A Century Of Wristwatch Advertising: 10 Vintage Ads Worth Revisiting
These vintage ads tell an alternate version of watchmaking history.
The history of wristwatches is usually told in timepieces, specific models — such as the Cartier Tank, the Rolex Submariner, and the Patek Philippe Nautilus — that capture the inflection points in a century of timekeeping.
More recently, however, a small but growing community of horology historians has started to view this history through the oblique lens of advertising.
“You can use ads to tell the story of watches,” says Nicholas Federowicz, owner of Ad Patina, a Chicago-based vintage watch ad reseller. “With Rolex, you could weave them all together in chronological order, and you’d have the ultimate volume of Rolex history, and you wouldn’t need an author. Just flip the pages, see the models, hear the copy.”
Federowicz singled out the Geneva brand’s iconic “If You Were” campaign, which ran from 1967 to early 1970, as an especially powerful example of watch marketing. In one oft-cited ad, a bold headline in Helvetica font declares: “If you were flying the Concorde tomorrow, you’d wear a Rolex.” And photos — of the supersonic plane in flight accompanied by a wrist shot featuring a GMT-Master — completed the tableau.
The campaign, which dared people to imagine themselves speaking at the United Nations or taming oil well fires, represented a departure from previous decades when watch ads typically centered on product details. “You don’t need to sell the technical features anymore,” Federowicz says. “It’s about selling people on the lifestyle.”
Today, Watchonista features 10 watch ads that capture pivotal moments in wristwatch evolution over the last century (though by no means is this an exhaustive list). Rolex dominates, as do ads from the 1960s, the golden age of Madmen-style advertising. But Patek Philippe, Omega, Seiko, and Blancpain, not to mention scores of watchmakers lost to time, all succeeded in creating effective ads now captivating a new generation of watch enthusiasts.
The Dawn of Watch Marketing: Rolex, 1927
In 1927, though watch and clock advertisements had existed for decades, few, if any, were memorable. That is until Rolex founder Hans Wilsdorf had an audacious idea. He arranged for the English swimmer Mercedes Gleitze to carry Rolex’s new waterproof watch, the Oyster, on her daring, 10-hour swim across the English Channel, then touted her “triumph” on the front page of London’s Daily Mail.
“It was the perfect marketing coup,” says Aurel Bacs, the celebrated auctioneer who leads Phillips’ watch department through his Geneva-based consulting firm, Bacs & Russo. “This is when watch marketing took on a whole new dimension.”
For Your Great-Grandson: Patek Philippe 1949
This mid-century ad promoting a Patek Philippe timepiece as an heirloom to be enjoyed by four generations of the same family incorporates a thru line: respect for family and tradition. And this message connects the brand’s advertising over the past century.
The sentence at the end (“What could be a finer investment?”) feels almost prescient in its understanding of how the value of a Patek timepiece would appreciate over time.
Climbing the Matterhorn: Rolex, 1966 & James Bond-Style Seduction: Rolex, 1966
In these ads, both from the same year, disembodied wrists, one adorned with an Explorer while a hand grips a rock and the other holding a martini glass and wearing a Submariner, communicate two distinct but related points about the brand:
First, Rolex makes a watch that won’t fail you when you’re in “the lonely places,” according to the copy of the first ad, whose memorable headline reads, “We built the Rolex Explorer because there isn’t any watch repair shop on top of the Matterhorn.”
And second, the brand also makes a watch equally good at seducing the ladies. As if to put an exclamation mark on the sexist messaging and imagery (which featured the woman’s hand caressing the Rolex), the final copy reads: “When a man has a world in his hands, you expect to find a Rolex on his wrist.”
Space Invaders: Omega, 1967
Although the Speedmaster didn’t go to the Moon until 1969, Omega began pairing it with images of NASA astronauts in space as early as 1966, according to Federowicz.
“Omega has promoted this relationship consistently over the years,” he says. “The look of the ads has certainly changed throughout time, but the model and marketing angle remain timeless!”
Masculinity Run Amok: Seiko, 1970
Seiko’s hilarious “The All-Man Man’s Watch” ad for its orange-dial chronograph epitomizes the patriarchal, sexualized, and the undeniably cheesy way in which watchmakers have long marketed their timepieces.
One of the World’s Costliest Watches: Patek Philippe, 1977 & The Nautilus, the Mink Coat and the Ferrari: Patek Philippe, 1981
Anyone with a passing familiarity of the ballooning value of the modern-day Nautilus will read this “costliest” ad with a rueful smile.
“At its launch in 1976, the Nautilus was $3,100, but it was marketed as the most expensive steel watch,” says John Reardon, founder of the vintage Patek Philippe site Collectability and an expert in the brand’s advertising over the decades. “That was really gutsy.”
In the 1981 ad depicting “A second in the life of a Patek Philippe,” the Geneva watchmaker took a different approach more akin with the aspirational messaging that had become de riguer in luxury advertising.
The oversized image of the Nautilus draped over a mink coat strewn carelessly on the snow-covered track, next to what appears to be a Ferrari, was part of a larger campaign. In this campaign, “[W]atches were used to represent characters in various scenes of an unfolding drama,” Reardon wrote in his 2008 book, Patek Philippe in America: Marketing the World’s Foremost Watch.
Mechanical Watchmaking Forever: Blancpain, 1990s
Jean-Claude Biver was the head of Omega’s gold division in 1981 when he paid 22,000 Swiss francs (about $16,000, at the time) for rights to the name Blancpain. Unfazed by predictions that there was no future in mechanical watchmaking, he staked his reputation and finances on a bold message: “Since 1735, there has never been a quartz Blancpain watch. And there never will be.”
The gambit paid off. Biver sold Blancpain to the Swatch Group in 1992 for $43 million, going on to preside over a renaissance in mechanical watchmaking that inspired a professor at Harvard Business School to devote an entire case study to his career.
The Ultimate Heirloom: Patek Philippe, 1996
In 1996, the London-based agency Leagas Delaney developed an ad campaign for the venerable Geneva-based brand that featured images of fathers and sons, or mothers and daughters, with a by-now legendary tagline: “You never actually own a Patek Philippe. You merely look after it for the next generation.”
Known as “Generations,” the campaign, which continues to this day, emphasized the emotional aspect of owning a fine watch instead of the economic or occupational status associated with it. Of course, it wasn’t the first time Patek had underscored the heirloom quality of its timepieces.
“This was an American storyline going back to 1903,” says Reardon, “when they started saying it was a watch to pass from father to son.”
(Images © Ad Patina)