Time was, a watch was the costly landmark holiday gift for a spouse, a child home from college or the fiance. Now we have accurate watches that are cheap enough to qualify as a stocking-stuffers and reliable enough to plan a workday. Amazing. A watch that tells time, date, and wakes you in the morning can be bought for the price of a pair of designer pantyhose.
Affordability has encouraged a trend toward collecting and giving watches, thanks to the digital quartz revolution in the '70s that madefunction and style available at a low price.
There are still those believers who need the assurance of a mechanical movement at a five-figure price, but their numbers are dwindling.
"It's an anachronism, but the most costly watches are mechanical," says Susie Watson, advertising and public relations manager for Timex Corp. "And any quartz watch is really more accurate."
President Clinton himself wears the Ironman Triathlon Timex with the IndiGlo dial.
Watches are really moving in America, and industry sources polled by Modern Jeweler, the trade magazine, estimate that sales this year will reach 79.8 billion. That figure does not include luxury watches at $5,000 and up, inexpensive digital watches or premium specials such as the more than 60 million Night Before Christmas watches that Burger King offered in a pre-holiday promotion. The industry gauges that watches average out to 4 1/2 per each American.
So many watches, so little time to shop for holiday presents, but there are watches out there for everybody at every price.
"Unless a watch is made out of a precious metal like gold, there is no difference between a $50 Timex or an $800 bracelet-style," says Ms. Watson. "Precious metals and stones drive a price up, but they have no better materials in the works than a lower-priced watch and may even have fewer functions."
At the Watch Store on Lombard Street, manager Lisa Dowling says the hottest movers this season are the Swiss Army models, any and all fun Swatch designs, chronometers, Disney characters with Mickey in the lead, Jack Skelington faces, and the stripped-for-action steel and rubberized sport models.
Ms. Dowling says that the unisex look in watches is shifting to more feminine watches and that classic vintage looks with leather straps are very popular.
As in fashion, the retro trend is so strong that the Hamilton Watch Co. is having great success with reproductions of the models they made from the '20s to the '60s.
Jill Sommer, public relations director for Hamilton, says the works are updated quartz but the cases are the oldies. "Hamiltons which sold in the $100 range in the '40s can now be had for about $300. I have my father's old Hamilton," says Ms. Sommer. "The real old ones have sentimental value, but people who don't have the luxury of family heirlooms are turning to the reproductions."
That's right in line with shifts seen across the watch industry. At the annual spring European Watch, Clock and Jewelry Fair in Basel, Switzerland, which draws manufacturers and dealers in jewelry store watches, transitions were noted. Experts saw a move to stainless steel cases -- partly because the glitz of the '80s is over, partly as insurance against the threat of thievery.
Nonetheless, there is also a re-emergence of investment-quality ladies' watches with jewel bracelets and fine design.
In classic design the tonneau, or barrel shape, is seen as a fresher interpretation of the traditional tank style. And thinness is again a selling point, after a decade of macho-clunky complicated machines.
How complicated can watches get? Ron Kern, who handles sales and repair at the Watch Store, says there are watches that tell time, date, day and moon phase, and have multiple timers, stopwatches, alarm, multiple time zones, tide phases, calculator, thermometer and altimeter. There are watches that can take your pulse. For the ultimate couch potato, Seiko has a model that can be programmed to remote the TV set.
"They're called IQ watches," says Mr. Kern. It may take a high IQ to keep track of these functions.
Timex makes it easy: With a call to 1-800-367-8463, a Timex employee will gently talk a person through their watch complexities.
However, Ms. Watson has a reminder: "You would be surprised at the number of people who throw a watch away because they don't realize the battery has worn out."
The creative gift-givers can individualize gift watch bands. Debbie Edlow, owner of Bead It! in Towson, says people may come in with an old watch face, or buy one at her store for $15 to $20 to coordinate with whatever they want. Some folks, she says, go to a discount store and buy a really inexpensive watch, take off the band and make their own.
"They can do a band in pearls and gold, or glass beads, wood, turquoise," she says.
Depending on the beads selected, a band can be put together for as little as $20 or up to $70. "We have the stringing material and talk them through basic instructions," says Ms. Edlow. Or for she will do it for them. Time to get shopping.
Cartoon features make trends tick
Kiddie watch trends follow toys and cartoon features, but their low cost -- less than $10 -- allows parents to keep up with the times.
The Purple One, Barney, is the top seller, says Carol Fuller, public relations director for Toys-R-Us. Also strong this season are Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, and Jurassic Park watches, she says. Hanging in there are Batman and Transformer versions.
Many companies are making analog watches now in response to parents' complaints that digitals do not teach children about a sense of time. Timex and Swatch have introduced time-teaching models with direction dials and instructions, so now little hands can follow the big hand on their own.
No more "Is it time yet?"