In 2017, shortly after Georges Kern became the chief executive of Breitling, his personal Instagram account began to draw comments from people with strong opinions about his plans to reposition the Swiss watchmaker as a purveyor of “casual luxury.”
Although he encountered his fair share of critics on the platform, Mr. Kern also quickly noticed “who was adding value to the discussion,” he said on a recent phone call.
What Mr. Kern did next might have surprised his more conservative colleagues in the Swiss watch industry: He invited a few of those Instagram commenters to join a new advisory board. The group, which ranges from 25 to 30 people and includes journalists, clients and collectors, gathers in Switzerland once a year; its most recent meeting was in late August in Geneva.
“We show them new products, concepts or ideas one to two years in advance,” Mr. Kern said. “And here and there, we change our mind or our approach to designs, and test designs in other directions.”
“The Chronomat, which we launched last year in April, with the famous bullet steel bracelet — the design was confirmed by one of these advisory board meetings from people who commented on my Instagram,” he added. “This is the strength of social media.”
As a platform for discovery, connection and, increasingly, commerce, Instagram has become the backbone of the luxury watch industry since its introduction in 2010.
The degree to which the photo-sharing app shapes design, however, is a delicate subject. Bound by centuries of heritage, most watchmakers insist that what happens, or doesn’t happen, on the app has no bearing on the look and feel of their products.
“While Instagram has changed the way we approach content creation and communication, it has no impact on our timepiece design codes, which are created with the same principles and values that have guided our maison for the past 266 years,” Laurent Perves, Vacheron Constantin’s chief commercial officer, wrote in an email.
Yet it’s clear there is a correlation between the kinds of watches that generate engagement — likes, comments and shares — and those that catch fire in the marketplace. (In Vacheron’s case, its Overseas Everest prototype received a lot of positive comment when the mountaineer and photographer Cory Richards wore it in 2019, something that Mr. Perves said “comforted” the brand and led it to introduce two limited editions last month.)
“Everyone is seeing, partially driven by Instagram, that what sells now are 39- to 42-millimeter stainless steel sport watches with integrated bracelets and blue or gray dials,” said Stephen Pulvirent, a former editor at the watch publication Hodinkee who recently founded his own creative agency, Rime & Reason, in Santa Monica, Calif.
“That’s what everyone wants, whether they’re $5,000 or $50,000,” Mr. Pulvirent added. “And watchmakers say, ‘Fair, we’ll make that.’”
Catalyst For Creation
A decade ago, when Instagram was still in its infancy, few people in the Swiss watch trade would have imagined a social media platform could have that much sway.
Anish Bhatt — known as @watchanish, one of the industry’s original influencers — said that when he went to the 2011 Baselworld watch fair with his new handle, he found Instagram to be a tough sell.
“At that time, no one believed social media was a platform to talk about luxury goods,” Mr. Bhatt said on a recent call from his home in Cyprus. “It was a place to share pictures of your lunch.”
That thinking persisted for years. It was November 2015 when Rolex, the world’s most popular luxury watch brand by any measurement, posted its first image on Instagram (a blurry shot of a Rolex clock at CHIO Aachen, the World Equestrian Festival, in Germany).
But as smartphone cameras improved, allowing better macro photography, watch lovers began to come around. Over the past few years, and especially in the midst of pandemic lockdowns that gave people ample time to spend on social media, the industry has done a 180-degree turn. While the platform’s impact on watch design may be oblique, it has become so central to the way timepieces are introduced, promoted and sold that the question could be: If a new watch design doesn’t appear on Instagram, does it even exist?
With the IWC Big Pilot “Tribute to 5002,” the answer is no, quite literally. First built as a prototype, the watch was made into a limited edition of 100 pieces only after Christoph Grainger-Herr, IWC’s chief executive, posted an image of the piece, nicknamed Safari, on his personal channel, in June 2017.
“I happened to be on safari at the time, in Kruger National Park in South Africa,” Mr. Grainger-Herr recalled in an interview at a recent IWC event in Los Angeles. “I said, somewhat foolishly, that if I get 50 confirmations in the comments of people saying they would buy it, I’ll make it. We got more like 250 comments within 15 minutes.
“We sent out all the reservation forms by DM,” Mr. Grainger-Herr added. “It was our first accidental foray into social commerce.”
More recently, Instagram helped to confirm the interest around an unexpected revival at Girard-Perregaux. “We posted a picture of a watch called a Casquette, produced by Girard-Perregaux in the ’70s, with a very ’70s design, and people went crazy,” said the brand’s chief executive, Patrick Pruniaux. “One of these watches is now being produced with a partner for a charity auction.”
