03/08/2024
 6 minutes

International Women’s Day: We Belong to the WatchFam

By Sharmila Bertin
Women in the Watch Industry

Women in the Watch Industry

Every year, we have to remind certain people that no, March 8th isn’t “Women’s Day,” nor is it an opportunity to celebrate your partner for 24 hours by running to the shops and buying her flowers, lingerie, and other products as inconsequential as they are useless. Even if I still receive the occasional offbeat newsletter suggesting that I buy this or that watch to celebrate the simple fact of belonging to the female gender, I have to admit that mentalities are changing and that these messages are – thank God! – becoming increasingly rare.

Far from being another Valentine’s Day (a subject for another article), March 8th was officially deemed International Women’s Day in the 1970s by the UN to legitimize the struggle waged by women since the end of the 19th century. It’s a day dedicated to feminist activism for equal fundamental rights, because, surprising as it may seem to some, we’re all human beings – yes we are!

And we make up almost half the world’s population (49.6%) – that’s around four billion people who have the right not only to exist, but also to grow up healthily, go to school, feel safe, vote, decide what to do with their bodies, choose a career, travel the planet, earn an equal wage… In short, to be able to live freely, decently, and serenely.

Progress Is Slow

To be completely frank, watchmaking is an industry that suffers from a bit of sexism. Apparently, mechanics are considered a man’s business (hellooo, the first wristwatch was created by the greatest watchmaker in the universe for a queen, who was one of his most important and loyal customers), and prices charged by mid-range and high-end brands are not always accessible to women who, let’s remember, generally earn significantly less than their male counterparts.

With half of the world's population, there are plenty of wrists to dress.
Making up half of the world’s population, there are plenty of female wrists to dress.

Of course, I can’t speak for all my sisters, but I am sharing what I’ve experienced and observed in my 19 years in the sector. However, the good news is that the industry is aware of this dichotomy and, in tandem with a few brands, is gradually trying to be more inclusive. After all, we’re talking about four billion women – that’s a lot of wrists to put watches on!

End of the diamond-pearl-flower combo?

For a long time, feminine watchmaking was pretty much reduced to shrinking models that had been designed for men and adding a diamond ribbon here, a few floral-inspired engravings there, some mother-of-pearl, and plenty of pastel hues. This was all done in an effort to infantilize women who were “too daft” to understand the true beauty of mechanical watchmaking – hence, most women’s watches were powered by quartz movements.

In 2011, I began my career as a journalist specializing in watchmaking. I simultaneously began speaking out against this systematic miniaturization process that dampens creativity and against the perceived need to categorize watches by gender. I’m not talking about categories like sports watch, chronograph, etc., but rather defining who should wear any given timepiece.

Time Has No Gender

One of the few things that we are all subjected to equally is time. It weaves through our lives, whether we’re young or old, rich or poor, of one nationality or another, male or female… It’s universal, and brands should be taking this into account before deciding to target a product to a specific clientele. Even if a gradual evolution is taking place, the majority of brands still maintain a gender divide.

Physical barriers can hinder people with smaller wrists to put on watches they actually like.
Perceived barriers can hinder people with smaller wrists from wearing the watches they actually like.

When I search for a watch on a website, I’d like to be able to do it by material, functionality, diameter, or any other characteristic, not because a watch company has decided what I should be wearing. Freedom of choice is a fundamental right, and placing psychological barriers in the way, i.e., advising a woman to choose one timepiece over another because it belongs to the right gender, restricts that. It’s frustrating, hinders the potential purchase, and reflects a sexist attitude. The excuse that “it depends on the market,” because some countries supposedly prefer this categorization, is invalid.

Mechanics for All

The claim that women are more “comfortable” with quartz is as irritating as it is ubiquitous. As I mentioned, the first-ever wristwatch was not only ordered by a woman (in 1810), purchased by a woman (in 1811), and worn by a woman (in 1812), it was also mechanical.

It’s not really a question of affinity, but rather one of cultural norms – that, and supply. The more mechanical watches are produced, the more people will wear them. By democratizing these movements and working on versions with smaller diameters but equivalent levels of performance – as Bvlgari is doing with the Piccolissimo – we can finally banish the preconceived notions about women’s preferences. My grandmother wore mechanical watches, my mother wears mechanical watches, my daughter wears mechanical watches, and we’re not even a family with a rich watchmaking tradition.

The “Gender-Fluid” Wave

To combat the diktats of our heteronormative society, “gender-fluid” or “non-binary” societal shifts, i.e., blurring the boundaries between masculine and feminine without reference to sexual orientation, have brought with them a wider view of the world, which infiltrated our industry around five years ago.

Hublot's Big Bang embraces a spectrum of colors and sizes, catering to both men and women.
Hublot’s Big Bang embraces a spectrum of colors and sizes, catering to both men and women.

Hublot, for example, offers the Big Bang, a model long associated with a rather virile crowd, in different shades that it places on women’s wrists, especially since its in-house caliber, the Unico, has continued to evolve, shrinking in size to fit a 42-mm case – or the brand is welcoming men to wear pastel colors. The manufacturer has thus paved the way for others to shake things up, like Zenith, which has made its Chronomaster Sport line a product for everyone; Oris, which has added a salmon dial to its ProPilot X line; and Tissot, with its unisex PRX. But old habits die hard, and relatively few brands are willing to step out of their comfort zones, thus inadvertently perpetuate the association between mechanics and the masculine and the unbearable combo of diamonds, mother-of-pearl, and flowers with the feminine.

Working on Ergonomics

Another subject that deserves attention is the length of straps and buckles, particularly when it comes to deployants. I’ve often had to deal with comments in boutiques when I’ve asked for a shorter leather strap (“It’s a man’s watch” supposedly justifies the standard) or to have a few links removed for sizing (“Is this your husband’s watch?”). And I’m not talking mid-range boutiques here, but timepieces costing upward of $8,000. As for clasps, the ergonomics are seldom adapted to all wrists, which means they can protrude and become uncomfortable, unbalancing the whole watch by tilting the case outwards.

There are men who wear smaller diameters than me (I’m thinking of my little brother, who is a vintage collector and used to wearing 36 to 38 mm) and/or have wrists as thin as mine (around 15.5 mm). So, it’s not a question of belonging to one gender or another, but rather one of morphology and taste. Ideally, bracelets should come in three lengths (S, M, and L), like the fashion industry, with clasps to match. And salespeople should be trained to treat a customer who comes in for a fitting with her 42 mm-diameter chronograph… like a customer!

IWD 2024: A Day of Activism

So far, I’ve focused on the product, but as it’s International Women’s Day, I have to point out the lack of female representation in key positions within the industry. This year, the United Nations has set the day’s theme as “Invest in Women: Accelerating Progress,” and it has to be said that management positions in the watch sector are overwhelmingly held by men. The few women who do hold management positions are very often harshly criticized, sometimes even attacked on a personal level.

This is a whole ideology that needs to be reviewed and reset, starting with recruitment and promotion policies, in order to combat entrenched sexism, build confidence, and recognize the constant efforts women make to rise to every challenge and prove that yes, we too belong to this great watch family.


What do you think about this article?


About the Author

Sharmila Bertin

When I moved to Switzerland and started working at Omega HQ almost 20 years ago, I was told early on that once you enter the world of watchmaking, you never leave it. It's totally true.

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