The power of advertising is difficult to ignore, especially in the watch world. For many of us, early memories of wristwatches are inevitably tied to the ways in which they were marketed, deep in the pages of newspapers or on the wrists of stars from the silver screen. These experiences can create a lasting impact on the way we perceive a certain model, brand, or even an entire category of timepieces.
As watchmaking has undergone a fascinating evolution over the past century, so has the advertising which has promoted it around the world. The messages have certainly changed, as have the ways in which these are communicated. Looking back, some of these advertisements fill us with a sense of nostalgia, whilst others feel a little outdated or even very out of touch.
Some advertisements stick out in the mind more than others.
As you might expect, deciding where to focus this article was particularly difficult, as the topic can cover so many things. We could have looked at television, especially as the very first paid television commercial aired was for Bulova, in 1941. The role of motion pictures is also certainly worthy of attention, from Le Mans to the many chapters of the James Bond saga.
However, we chose to turn our eye to the oldest, and perhaps the purest form of advertising; print. From the iconic Rolex ads depicting explorers at the bottom of the ocean to Blancpain’s defiance against the disruption of quartz, much of watchmaking’s history can be traced through the pages of dusty, often discarded, magazines. The vast number of examples to draw on, as well as the rich imagery and language to examine, make it a particularly rich area to turn to. In doing so, we hope to offer an insight into how watches were perceived, used, and ultimately, sold.
Made For Action
The idea of watches as a tool is unquestionably dated by this point. In the world we live in, time is accessible almost everywhere, such that these mechanical objects have largely lost any real function or purpose, other than the emotional value we ascribe to them. However, this wasn’t always the case. There was a time when the depth rating of a diver’s watch or the accuracy of a perpetual calendar were of paramount importance to prospective buyers. Nowhere does this become more apparent than in some of the first advertisements for wristwatches.
The practical uses of watches have often been dramatised in these print ads, courtesy of Ad Patina.
The most obvious place to look are the true tool watches of the past century, which were designed for deep-sea divers, airplane pilots, race-car drivers, or certainly those who aspired to these activities. You can find ads from brands such as Rolex, Blancpain or Heuer, which combine rich, dramatic imagery with highly descriptive text. An early Heuer advertisement, where you see a Carrera and an Autavia strapped to the wrist, captures this sentiment perfectly, reading, “You don’t have to race or rally to find Heuer chronographs useful. You can time just about anything with them. Your long-distance telephone calls. Your speeches, your polaroid photos, the time left in parking meters.”
One of the original diving watches, the practicality of the Fifty Fathoms was constantly highlighted in its advertising, courtesy of Ad Patina.
As you might expect, Rolex were amongst the best at weaving this kind of narrative. Some of their earliest ads depict a crushed Oyster case, which testifies to how extremely Rolex pressure tested their timepieces. Another one simply shows a Datejust floating in a fishbowl, with a goldfish circling around it. Rather brilliantly, Hans Wilsdorf also used to provide his retailers with fish tanks, in which they could place the new waterproof models which he sent them, for those few sceptical customers who didn’t believe what they saw in the papers.
The connection between Rolex and water-resistance is a long-standing one that they have never shied away from, courtesy of Ad Patina.
The concept of a tool watch can be quite multifaceted as well. Indeed, if you look back at some adverts for Patek Philippe perpetual calendars, a similar approach is taken. As we are far more accustomed to these complications today, it is easy to forget that when they were first introduced, they solved a pressing problem, namely keeping track of the correct date. The reference 3448, which was released in 1962, as the world's first self-winding perpetual calendar wristwatch, had all of its technical features put in the spotlight. An advertisement from the period described it as “the watch that thinks,” almost as a precursor to the personal computers which would enter households a few decades later.
For a long period of time, Patek Philippe was on the cutting-edge of technology and science, which may seem counterintuitive to many nowadays, when the focus of the brand is more on craft and tradition. Indeed, their technological breakthroughs captured the attention of newspapers and the media in general, especially during the 1950s and ‘60s, when consumers were fascinated with futuristic concepts. The practicality of their innovations was at the core of their messaging.
