Women at Auctions
Vintage & Auctions

He Said / She Said: Why Aren’t More Female Collectors Attending Auctions?

If you’ve attended a watch auction in person over the last few years, you’ll undoubtedly notice the gender disparity within the ranks of bidders. Why is this?

By Rhonda Riche
By Joël A. Grandjean

Nowadays, much of the talk surrounding the auction scene is about who bought what and for how much. However, collecting doesn’t have to be a gentlemen’s club. We know for a fact many women collect watches. Our own Joël Grandjean and Rhonda Riche take a closer look.

Where are the ladies?

He Said (Joël): Mechanical watchmaking, the one that fascinates networks of collectors and auction enthusiasts, has mainly been a male-oriented affair. Aurel Bacs reminded us of this when he worked at Christie's – the interesting periods in terms of technical watchmaking progress coincided with periods when women remained confined to very traditional roles. For her, watchmakers and brands did not consider it necessary to invent watches geared towards women. Obviously, not the case when it came to men with their military watches, diving watches, or more generally, watches with complications.

She Said (Rhonda): First of all, there is no shortage of female watch collectors. When it comes to new watches, most manufacturers will tell you that approximately 50 percent of their buyers are women buying for themselves or their partners.

And, according to the Business of Fashion, the global market for women’s luxury watches jumped 60 percent between 2005 and 2015. Another noticeable trend: Women want more for their money than smaller versions of men’s models with quartz movements and gem studded dials.

So why isn’t this representation reflected at auction? Women also have more buying power and can certainly shell out the big bucks for the right watch (After all, Kim Kardashian paid $379,500 for Jackie O’s Cartier Tank).

He Said: With the exception of a few recent meteors designed to fill a gap and generate media coverage, and with the exception of the Elegante watch invented and made by François-Paul Journe, there are virtually no watchmaking complications typically conceived only for women.

A fact that is even more true in the past. Female clientele had to be satisfied with models whose size reduction was more fitting to them, as is still the case today. The only added values linked to the models that were or are dedicated to them are those based on the criterion of stones, namely precious stones which burden a watch, or a design that transforms the timepiece into a jewel or mini sculpture. Of course, the dampers used in certain secret watch mechanisms may be of some technically interesting. These watches, produced in insufficient quantities, were mainly reserved for high-class ladies who had to show a certain distance from time contingencies. The fact remains that the buyers of these particular watches will still be first and foremost men...

She Said: The most obvious answer is, as Grandjean writes, before watchmakers got woke, “brands did not consider it necessary to invent watches geared towards women. Obviously, not the case when it came to men with their military watches, diving watches, or more generally, watches with complications.”

In a nutshell, many of the women’s watches coming to auction are pretty and they don’t have the interesting complications that men’s watches have.

Size matters

He said: Watch brands would love for women to take an interest in so-called male models, which is gradually becoming the case. Especially since after some extra-large wanderings, the trend returns to the sizes of reason, therefore to unisex dimensions. All the more so as the growth of Asian markets, whose wearers are renowned for their thinner wrists, dictates the aesthetic options of new models and collections. The second-hand market is therefore also following this trend. However, there is an Asian peculiarity: the purchase of men's watches by women will then be feminized by the adjunction of bracelets in more feminine colours and materials.

In the 19th and 18th centuries, ladies' watches were small and had no other function than to give the time. Their movements generated no other technical fascination than the prowess linked to their miniaturization, which, at the time of record, remains today a real asset. However, this argument is not sufficiently strong in a male audience that is more sensitive to the parade of watch complications. The enthusiasm for Art Deco watches is an exception, even if the female models concerned are not in the majority. Objects from the 1950s and 1960s may one day become popular, but to this day they still lack historical maturity.

She said: Tastes have changed, however. To put things in perspective, when the first Swatch watches were introduced in 1983, the case size for the Gents model was 34mm. And while the industry is moving away from hockey puck sized timepieces, in this era, men and women favor larger watches.

There are exceptions, of course. Introduced in 1929, the Jaeger LeCoultre Calibre 101 set the record for the world’s smallest movement — a record that still stands today.

Are watches genderless?

