Is time running out for the wristwatch?

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Wristwatch close-up

One in seven people in the UK has no need for a watch, a survey suggests. Are mobile phone time displays killing off the wristwatch?

For decades, people have sworn they would be lost without one.

A faulty movement or dead battery sent them scurrying to the watch repairers, desperate to restore to their lives the order of a regular tick.

And in today's time-poor society, the need to keep tabs on the passing minutes is greater than ever.

But according to market analyst Mintel, the growth of portable digital products - phones, laptops, MP3 players - with time displays represents a gathering cloud over the watch industry.

In its survey of more than 1,500 people in the UK, 14% said they had no need for a watch. Mirrored across the country, that would amount to 7.2 million people, while the percentage doubled among 15 to 24-year-olds.

Mintel's analysts believe this will continue, with market figures showing a 9% increase in mobile phone ownership since 2005. The number of watch owners remained static.

Image caption,
Digital music player or wristwatch? You get to decide

"It's a growing trend that... is a potential threat to demand for standard wristwatches," says Mintel's Tamara Sender. "Young people who have grown up with technology are just as likely to check the time with a mobile phone."

Watches remain popular - 86% of people still own one, even if many of those last saw their timepiece buried somewhere in their sock drawer. Sales are expected to hold up - if not grow - as people replace broken ones.

But the concept of the watch could change, says Ms Sender.

Mintel cites as an example the new iPod nano, a miniaturised version of Apple's popular digital music player, which features a watch face and a clip on the back allowing it to be worn with a wrist-strap.

Such convergence of technology - as with phones, cameras, MP3 players and internet applications - is inevitable, according to Dr Ben Highmore.

Wristwatches are becoming "redundant" and will probably disappear in the coming decades, believes the cultural trends lecturer at the University of Sussex. "If you're in the habit of wearing a watch, you'll continue."

Digital natives

"But if you're growing up as a 'digital native' with a mobile phone and you don't get into that habit, then it's a leap to buy one."

Even so, he admits: "Buying a Rolex isn't about knowing the time." It's bound up with one of the historical reasons for carrying a watch - status.

At the beginning of the 20th Century the fashion was for pocket watches, says Jonathan Scatchard, author of Miller's guide to wristwatches.

"It was a bit of a rite of passage; a real man had a chain with a watch hanging from it," he says. During World War I, the practicalities of trench warfare led soldiers to attach them to the wrist with leather straps.

But it was not until improved technology, such as the self-winding mechanism, allowed for smaller, more convenient pieces, that they became the norm.

"Even in the late 1920s it could be thought of as a little bit effeminate if a man wore a wristwatch," says Mr Scatchard, who runs a website dedicated to another vintage status brand, Heuer.

Traditional wristwatches have seen off the threat of technology before - when consumers in the 1980s enjoyed an intense if short interest in the Japanese-pioneered digital watches - and will do again, he says.

"The fascination is with something made by hand that has a tick; almost like a heartbeat," he says.

"We all have mobile phones but they are out of date in two years and you never get attached to them."

Designer pull

But are pricey, carefully-crafted timepieces really likely to win over the emerging generation of wristwatch refuseniks?

Image caption,
A calculator on a watch - what's not to like?

While acknowledging this is the preserve of wealthy adults, Mr Scatchard says: "As younger people get older and start to have a bit more money, their attitudes will change."

It's a sentiment echoed by veteran watch repairer Robin Martin, who has experienced the industry's ups and downs from his Portsmouth repair shop since 1959.

"Absolute rubbish" is his response to the question of whether watch-wearing is in decline. "We're busier today than ever before. I haven't found any drop-off in use, even at the younger end," he says.

If young people are to be won over it will be through designer brands according to Mintel.

A quarter of those aged 15 to 24 preferred designer labels, although prices would likely put off young teenage buyers like the readers of Sugar magazine.

"Girls just want something bright and fancy, maybe with a bit of 'bling'," says Jo Sawkins, fashion editor at Sugar, adding that many girls choose cheap imitations of designer watches worn by celebrities.

Casio is tapping in to that youth market by using young stars such as singers Ke$ha and Pixie Lott to promote its Baby-G range of durable, brightly-coloured watches. But while some are available under £50, many cost more.

"Unless it's a birthday or Christmas gift, when it's something parents would spend money on, I don't know that a watch is something they would buy," says Ms Sawkins.

"It gets more to do with status the older they get."

Whether they come to view watches as essential in the way their parents did, however, only time will tell.

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