The famous ‘If you were...’ campaign from Rolex has had many permutations and variations over the years, courtesy of Ad Patina.
Rather interestingly, it’s worth nothing that many of the print adverts from earlier periods rely heavily on written copy, likely due to the constraints that existed at the time on creating images which were visually exciting and attention-grabbing. Detailing all the merits of a watch also required going into some depth about the different testing conditions and technical features, in a way that could only be done through extensive prose. Looking back, it’s easy to wonder whether we would even have the attention span to engage with some of them today.
The watch world has always been overly focused on men – and yes, we’re aware of the irony of this statement, with a name like A Collected Man. Thankfully, things are now changing, but if we go through the pages of old magazines and newspapers, we can find many examples of when watches were promoted as hyper-masculine objects. As you might expect, many of these advertisements haven’t aged well, coming across as out-of-touch and tone-deaf, when we look back at them now. In fact, some of them can be quite shocking reminders of where things stood, just a few decades ago.
Masculinity in advertisements from this era was not incredibly subtle, courtesy of Ad Patina.
Perhaps the brand that has gained the most notoriety for this approach to marketing has been IWC, under the leadership of Günter Blümlein. Blümlein was arguably one of the most dynamic executives in horology, having played no small part in the revival of Jaeger-LeCoultre, A. Lange & Söhne and IWC. Whilst at the latter, he dedicated his efforts to targeting the brand’s watches towards a younger, wealthier, more thrill-seeking audience.
In doing so, he instigated the brand’s shamelessly masculine bias, which included taglines such as, “As complicated as a woman. Except on time.” or “Often seen on stewardesses' bedside tables.” It wasn’t until Georges Kern, the now CEO of Breitling, took hold of the reigns at IWC that this approach came to an end. In fact, he even removed scantily clad women from Breitling’s promotional material, as soon as he joined that brand.
This tone wasn’t restricted to European players either. Seiko – not a company that would immediately come to mind when this approach is discussed – ran a series of advertisements, in the late ‘60s, which suggested how madly jealous women would be of the “All-Man Man’s Watch.” Of course, it should be remembered that the watchmakers in charge of constructing these pieces would have had little say in the way they were promoted. These decisions would have been made by an external advertising agency, looking to position the product in certain way, for a particular market. Perhaps realising that the allure of Japanese efficiency wasn’t going to cut it in 1970s America, they went for a completely different approach, trying to appeal to man's more basic instincts.
The Link to Craftsmanship
Linking watches to craft and artistry is a familiar approach. In a world where these mechanical objects have almost entirely lost their primary function, many brands have turned to this kind of messaging, to justify why their creations are still relevant in the modern world. At times, this argument certainly feels like a valid one, whilst in other instances, it feels like an overly forced association, especially for manufacturers that have scaled-up and industrialised their production.
Emphasising the level of craftsmanship that goes into these watches is something that became particularly prevalent after the Quartz Crisis, courtesy of Ad Patina.
As you’ll certainly be aware, in the wake of the Quartz Crisis, the very existence of mechanical watches came under threat. This seismic event decimated the industry, with the number of watchmakers in Switzerland dropping from around 1,600 to 600. Whilst many manufacturers rushed towards quartz technology, a few forward-thinking individuals decided to go against the current. One such person was Jean-Claude Biver. In 1981, Biver and Jacques Piguet purchased the rights to Blancpain, a watchmaker that had gone out of business a decade earlier, under the pressure of quartz. Biver and Piguet rebuilt the brand from scratch, focusing it entirely on mechanical watches, from time-only pieces, to perpetual calendars and minute repeaters.
Their advertisements went hand and hand with this approach. Depicting their various models, they proudly claimed that, “Since 1735, there has never been a quartz Blancpain watch. And there never will be.” This was certainly a provocative and courageous statement, especially at a time when even more traditional manufacturers, such as Patek Philippe, Rolex or Audemars Piguet were developing a whole range of quartz-powered timepieces. However, it has been argued that this uncompromising approach is what helped Blancpain to not only survive, but thrive, in the years following its acquisition. About a decade after it was relaunched, the brand was sold for CHF 60 million, having initially be purchased for CHF 22,000. We’re certain that these advertisements, and the core approach behind them, played no small role.