He said: In terms of social behaviour, unlike men, women do not feel the need to belong through wearing a watch. They do not look (at a watch) as in indication of a status. They prefer jewellery and therefore show little enthusiasm for watchmaking contests and for the financial surface, which is measured by price increases and ego demonstrations.

To acquire, women have other grounds, other approaches... If a woman wears a Rolex "Daytona", it is not harmless. Without a doubt she has to evolve in a world of men and must thus mark her territory, showing strength and confidence. Nothing will prevent her from owning in private, other models better matched to dressier parties. It may also be that she wears as a souvenir the wristwatch inherited from her father, which suits her very well, it has to be said.

In this case, that it is almost an act of claim that is transformed into aesthetic success. An act which also finds some echo with these particularly erudite women in mechanical watchmaking who beautify their appearance with men's watches. Among them, prominent figures who are active in management positions within watch brands.

She said: Gender neutral and time only watches are also in for both sexes. But because so many of the ladies’ timepieces of yesteryear are much smaller (like, the size of a pinky nail) they also aren’t as practical, and therefore the demand is just not as high.

And women’s roles in society have also changed. Even though Elvis’ diamond-bezeled Omega sold for $1,812,500 at Phillips’ Geneva Auction in May, it’s not something you’d expect to see worn in a boardroom. Girl bosses, in general, want something a little less bedazzled.

Where are women shopping?

He said: According to the main auction houses, women buy few watches at auction. And when they do so, it is appropriate to note some differences in behaviour from one woman to another: Asian woman will buy for themselves, while European or American woman will prefer to be the focus of some attention. The Piaget or Patek Philippe women's models of the seventies, which have been the object of some splendid take-offs in recent years, have been acquired by men. These are more art pieces than timepieces.

On the gambling side, while casino fever has infected women, the auction virus has not been as successful, except for jewellery. Almost non-existent are the mythical fights led by women for female watchmaking covetousness. However, the woman who takes part in such agapes is generally in the arms of a partner who adopts two attitudes: either he lets himself be restrained in his compulsive impulses, or on the contrary, he distorts the game by sleeve effects intended to make his financial capacity ostentatious.

She said: Auctions can be intimidating environment for anyone. Once the bidding gets going, there’s the aggression of collectors trying to outdo everybody else and the fear that you, too, might get in over your head, swept away by the energy and adrenaline in the room.

But just because you don’t see them on the auction house floor, doesn’t mean that women aren’t bidding. When it comes to purchasing previously enjoyed timepieces, many ladies prefer online auctions. At Christies’ recent ‘Time is Now’ online auction, a pink dialed Rolex Datejust, Cartier Lady Santos, and a Patek Phillipe Ellipse all went for above estimate.

There is also a very strong secondary market through luxury resale sites such as 1stdibs and Vestiaire Collective — online shops that also sell haute couture as well as haute horology. Women lead busy lives, why travel to Geneva when you can do your dark bidding on the internet?

In Conclusion

He said: The most dramatic thing in this situation is that the woman who is raising the bids will be fighting to acquire male models. Decidedly, there are still some hints of machismo in the worlds of mechanical watchmaking and auctions.

She said: So, we’ve listed some reasons why women don’t attend auctions in the same numbers as men. But I’m here to tell you that serious collectors should get some hammer time. Because women’s watches are so undervalued, there are some serious bargains to be had! I got my Cartier Tank for $300 at an auction because, as the only female bidder in the room that day, I had no competition.

In fact, collectors who like a bit of bling with their watches can have the best of both worlds (for less). At Sotheby’s Geneva sale, an Audemars Piguet white gold, diamond and emerald-set skeletonized bracelet watch sold for CHF $31,250 (as opposed to a simple stainless steel Royal Oak that went for CHF $33,750).

And while traditional ladies’ watches may not be in fashion at the moment, as secondary market prices keep going up, and more over-the-top styles eventually come back into favor, the value of all timepieces will rise.

But the number one reason I’d love to see more women attending the watch auctions is the sharing of knowledge. It’s a great opportunity to network with other collectors. The auction houses always provide opportunities to preview and talk about the history and provenance of the timepieces. And you might even meet a kindred spirit who likes to talk about watches as much as you do!

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