Insight – The Watch Scene – Will The 2020s Be The Decade of Glitz?

A note on images: most are of watches released in 2021 or 2022.

For years now I have sustained multiple text conversations with a few different small groups of watch-nerd friends. We text multiple times a day, always about watches. We share links to eBay auctions and watch articles, but mostly we opine, debate and even argue, the latter softened by emojis, of course. We’re all good Gen-Xers with a critical ironic eye on the world around us, often questioning—or just rolling our eyes at—the establishment, wondering what the hell is going on. These are healthy and open discussions, and I enjoy them immensely.

Recently, I’ve found myself texting about the glitz of the watch scene, and it’s clear from these texts that I think glitz has recently taken center stage. A good friend suggested via text that the glitz is nothing new, to which I retorted that if it’s not entirely new, then there is certainly more glitz in the 2020s than there used to be. I date the turning point right around the end of 2019, beginning of 2020. 

A Brief History of Horological Glitz

Perhaps we should go back further and note that watches were quite glitzy in, say, 1799, but that only goes to prove my point that we are today awash in superfluous decoration—a.k.a. glitz—as the Enlightenment was very much into ruffled shirts for men, bodices and hoops for the ladies, and scrolly stuff all over everything. We find this high-decoration, or glitz, persisting into the 1800s and peaking with the Victorians, who seemed particularly into displaying wealth via superfluous decoration. 

WWI changed the hearts and minds of the children of Victorian and Edwardian Europe, and by the 1930s we see a marked shift to reserved watch styles, best epitomized in the Patek Philippe Calatrava. Cut to the 1950s and 1960s and understated dress watches and tool watches were the new norm. Glitz had taken a second-seat to utilitarianism and understatement. Simultaneously, blue jeans became daily wear along with flannel shirts, khakis and other military and work wear. I was born into that vibe in 1970, and imprinted on understatement along with the hippies all around me.

The watches of the 1970s did go a bit disco, and tool watches went upscale with steel integrated-bracelet models like the Royal Oak and so on. Then watches of the 1980s went full on glitz, and we will consider that rough decade more closely below. But by the time grunge came along in the 1990s, Panerais and other toolish monstrosities became the norm alongside still-small and relatively understated dress watches. Watches in the 1990s could be gaudy, but they weren’t particularly glitzy. By the 2000s we saw a postmodern looking-back to retro watch styles emerge, which gave way to a massive revival of interest in mechanical watches and a long stretch of vintage-inspired styles. That trend persists today, though I think the retro trend is ebbing as glitz takes over in the 2020s.

It’s easy to say that fashion is cyclical, but I can’t find a repeatable pattern in this brief history of glitz. What I see, instead, is a postmodern melange of styles frothing into a confusing mess. However, from within that mess, I see glitzy watches emerging as a forward trend.

Our Decade of Glitz

What we have today is like some hyper-real, bejeweled version of those old high-society fashions of Europe and America. Many watches are now superfluous displays of wealth and, presumably, status. Yes, watches have always played this role to some extent, but not always with so much glitz, as I’ve noted above.

Perhaps today’s horological glitz can be accounted for in the recent emphasis on luxury, a term that I understood to be somewhat shunnable up until quite recently. One can see a tentative approach to luxury in the use of phrases like the new luxury and affordable luxury and inclusive luxury, all of which we’ve seen major watch brands use as they dip a toe into what they surely must perceive to be an emerging market. All these phrases belie a kind of shame about asserting that watches are luxury items, despite that being plainly the case. Then, around 2019 or 2020 the qualifiers were stripped away and the watch scene got bombarded with luxury.

Indeed, there is a bonafide luxury revival going on, a kind of fuck it moment born of what I won’t speculate too broadly, but I haven’t seen anything like it since the 1980s. Whatever down-to-earth aesthetic we had up until the 1980s was tossed aside as the hippies became yuppies, tax reforms favored the rich, and people like the previous president of the USA became (I can’t believe I’m going to say this) tastemakers. Maybe today’s glitz is his fault. Yes, I know he wears a Vacheron, but have you seen his toilet?

Regardless of blame, what seems to have happened is that luxury once played very close to the line between classy and glitzy, but mostly favored classiness, whereas here in the 2020’s the fuck it attitude seems to have sent a lot of watch enthusiasts dashing across that line into glitz like kids playing a massive game of British Bulldog (Google it if you don’t know).

It would be fair to suggest that I’ve become jaded or disillusioned and just am burnt out on watches as luxury items, but I present throughout this essay what I think is convincing photographic evidence of the glitzing of the watch scene. Look at these images. These kinds of watches weren’t around a mere five years ago, not in these numbers and not on the front page of every watch publication globally.

Part of the problem is that all the great tool watches are gone, or they cost way too much, or you just can’t get one because tool watches, too, have become big-ticket luxury items. Understated copping of working class fashions by the upper classes has taken a big hit, such that even a denim work-shirt can cost you $2500 and up today, which basically undoes the whole point of copping working class fashions as far as I’m concerned (I still wear vintage clothes, e.g.). The last time we saw this kind of glitzy fashions was during the 1980s. Think Jordache jeans and YSL at Penny’s and so on. A real mess of bad taste and Princess Diana worship and so on with the gaudy decade that killed disco and launched hair metal.