No need to place a watch in this advert, Patek Philippe only had to sell the hand-made nature of their watches, courtesy of Ad Patina.
According to Nick Federowicz of Ad Patina, who has been studying and sourcing vintage advertisements for several decades, this wistful direction helped to refocus collectors. As he puts it, “similar to when you gaze at the movement of a mechanical watch with a grand complication, such as a perpetual calendar, you immediately appreciate the technical prowess of the watchmakers. Many of the ads for timepieces of this calibre also display the same beauty, cleverness and attention to detail.”
A brand which has always tapped into this sentiment is, of course, Patek Philippe. Though they are now most associated with their “Generations” campaign, the Genevan manufacture has long emphasised the craft which goes into their pieces. This has manifested itself in a whole range of different ways. Sometimes, the approach is pared back and simple. In the ‘70s, they ran a series of advertisements in the United States which showed some of the watches from their private museum, with the tagline “The watch as a work of art.” The reason these stand out is that none of the items pictured were in the current collection at the time. It wasn’t the pieces themselves which were being sold, but rather the idea of how they should be perceived. This format was used with a few different headlines, including “The watch only the hand can make” or “The creative hand.”
Two very different approached by the same company towards advertising their perpetual calendars, courtesy of Ad Patina.
In other instances, Patek Philippe took a more direct, educational approach. One advertisement for the original Nautilus, encouraged potential clients to write a letter to the manufacture in Geneva, to order their colour brochure on “The 7 Crafts of Patek Philippe.” At the very top of the page, in a font much larger than anything else, are simply printed the words “Patek Philippe. Hand crafted.” In an industry when many different associations can be made, sometimes the link to craft can be the most emotive, especially if it can truly be justified.
Exclusivity and luxury
Though the concepts of functionality, masculinity or craft have often been deployed, brands have also leaned into a much simpler idea – that of exclusivity. This type of messaging became especially prominent in the wake of the Quartz Crisis, when mechanical watches were increasingly promoted as luxury objects.
Introducing a new category of watch to the market, these adverts had a big task, courtesy of Ad Patina.
Two brands that used this successfully were Patek Philippe and Audemars Piguet, most notably with the Nautilus and the Royal Oak. Both of these models challenged the notion of what a luxury watch could be, with their stainless-steel designs being more expensive than most precious metal equivalents at the time. Taking a rather bold approach, these had to be matched by equally daring advertisements. One for the Nautilus proudly states, “One of the world’s costliest watches is made out of steel.” Similarly, the Royal Oak was accompanied by the words, “An acquaintance remarked that at £1,250, the Royal Oak stainless steel watch by Audemars Piguet was more expensive than most gold watches. Which was perhaps missing the point. The value of the Royal Oak is more a consequence of the way the metal has been used, the design reflecting its strength and character, than the material itself.” Acknowledging the high price for these pieces, and even celebrating it, was certainly a novel approach at the time.
Far removed from any sense of practicality, these watches were now being sold as emotional object, courtesy of Ad Patina.
Patek Philippe also published a visually striking advertisement for their Ellipse, around the same time, which plays on a similar theme. It depicts an anthropomorphised Ellipse, sitting at a dining table, with a glass of white wine and a cigar in an ashtray. The room is completely empty, with the exception of a waiter standing in the background. Rather simply, the page reads, “The exclusive circle of a Patek Philippe,” implying that no other watch can match it.
More recently, Patek Philippe also embraced a version of this idea with their recognisable “Generations” campaign. Launched in 1996, the idea for it came from the London-based advertising agency Leagas Delaney. Often depicting a father and son, or a mother and daughter, these carry the iconic tagline, “You never actually own a Patek Philippe. You merely look after it for the next generation.” With only minor tweaks over the years, what is perhaps most remarkable about these advertisements is the consistency they have shown over more than two decades. A large black and white image shows the parent and child, and a much, much smaller image of a watch in the corner.
Exclusivity was now a real comodity in the watch world, courtesy of Ad Patina.
