Borrowed Time: How Brands Get Their Timepieces On The Red Carpet
As viral marketing and instagrammable moments become more important, we wonder which watchmakers are the real winners during this year's awards season.
The months-long ritual of award shows is officially underway. And each event provides a parade of celebrities dressed up formal wear, expensive jewels, fancy shoes, and of course, the most luxurious timepieces.
Many watch fans live for these red carpet moments, immediately turning to the internet to see who wore what (and who wore it best). It’s fun for collectors—especially those who are in it for the lifestyle as much as they are for the art behind their favorite movements.
As someone who has covered the red carpet and even walked a few (does two count as a few?), I thought it might be interesting to look at the behind-the-scenes mechanics and machinations behind those award show moments to understand why it’s so important for watch brands to have these Hollywood moments.
For award shows, film festivals and movie premiers, the most important players are not stars or watchmakers but rather stylists and publicists.
While their lives look glamorous, not every actor get million dollar paycheck for their projects. And directors can go years between projects. I have a few actor acquaintances who have attended the Golden Globes and can guarantee that their closets are not overflowing with Gucci tuxedos and Richard Mille watches. If you have had a good year, and get invited to the Globes, the BAFTAs, the Independent Spirits and the Oscars (and the various after parties), there is also a tremendous amount of pressure to not repeat one's look.
As a result, stars hire stylists who create different looks by borrowing clothes and accessories in return for publicity. Often, instead of contacting brands directly, the stylist reaches out to a publicist or public relations company who works with many different brands to see who is lending.
Of course, the watchmakers are apprised of who the interested parties are, and will then decide if they want to work with said celebrity and which watch they feel would be the best fit. If you are a Nicole Kidman or Catherine Deneuve, both eternal style icons, you can pretty much have your pick because you just add extra polish to the brand's history. Kidman's stylists, an Omega brand ambassador, frequently raid the company's archives for vintage high jewelry pieces.
There are exceptions to this rule of course. Brand ambassadors are contractually bound to wear certain timepieces. And celebrities who are also collectors already have nice watches, so they don't have to borrow.
A well-dressed star is more likely to get a lot of media attention, and actors need good press if they want to stay on the casting director's wish lists. As bumper stickers on vans in the 1970s used to proudly proclaim, no one rides for free.
Although celebrities are not paying to wear these watches to awards shows, they are (or their studio is) paying for the stylist’s time. And many rent a hotel room in or near the event so they can review their options and make quick changes (if, for example, you are a nominee, a presenter and are hitting up a party after, you should plan for three-different ensembles which could require three different watches — we don’t want our stars to be basic, after all).
And in return for the opportunity to wear a five- or six-figure timepiece for a night, the celebrity must learn how to flash the watch in front of the cameras.
A few years ago, I was present when a Swiss manufacture gave the young ensemble cast of a movie instructions on paparazzi protocol: If you are wearing a suit, you must make sure the bracelet is not too loose so that the face doesn’t turn around. A representative of the brand then adjusted each watch individually to ensure that it would not slip.
You also need to make sure that the timepiece doesn’t hide beneath your sleeves. The trick is to take your mark in front of the photographers, then snap your arm out straight so that the watch sort of pops out of your cuff. Another strategy is to playfully point at your director or co-star with your watch-wearing hand. Remember to look nonchalant while posing.
It’s a leap of faith for brands to lend out timepieces. For super expensive timepieces, a security escort must be hired. And if a watch gets scratched along the way it instantly loses its value. And hitching one’s wagon to someone else’s brand is also a risk.
Many years ago, one high-end horology concern heard that a certain multiple award-winning star was ending their relationship with another luxury watchmaker. An industry friend was asked to act as a go-between for the two parties, but the friend, having heard of the talent's off-screen shenanigans strongly argued against the union. Hopefully, they were well rewarded for this advice because no one would touch that person with a ten-foot-pole today.
Then there is the most immediate risk: even with all the access, insurance and risk, there’s no guarantee that the celebrity will end up wearing the borrowed watch. I was covering last year's Academy Awards and working with publicists in real time to confirm which watches the stars were wearing. I asked one PR person which model an award winner was wearing (my eyesight isn't what it used to be, and I learned the hard way always to confirm the details), and they messaged back "I didn't even know they were wearing it until they stepped out on the runway." That story had a happy ending.
Now here’s the story where I learned why triple fact checking is so important. Under pressure to scoop the competition, I wrote about which make a certain brand ambassador wore to a certain music awards show based on a press release. But after looking closely at the photo, the brand realized that the singer was wearing another company's watch. See, celebrity gossip is fun.
AWARDS AND REWARDS
With all the perils as well as a hefty price tag, what’s in it for the brands?
The goal of any product placement — from watches to Fiji water—is to increase visibility and sales. If you compare the price of taking out a full page ad in a magazine (roughly $20,000) to the cost of lending out a watch, the brand is getting good value — especially if you sell a few $20,000 dollar watches in the process.
And thanks to the insatiable appetite of the internet, these images can go viral quite quickly. Almost every lifestyle and watch site had a roundup of star styles the morning after the Golden Globes ceremony.
Brands also get a lot of extra exposure by partnering with young Hollywood. These stars not only connect with new buyers, but they are also fond of sharing wrist shots of their borrowed timepieces. Michael B. Jordan, who GQ named one of the best-dressed men at the 2019 Golden Globes, posted a picture of himself on the red carpet wearing a diamond-encrusted Piaget on his Instagram account, which has 8.9 million followers. In 2017, the average weekday circulation of the New York Times was 540,000 copies.
It’s impossible to track if an image of Michael B. Jordan wearing a blindingly diamond encrusted out Piaget directly drove a customer straight to a boutique to buy that very same timepiece. But they might be inspired to start saving up for an entry-level Polo.
It must also be noted that some brands are better equipped to dress celebrities. At this year's Golden Globes, for example, IWC, Cartier and Jaeger-LeCoultre crushed the competition because they already have well-established relationships with the film community, sponsoring film festivals and screenings on the road to award show season. Other manufacturers have taken note—as part of their new Film Squad, Adam Driver represented Breitling at the ceremony.
So who wins the red carpet? In a way, we all do. The public was inspired and entertained. Emerging stars got to wear a beautiful watch (if only for one night), and the brands might just be breaking even on the bet that a celebrity might publicize their brand, but they also get to experience the joy of creativity and the chance to celebrate their own accomplishments with a worldwide audience.