Are we really back to a moment like the indulgent and undemocratic 1980s? If so, why?

I’m not sure I can make a decided call on why we seem to be reviving the bad taste of the 1980s glitz, and I’m not sure that even if I could that such an analysis would be particularly interesting or helpful. Again, I instead submit photographic evidence.

The Particulars of 2020s Glitz

Nothing embodies this moment of 2020s glitz like the bejeweled watches, which I think I can squarely blame John Mayer for. It’s as if John yelled to the world British Bulldog! and everyone started a mad dash for rainbow bejeweled timepieces. I also think that recent changes in editorial staff at major watch publications reflects this moment, and more than a few of my text threads have tried to implicate watch publications that became commerce sites for this shift. But I think the glitz phenomenon runs deeper than that; I think it has to do with a serious downgrading of basic humility and an upgrading of, well, glitz. That is to say, I think the publications are chasing the trend, not starting it. John Mayer, however, may have been the one to start the trend, certainly with the help of publications, but not because of publications.

I’m certain that my personal preference for restrained tastes are both uptight and rather white-guy of me. Maybe even East Coast white-guy, more specifically. Consider that acknowledged as a very real possibility. But there’s an inter-cultural dynamic to be considered, too.

Hip-hop has certainly been unafraid of Rollies paved with diamonds going back to the 1990s when I regularly admired those time pieces in recording studios when tracking rap records. And there’s the influence of Asian culture, perhaps Middle Eastern culture, and so on with these places where democratic humility via uptight Protestant restraint has never been a thing and certainly isn’t a thing now—all this for reasons beyond my culture-critic purview, but witnessable if only by looking at what the Swiss watch industry exported to those countries for about a decade or more before N. America and Europe began to want the same glitzy watches in this decade, the 2020s.

Maybe I’m wrong about the appropriation, but if there’s one thing I believe about N. American upper-tastes in particular it’s that these tastes are almost always predicated on appropriation from some other. Perhaps my own tastes are just hung up on some humble working class appropriation of the 1950s-70s, back when jeans and tee shirts were radical expressions of generational angst and liberation and so on. I am a hippie at heart, so that adds up.

Somehow all of this glitz seems not only related to John Mayer’s collection of rainbow Rolex Daytonas, but also to the rise of the steel integrated bracelet watch, which started somewhere around 2018-19. Again, I have no idea why that was, but I can remember being able to buy, say, a Royal Oak for like nothing in 2015 compared to the you-can’t-even-get-one market of 2020. Those integrated-bracelet watches started in the 1970s as luxury sports watches, but by the 1980s they’d become really glitzy in gold and with jewels. Rolex was off to the races with their gold everything, two-tone everything, bejeweled everything, and Rolex of the 1980s is really glitzy! But why the fancy-ass sports watch and especially the integrated-bracelet watch became smash hits of the 2020s is—like all of this—a phenomenon I can’t really explain. But it sure seems evident.

Narcissism and Glitz

Setting aside the source(s) of the glitz phenomenon, I am still stuck with the question as to whether there has, or has not, been some notable shift in the watch scene toward glitz. And I am simply convinced there has been, and that the images of the watch releases from 2022 adorning this essay stand as clear evidence of this shift. And, to be frank, I’m not really writing to register my distaste (though to not do so would be disingenuous), but rather to just offer some insight—or at least questions—based on a mounting realization that glitz is way up in the 2020s so far.

I will restrain any further judgment of what’s going on here, but I will ask the question as to what this change might be reflecting. What values does all this glitz reflect? Allowing that you accept along with me that there has been a shift, what ideas or values or cultural urges are motivating this shift?

It’d be easy to blame social media and its inherent propagation of narcissism, but maybe the answer really is that easy. Maybe social media has turned all of us into kids on the field hearing the words British Bulldog! and taking off in a mindless mad dash across the line from class toward glitz. Maybe it was a slow creep of fuck it that kind of surged into a craze for glitz. Is it as simple as blaming social media? 

I do know that many cultural analysts and concerned sociologists believe social media and digital technology has fostered a kind of pandemic of narcissism—so bad that young women and girls are experiencing especially the negative effects of being objectified minute-by-minute via our phones. Narcissism really is on the rise, and maybe all this glitz in the watch scene is just a reflection of our collective narcissism run amok. If so, I think it’s fair to lay blame for the horological glitz of the 2020s at least partially on social media.

I really have to resist a strong urge to turn this essay into a Manifesto for Humility and Understatement, so before I do such a thing, perhaps it’s best just to stop here and let the images tell the story for me. Whatever is causing all this glitz, I really do have compassion for everyone and only hope that we don’t look back on the 2020s as we do the 1980s and wonder how we let things get so far out of hand. The only natural course would be something like grunge taking over in the 2030s, and I’m not sure I want to live through a decade of that reactionary nonsense again. Or maybe I do.