Reimagined for the Nov. 6 Only Watch auction in Geneva, the one-off timepiece — a remake of a funky, spaceshiplike model that Girard-Perregaux debuted in 1976 — was made in collaboration with the London-based watch customizer Bamford Watch Department.
While Mr. Pruniaux declined to confirm whether a commercial edition of the Casquette reboot is in the making (“Maybe,” he said. “How cryptic is that?”), he acknowledged that the reaction a model receives on Instagram “gives us an opportunity for remodification.”
“Watch companies are based in Switzerland — in our case, in a small city in Switzerland,” Mr. Pruniaux added, referring to La Chaux-de-Fonds. “We are not always in contact with the end consumer. I wouldn’t say we are changing our strategy, but for sure we are listening.”
Today, the watch market’s mania for a handful of brands — including Rolex, Audemars Piguet and Patek Philippe — is loud and clear on Instagram. A matter of some debate, however, is whether the obsession with these makers and their most coveted steel sport models is a direct consequence of their popularity on the platform, or merely a reflection of it.
“I don’t know what is the chicken or the egg,” said Arthur Touchot, the Geneva-based head of digital strategy for Phillips’ watch department.
Yoni Ben-Yehuda, head of watches at Material Good, a New York-based luxury retailer, is convinced that Instagram’s algorithms ensure “all we see are these crazy hot Royal Oaks and Rolexes and that is how they become what we want,” he said.
“It’s like the ‘Life of Brian’ scene,” Mr. Ben-Yehuda added. “‘You’ve got to think for yourselves. You’re all individuals! Yes, we’re all individuals!’”
For all the complaints about how Instagram breeds conformity, however, there is plenty of evidence to suggest the platform also has elevated smaller, experimental makers.
“Every brand, every sort of product, every weird eccentric thing has found its public,” said Maximilian Büsser, owner and creative director of the boutique brand MB&F.
Asher Rapkin, co-founder of Collective Horology, a California-based group that develops timepieces in collaboration with watch brands, said the app has replaced word of mouth as collectors’ primary vector for learning about smaller, artisanal brands. “Without Instagram, it’s hard to imagine the success of independent watchmakers like Grönefeld or Habring,” he said. “It’s opened eyes to makers, references and patronage that wouldn’t have been there without it.”
And therein lies a key to understanding the modern-day watch market: While access to certain sought-after timepieces has remained exclusive because of their high prices and highly limited production, information about them — not to mention a constant stream of gorgeous photographs — is available to anyone willing to follow a hashtag down the horological rabbit hole (try #watch, #wristshot and #watchfam, for starters).
“Forty or 50 years ago, products and information were both exclusive,” said Austen Chu, founder of WristCheck, a pre-owned watch retailer in Hong Kong. “You only knew of brands like Audemars Piguet if your family taught you, or you saw ads in magazines targeted toward the rich.” (He collaborated with the house on its first Royal Oak Perpetual Calendar entirely in titanium, released in January 2020.)
Now that the abundance of information available on Instagram has led to demand for certain watches far outstripping supply, how to capitalize on that awareness continues to be a sticking point for most watchmakers, said Ted Schachter, an associate professor and assistant chairperson of the advertising and marketing communications department at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York.
Instagram is most influential when it shows people how they can use products, Professor Schachter said. “How do people wear your watch? How do they accessorize it? Showcase your product with activities people can recognize and encourage them to share that with you.”
While that kind of real-world perspective abounds on TikTok, where user-generated content depicts watches “in the box, on the hand, wrist rolls, that kind of thing,” said Benjamin Arabov, chief executive of the luxury watchmaker Jacob & Company, Instagram continues to showcase professionally produced, highly curated images and videos — all of which may be to watchmakers’ detriment.
“I look at Rolex, Cartier, Patek Philippe — it’s basically just their magazine ads in an Instagram,” said Brynn Wallner, a.k.a. @dimepiece, an account that highlights the intersection of pop culture, women and watches. “Really glossy, super produced. Big blocks of the grid, like six images, are one campaign. Nothing shot on iPhone.
“But the pages that get the most engagement are the opposite of that, especially for the Gen Z audience,” Ms. Wallner added. “When I see a glossy photo of a watch, it does nothing for me. I need some humanity in order to even begin to think about these objects that are way out of my price range.”