches through its lots. Importantly, many of the models embody a distinct modern draw to them, with their magnetism being significantly influenced by social media and the notable market trends which have arisen from its growth.
Today, there are few factors as important on the market, both in watches and in the wider worlds of luxury and fashion, as social media. The power of social feeds is undeniable, indisputably setting the stage for the modern marketplace and through them providing serious trends seen in content, through sales, and on wrists.
From Timekeeping Tool to Status Symbol
While watches have long served as physical embodiments of status, the rise of social media as a factor in the lives of enthusiasts has cemented and strengthened this facet of the industry.
In the years preceding social media and following the mass adoption of cell phones, watches saw a decline in use, and prior to that watches chiefly served as utility-driven timekeepers to keep the world in order, but the explosion in the use of smartphones and socially-driven apps, and in particular Instagram, has changed the importance of timepieces from tools to status symbols. In present times, the role of a watch as a timekeeper for many has been relegated to a useful novelty, whereas their role as another marker of personal expression has grown significantly.
Arguably no category represents and has benefited from this shift so much as stainless steel sport watches. Few brands can showcase this transformation as much as Rolex, which while historically representing the essence of what it means to be a tool watch through its creations, today represents less “hard-worn utility” via its timepieces – both contemporary and vintage – and more hard-won status. Through Rolex and other brands like it, steel became not just a metal for utility, but a material for longevity. Steel is lasting, it’s generational, it’s resilient, and because of all this it is perceived as more than just functional – it is luxurious.
Other brands have similarly benefited and capitalised upon this transition of feeling towards the humble metal, chief among them being Audemars Piguet and their Royal Oak. Since its dawn in the latter half of the 20th century, the Royal Oak has always represented an elevated take on a humble material, with the flagship model from the family always being executed in steel. To celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Royal Oak in 2012, Audemars Piguet released an updated reference 15202 which served as the representative of that legacy, an example of which is available as part of the Fine Watches auction.
A New Generation of Watch Enthusiasts
More than just helping further strengthen the transition of watches from tools to status symbols, social media has also helped grow the audience and target demographics for timepieces significantly. Chief among growing market segments is undoubtedly young people, which often saw social media as a fact of life having grown up with it or been early adopters.
Naturally, with social media spaces often being made up of a younger audience, the watches which received greater attention on social platforms would see design trends follow suit. Steel sports watches naturally saw an increase in attention, but further so did related sporty styles in precious metals like those seen most famously from Rolex, Audemars Piguet, and Patek Philippe. The lattermost of these three has the Nautilus family, but it further has the Aquanaut collection which was purposely designed for a younger client to the brand. As part of the Sotheby's sale, a reference 5968 Aquanaut Chronograph is available for bidding, with this white gold flyback chronograph serving as a modern emblem of the distinct collection.
Increased Exposure, Endless Information
For much of the history of luxury goods, you had to be “in-the-know”, or at least know someone, to have any real access to information, with this true just as much in watches as any other category. But through the growth of social media, it has become possible that anyone, whether they had a friend in the hobby or not, could gain access to knowledge and further exposure to the topic. This has not only broadened the massive appeal of watches to larger audiences through repeat exposure and engagement, but has further helped educate consumers to greater degrees of expertise in the topic.
A trend which has in-part come from this is a greater interest in more niche brands, styles, and complications. For example, its somewhat common now for watch enthusiasts to know a wide variety of Patek Philippe references and styles, like the reference 5961, an elegant platinum annual calendar flyback chronograph wristwatch embellished with 66 dazzling baguette-cut diamonds totaling 4.68 carats, an example of which is being sold as part of the Fine Watches sale.
Other brands, which prior to social media might have only enjoyed a particularly small audience, have similarly benefited from greater exposure and access to information. A. Lange & Söhne represents one such watchmaker, with the German brand's extremely fine finishing and execution becoming almost common knowledge in watch communities. The Langematik Perpetual reference 310.050/LSLS3106AA, which is being offered as part of the sale, is a particularly relevant example from the brand, with the limited edition honey gold perpetual calendar serving as true representative of how niche makers and styles can gain significant renown.