The brilliance of this approach is that it firmly places a Patek Philippe above all other material objects. It’s not an expensive, luxury item, which one purchases for enjoyment. It’s something much more important than that, which transcends a single person, and is carried through to several generations. After all, what is more exclusive than the idea that even if you’re purchased a watch, you don’t truly own it?
Association and Endorsement
The idea of having a public figure endorse your product is nothing new. In fact, it has been a staple of this world ever since 1927, when Hans Wilsdorf gave Mercedes Gleitze a Rolex Oyster for her attempted swim across the English Channel. Her testimony was then published on the front page of several English newspapers, promoting her achievement, as well as the Rolex she wore. Since then, giving watches to explorers, divers, pilots, and boundary defying individuals, to then publicise the extreme conditions they were able to endure, has become a tried and tested approach.
The Rolex Testimonial has taken many different forms over the years, courtesy of Ad Patina.
As you’ll likely be aware, Rolex didn’t just associate themselves with people like Mercedes Gleitze or Sir Edmund Hillary. They also attached themselves to entire professions, notably through their “If you were…” campaign. Notable examples include, “If you were flying the Concorde tomorrow, you would wear a Rolex” or “If taming oil well fires were your job, you’d wear a Rolex.” They were far from the only brand to associate their pieces with certain professions. For example, Heuer, Breitling and Universal Genève proudly displayed their association with commercial airlines and national air forces, whilst Panerai would later commercialise its links to the Italian navy.
Brands were quick to look to the skies for partnerships and associations, courtesy of Ad Patina.
It wasn’t until NASA began their search for a watch that could survive in space that brands started to look even further afield. While Omega’s ties with the space agency are well-known and documented, what some may not realise is that they began to advertise their astronomic credentials two years before Neil Armstrong stepped foot on the moon. It is believed that Omega only learned that the Speedmaster had been approved by NASA for their first spacewalk when they saw pictures of astronaut Ed White during the Gemini IV mission, with a Speedmaster strapped to his wrist. As a result, they changed the model’s name to Speedmaster Professional, and began their space advertising campaign, which is still going strong today.
Omega have two of the longest running and most well-known partnerships in watchmaking, with James Bond and NASA, courtesy of Ad Patina.
In more recent times, as watches have lost their functional purpose, these types of associations have lost their relevance, and brands have had to adopt a different approach. This has often taken the shape of celebrity endorsements, where actors, musicians or athletes are enlisted by manufactures because of their wide-ranging influence and appeal. For example, to relaunch the Omega Constellation for women, Jean-Claude Biver enlisted supermodel Cindy Crawford in 1995, to become the face of the watch. In what became a template for future ambassadors, she appeared in advertisements, toured factories, and even helped in putting together certain designs. She still represents the firm to this day, as does her daughter, Kaia Jordan Gerber.
Rolex have always linked themselves with those who have nothing to do with watchmaking, courtesy of Ad Patina.
Unfortunately, this kind of celebrity endorsement can sometimes feel disingenuous. In many instances, brands merely pay recognisable figures to appear in their advertisements, in a way which feels rather superficial. Even Rolex, who pioneered the concept of promoting watches by association, is endorsed by many different athletes, who only ever wear their Rolex when they come off the court or field. This concept has, in recent years, been challenged by the likes of Richard Mille, who takes great pleasure in the fact that his watches get worn “on the battlefield,” as he puts it. Indeed, they often actually get worn in high pressure environments, from the tennis court to the Formula One racetrack.
Though we’re unable to cover all the different approaches to print watch advertising, we do hope that we’ve touched on some of the key ways in which the desirability of these mechanical timepieces has been generated and sustained. From their usability in extreme conditions to the craftsmanship needed to assemble them, brands have relied on all sorts of different tools to win over consumers. Some of them fill us with a certain romantic nostalgia, whilst others feel incredibly outdated in our current climate.
As has horology evolved, so has the way in which these pieces were marketed. As watches lost their primary function, mechanical timekeeping came under threat and these objects evolved into luxury purchases, the messaging around them also changed. The fact that a simple piece of paper, which some collectors now choose to hang on their walls, can capture so much, is part of the appeal of looking back on these.
Our thanks to Nick Federowicz from Ad Patina for supplying so much imagery for this article and providing some invaluable insight to these vintage adverts.