There had never been a time when Debby Duchesneau left the house with a naked wrist. For six decades, she had always worn a watch: a quick buy at the local drugstore, a random Macy’s purchase, even a gift from a friend. “I wanted to know the time, but I was never into watches,” said Ms. Duchesneau, 63.
Then, early last year, her watch — a HP1 Automatic from Brew Watch Co. of New York — started losing time.
“I did an online search and realized I could directly contact the owner of the watch company,” she said, adding, “I was amazed.”
During the six weeks that Ms. Duchesneau, a speech-language pathologist who lives in southeastern Connecticut, had her watch in for servicing, she continued her internet explorations, delving into podcasts and discovering other small horological brands.
Because the school where she works moved to remote learning early last spring, Ms. Duchesneau had time to do what she called “a deep dive into watches.” She even ordered one, the Brew Mastergraph, which Brew Watch marketing describes as having been inspired by the colors and textures of coffee and espresso machines.
It “was the only model that wasn’t sold out,” she said. “When the box came in summer and I opened it, I got tears in my eyes because it was so much more beautiful than I anticipated. Then I just kind of went crazy.”
She purchased 19 watches in eight months, ending up with a 21-piece collection. “‘What am I saving my money for?’ I thought,” she said. “I can’t travel, but I could get Covid and drop dead.”
The watch market seems to reflect Ms. Duchesneau’s sense of “carpe diem,” exploding in both popularity and price. In auction sales at Sotheby’s, for example, 50 percent of buyers in 2020 were new to the category, an increase of 20 percent on the previous year, and 40 percent of all auction participants were younger than 40, according to a year-end report by Sam Hines, the worldwide head of Sotheby’s watches.
“These are nonessential, passion items that no one needs but that become part of your identity,” said Reginald Brack, an industry expert and former watches and luxury analyst for NPD Group. “People didn’t stop celebrating graduations or weddings; they just purchased luxury items differently.”
Although there is a bit of irony in acquiring a timekeeping device when the world is rather stuck in time, both watch enthusiasts and first-time consumers seemed to flock online. Ninety-two percent of Sotheby’s watch lots last year were sold to online buyers, a 60 percent increase from the previous year, and the average price of watches bought from Sotheby’s via the internet rose 50 percent in that same period, Mr. Hines said.
It is not unusual for people to steer to hard assets during tricky or confusing times, but watch sales have defied expectations. In March and April, “when we were locked down, there was an 84 percent decline” in sales of watches $3,000 or more at brick-and-mortar stores in the United States, Mr. Brack said. “The market almost shut down. But then June through August had a really speedy recovery, proving to be stronger months than the year prior.”
Timing is certainly everything, in particular for Gary Getz, 65. A management consultant living in Portola Valley, Calif., who described himself as “mostly retired,” Mr. Getz collected his more than 50 vintage, luxury and independent timepieces over 30 years.
But it wasn’t until the pandemic hit that he found himself waking before dawn, preapproval completed and credit card in hand, for three separate limited-edition watch drops. And, he said, “purchasing online is something that, not long ago, was unthinkable to me.”
In June, for example, he scored one of the 288 37-millimeter Kurono Anniversary Green Mori watches from Kurono by Hajime Asaoka, an independent Japanese watchmaker. Sitting alongside his vintage Mathey-Tissot, Rolex Oyster Perpetual in turquoise blue, vintage Cartier Tank and smattering of Patek Philippes, to name a few, “for me, watch collecting is like going shopping in my own safe every morning.”
While under stay-at-home orders, a watch a day hasn’t been enough to satiate Daniel Sperling, 28, the founder of Boston Watch Shots, a New England-based, Instagram-centric community of watch enthusiasts.
A corporate lawyer, he does“a midday switch” regularly. “When I used to go into the office my schedule was very set: work, gym, shower,” he said. “Now I don’t have to commit to wearing the same watch all day.”
For a break from his Rolex Polar Explorer, Mr. Sperling purchased six watches during the past year and started an Instagram feed to showcase photographs of his now 25-piece collection in front of Boston landmarks.
“My wife and I needed to get outside, so I started chronicling my walks and then it evolved into an online group chat,” he said. With 120 members who chat daily, including Ms. Duchesneau, Mr. Sperling credits the lockdown with pushing him to establish the site.
Although both consumers and brands were quick to pivot online once retail shops were closed, timepieces are an inherently tactile product. Trunk shows and watch meetups ceased, but some brands found ways to get their wares on the wrists of some of their most eager collectors and enthusiasts.
Jaeger-LeCoultre’s Las Vegas boutique hosted “my own private roadshow of about a dozen watches,” said Colby Clegg, 39, vice president of technology for the software company Inductive Automation. In November, Mr. Clegg invited seven masked friends for a socially distanced, outdoor event near his home in Roseville, Calif.
“I use my watches as a way to feel normal and to stop worrying that the world is going to end,” Mr. Clegg said. And at the event, he purchased two timepieces: a Reverso Tribute Tourbillon for himself and a Rendez-Vous Moon for his wife.
With more than 50 horological devices in the house, Mr. Clegg also bought a 32-watch waterproof Pelican case, complete with an automatic purge valve to equalize air pressure “because I don’t want all these super expensive watches just lying around.” He said the recurrent wildfires in California made him think about storage — and portability — of the couple’s watches. Then he quickly added: “But when I’m in my office, I open up the case every day. It’s an escape.”
If the pandemic has encouraged people to buy watches as a means of travel, even if just emotional trips, it also has inspired watchmakers to change course.
For Maximilian Büsser, owner of the Swiss-made MB&F brand, January and February had the best sales for those two months since he founded the brand in 2005. And that has been continuing: “For every watch crafted this year, we get four orders.” But then 2020 wasn’t actually all that bad. The brand made 215 pieces and its retailers, pulling from inventory, sold 260.
“As humans, the web has become our worst nightmare. We can’t do what we want and we can’t hug,” he said, “but that doesn’t mean we can’t connect via our product and the time we’re giving. It is my heartbeat and my art.”
MB&F has been known for its limited editions that, once sold out, are never made again. And although Mr. Büsser, now 54 and based in Dubai, has often said he does not want to grow the company, he has decided to alter its production strategy. Some limited editions, starting with the LM 101, have become limited-production annual drops, so customers who don’t manage to secure pieces the first year could try again.
“The pandemic has taught me that it is a symbiotic relationship; our customers are not customers but patrons, and that feel good factor is multiplied by 10 when they become a part of the creative process,” Mr. Büsser said. “That’s our new normal.”