Upon arriving at last month’s Watches and Wonders Geneva trade show, attendees were greeted by staff wearing leather jackets, T-shirts, jeans, and sneakers — a strong visual cue from an industry attempting to shift towards a younger, more relaxed attitude in contrast to the stereotype of the buttoned up Swiss professional.

“The staff’s uniforms are the first impression of the show,” says Matthieu Humair, chief executive of the foundation behind the annual event. “It’s an important detail to convey the salon’s desire to open up to the younger generation by breaking with ‘classic’ codes, evolving beyond just suits.”

In this, Watches and Wonders serves as a microcosm of the watch world at large, striving to win over the “Zoomers” — or Gen Z, the generation born between 1997 and 2012. Of the 19,000 tickets sold to those attending the show’s three public days — an increase from last year’s inaugural two — 25 per cent went to under-25-year-olds, with an overall average age of 35. And this younger audience seems to be drawn to Geneva as a physical extension of the community they re becoming a part of online, spurred by a post-pandemic rise in watch-dedicated social media commentators and influencers.

In the US — the Swiss industry’s top export market with SFr4.2bn ($4.62bn) of watches exported in 2023 according to the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry — Gen Z is starting to step into its own, financially. According to Richemont-owned online retailer Watchfinder, this demographic makes up 20 per cent of the US population, with anticipated spending power in excess of $360bn. Within this market, Watchfinder’s report says 41 per cent of Gen Z-ers came into possession of a luxury watch in the past 12 months, crediting these purchases largely to social media trends and influencers.

Julien Tornare, chief executive of Tag Heuer, thinks younger clients are looking for “something more meaningful” than just a nice watch. “The brand values should align with their own, as almost an extension of their personalities,” he says. Watchmakers are responding to this idea by focusing heavily on storytelling and by highlighting sustainable products — which six in 10 Gen Zs and millennials are willing to pay more for, according to Deloitte’s latest Swiss Watch Industry Study.

Last week, Tag Heuer partnered with the New York-based fashion and lifestyle brand Kith on the reissue of the quartz Formula 1 watch. Tornare describes the Kith collaboration as a vehicle to attract collectors who were not around when the first F1 originally debuted in 1986 — a move that may have been superfluous, given the model’s existing cult following online, which eBay’s Mari Corella, general manager of luxury and sneakers, attributes to young enthusiasts on social media.

Julien Tornare (right) partnered with Ronnie Fieg’s clothing brand Kith (left) for the relaunch of the F1 quartz watch © John Parra/Getty Images

Ebay reports that, in March 2024, the vintage Tag Heuer F1 was their top-sold watch, second only to Omega’s Moonswatch. On eBay, globally, the top watch based on search growth (March 2024 compared to March 2023) was Cartier’s Baignoire watch — a pop-culture favourite re-released in 2023, whose relevance only increased when 22-year-old internet personality and Cartier ambassador, Emma Chamberlain, wore it around her neck as a choker.

That younger collectors are so drawn to these quartz-powered statement pieces indicates how fashion affects Gen Z’s purchase decisions.

While Deloitte reports that 40 per cent of Gen Z shoppers are likely to buy a watch to diversify an investment portfolio, style is as important as substance. Gen Z increasingly seeing watches more as jewellery than as timepieces, according to Watchfinder’s report.

In addition to prioritising condition, value, and a watch’s authenticity, 63 per cent of Gen Z buyers regard watches as an “accessory” for outfits, 62 per cent of them choosing it based on aesthetics and how “cool” it looks, challenging the archetype of the purist watch collector attracted only to movements.

Indeed, Gen Z’s collective habit of shopping on the secondary market is in line with their sartorial inclinations. “Many younger enthusiasts are sidestepping shopping with contemporary brands, often beginning their journey directly with vintage or pre-owned watches as an alternative to the, occasionally, overly exclusive approach of modern brands,” says Lorenzo Maillard, vintage expert and co-founder of the new watch magazine Heist-Out.

Although sustainability certainly factors into the popularity of the secondary market, price remains the main motivator to buy a pre-owned timepiece, according to Deloitte, with 48 per cent of all consumers seeking cheaper substitutes for the increasingly upmarket modern luxury offerings.

That there is a wider stylistic variety on the secondary market is a coincidence, which Sotheby’s capitalised on with colourful lots sold at their “underground auction” Rough Diamonds, in partnership with Heist-Out during — but not part of — the Watches and Wonders event.

A third of the bidders in Sotheby’s Rough Diamonds auction were under 40

“The curation definitely tapped into this trend around highly designed, unique pieces,” says Josh Pullan, head of the luxury division at Sotheby’s. Although the collection featured big-name brands like Cartier and Patek Philippe — priced between SFr2,000 and SFr50,000 — it focused on lesser known, more jewellery-forward references, “pieces that are perhaps overlooked, but certainly trending with a younger audience at the moment.”

Of the 200 registered participants, a third of bidders were under the age of 40 — with six bidders in their 20s — mirroring the share of millennial and Gen Z buyers with Sotheby’s Watches as a whole. The last five years have seen a material rise in Gen Z auction participation — with bidding volumes accelerating during the pandemic and then doubling year-on-year in 2023. Geographically, Asia became the region with most Gen Z buyers last year, closely followed by the consistently active North American market.

As Gen Z continues to grow in purchasing power and representation — it will make up a quarter of the population of the Asia-Pacific region by 2025, says McKinsey — it is easy to write off any effort to woo them as a simple money grab. But the big picture goal is meaningful longevity.

“What I really love is that, at least with everyone I meet and interact with, they really want to understand watches — the art, craftsmanship and history behind them,” says Carina Ertl, chief marketing officer of Tourneau Bucherer USA, who has organised culturally aligned initiatives, such as a year-long media partnership with Hong Kong-based fashion and streetwear company Hypebeast.

This is reflected in Watches and Wonders’ inclusion of consumer-facing immersive workshops, with initiatives designed to appeal to younger watch enthusiasts and students seeking a career in watches — people who will be necessary to the industry’s survival as older watchmakers enter retirement. As for the commercial need to appeal to ever-elusive youth — Gen Z today, Gen Alpha tomorrow — the best strategy is staying true to a core identity.

“That is the difference between fashion and luxury,” says Edouard Meylan, chief executive of the independent watch brand H Moser & Cie. “Luxury is about the long term, whereas fashion is about the trends. I think that’s what’s saved the watch industry over the years: the brands who went through time evolving, but sticking to their guns, careful not to fall into the opportunistic trap of jumping onto every new thing.”

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