Is time running out for the wristwatch?

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.

iPod Nano 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."

Watch use is it today?

Even in this age of Blackberrys, iPads, and smart phones, all replete with the exact time, a good watch is much more than a time piece, it's the face you look at most frequently throughout the course of the day, it's the accessory that means the most to you, it's the marvellous piece of miniscule mechanics that accompanies you everywhere you go.

For some it's an investment (good watches appreciate in value), for some it's a family heirloom (I still have the watch my grandfather gave to my father), and for some it's a way to show off.

But for everyone who falls in love with a watch, a watch is the one item that goes everywhere with you, so that even in that lonely motel room on a business trip, or sitting as I am right now stranded in an airport, you can look at your watch and feel a sense of comfort. A watch is your best mechanical friend, wherever you go.

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?

Calculator watch 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.

Below is a selection of your comments

Interesting article. About 7 years ago I stopped wearing a wristwatch because I always had my phone on me. Last year I purchased an Android smartphone. This is a great device but the battery only lasts a day; and often I would find myself without the time. Because of this, I bought a new Casio watch earlier this year. Its not designer, but it does automatically update itself via the Rugby time signal.

Arthur Embleton, Beckenham

I'm 47 and haven't worn a watch for more than 20 years - well before mobile phones, ipods etc. I have a clock in the car on my motorbike, on my pushbike, plenty at home, on my mobile phone. I do however wear a watch - my father's, as jewellery and it is a clockwork one too.

Andrew Clarke, Sandbach

I used to wear a watch, but stopped about 12 years ago. Between my mobile phone, computer screens, clocks in every room at home (eg oven, bedside clock etc) I simply have no need for one. On the very rare occasions I do need to wear a watch, it feels uncomfortable.

Benjy, London, UK

I Don't need a wrist watch, I work in front a computer with the time, I have a mobile with the time, the oven, the TV, the car, and so the list goes on. But I wear one and trust it more that any other time piece. Eight O'clock very morning I check it against the Radio 4 pips, so I know that it is spot on, and I feel naked without it.

Alex Moon, Reading

As I sit here at my desk I can see the time on my computer, the time on my desk phone and the time on the clock on the building across the road... and the time on my watch. I've worn a watch since I was a young child and had my first "learn to tell the time" watch. While it seems the time is displayed everywhere you look my arm still feels naked without a watch. I like wearing it, I like that when its pouring down with rain you don't have to dig an expensive piece of digital equipment out from whatever pocket its stashed in to know the time. I can't see me ever getting rid of my watch.

Angela, Manchester

As a doctor, I used to love wearing my favoured time piece to work: an essential piece of equipment for timing pulses, respiratory rate and other vital signs. However, the infection control policies have removed everything below our elbows in the name of fighting infection. That's 200,000 fewer watch wearers in the work place.

A doctor, Sheffield

The 3rd most often used feature on a mobile phone after voice calling and sending texts is to check the time and use it as an alarm clock. I have a watch I paid a lot of money for sitting in a drawer nowadays to be worn as a piece of jewellery and because the watch needs winding, the time and date updating each time I do put it on I don't even bother because I have my phone with me at all times.

Josh Dhaliwal, Brighton

I'm a jeweller with a shop in Stowmarket, yes, it's true that a lot of young people just look at their mobile for the time but the rest of my customers still like a good watch. They are very brand aware and my second hand watch section with older mechanical watches is thriving. Watches from the sixties and seventies are really popular so I cannot see a downturn in sales at all.

Joe Dormer, Stowmarket, Suffolk

I thought this was the case until the other day when our 18 year old daughter proudly sent us a photo of her 'new' watch purchased for £15 from the local Cancer Research charity shop. It would seem that she needs a constant reminder on her Gap Year project that time keeping is crucial and the phone just wasn't the answer.

Louise Third, Nottingham

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