Happy Wife, Happy Life: What Women Want (In A Watch)
I set out to buy my wife a watch: after many happy years of marriage to a lovely woman, it was time. I know enough about her and her tastes to take the leap.
She deserves a really nice timepiece. Something edgy, sophisticated – like her. Maybe with a few diamonds to show what great taste I have. After a month or so of research I settled on the one. It was perfect, sending just the right message.
If you’re a female reader you probably already know this ends badly. If you’re a guy, keep reading. Showing up is 80 percent of the battle, and you just showed up.
This is a guide for what the woman in your life would like most in the gift of a watch.
I spoke with Laurent Dordet, chief executive officer of La Montre Hermès, the French company’s Swiss watchmaking division. It is Dordet’s business to be sensitive to women’s tastes in watches, and he’s very good at what he does.
Quill & Pad contributor Nola Martin was also kind enough to toss in her take on what’s essential in a woman’s timepiece. She is one of the most experienced experts in defining female luxury lifestyles that I know of.
Additionally, Christian Knoop, creative director at IWC, let me in on his list of women’s watch priorities.
From my conversations with these experts I developed my “Eight-Step Program” to identify the perfect timepiece for that special woman in your life.
Step #1: forget what’s important to you
Put aside what you want in a watch. Too often we ignore this simple axiom; those who do are destined to fail. I should know.
I’m a diver, and I love diver’s watches. My wife isn’t and doesn’t. And I’ve discovered from my expert panel the things that appeal to a man often have no relevance to a woman. So step away from yourself and into her (high) heels. Just for a minute.
“A woman’s watch is an intensely personal possession that will be with her for a long time,” IWC’s Christian Knoop reminds me. Think of it as having the enduring qualities of her wedding ring. Many women have multiple wedding rings; so, too, they may have several fine watches.
“A gifted timepiece will always connect with the person who did the gifting,” Nola Martin adds. “A watch has a way of reminding us of the reason or occasion it was given. Has there been a recent business success or an important milestone in life such as a wedding or a birth? These are great giftable moments for a classic and timeless watch. An engraved note on the back gives the watch a special and eloquent touch, too.”
Most of us look at our watches at least ten times a day. If you gift a watch, you want her to think good thoughts every time. Talk about top-of-mind presence. Already you can grasp the negative chi of getting it wrong.
Step #2: identify what’s important to the woman wearing this watch
Match the watch to her wardrobe.
To make it easy on yourself, categorize her wardrobe into three: dress to impress, work, and casual. Often the differences between the three aren’t that obvious to the male eye. But using this key you’ll get a sense of her taste and style.
Knoop, offers some help. “First, the watch must work within her wardrobe and offer a certain versatility to go with different outfits.” So we identify the two or three places and times she’ll want to wear her watch, then figure out the clothes she’ll wear to these functions. Now simply identify the kind of watch that works well with these types of outfits. What’s so hard about that?
“Consider the level of sophistication needed for the most frequently attended venues and wardrobe items. Many manufacturers make pieces with a pure and timeless design; many are women’s watches. They draw an understated sophistication from their clean-cut lines and subtle attention to detail,” Knoop offers. Such watches are easily matched (or not) with the wardrobe style you just identified.
Brand is important.
The brand communicates much about the watch wearer. “Whatever the brand, it must speak of enduring quality and craftsmanship. She’ll want to keep the piece for a long time. So choose a timeless design that won’t go out of fashion: fit and finish are important; no sharp edges; and absolutely choose a high-end brand that fits her personality,” says Knoop.
From my research I found that timekeeping is not very high on the list of wants for many women: a watch is a fashion item rather than a piece of precise mechanical engineering.
Laurent Dordet of Hermès agrees. “A woman’s watch and its brand need to mimic her unique style. For example, her dress may portray her as a serious leader. Her choice of watch should support that.”
Dordet has made his mark in luxury fashion by understanding such things and supplying the means. He explains the Hermès philosophy toward design, “We do not say, ‘I will make this watch for . . . unconventional women, for older people, for young ones.’ This is forbidden at Hermès. We just do what we believe in, and as far as possible things that are representative of our soul and our style. I think authenticity is the key word here. If you are just who you are, then one day it pays off. One day people see you are not like the others and you just express what you are. This is an authenticity that we feel resonates with the extraordinary women who wear our watches.”
The takeaway here is to honestly identify the person’s style to whom you are presenting this gift. Some women make their own style. Others are more comfortable following a trend. Some fit in between. There’s no value judgment here. Whichever watch and brand you select, it must fit her style like a hand in a well-crafted glove.
How much effort will she accept in maintaining a watch? Some women don’t mind setting and winding a watch that has stopped after not being worn for a few days, while others object to this inconvenience. Many high-end manufacturers — Patek Philippe among them — offer a considerably deep line of women’s quartz watches. These are virtually maintenance free.
Automatic watches with several days’ worth of power reserve are another option. Most top-of-the-line automatics keep excellent time, but do need to be worn every few days or kept in an automatic winder to be ready when she is.
Also, many women would prefer not to be bothered with a screw-down crown, unless it’s a diver’s watch that requires this functionality to maintain water resistance. The exception to this rule is Rolex, whose watches — even the dressy Cellini line — all have screw-down crowns, something that the female wearers of this brand accept.
Aesthetics of the watch itself.
Hermès’ Dordet offers three concepts describing the aesthetics of a watch that are most important to women:
- Strong style effectively communicated by the piece.
- The brand’s values are well known and match those of the wearer.
- The piece must be distinctive.
“Be sure the watch isn’t too big or bulky,” Nola Martin admonishes. “It shouldn’t get stuck in her sleeve, risking tearing it or fraying the cuff as it slides over the watch. Also make sure that its diameter isn’t so big that the crown digs into the top of her hand when she bends her wrist. Both problems make an otherwise beautiful piece something of a challenge to love.”
Step #3: avoid the most common errors
Apart from focusing on what we like rather than what she’ll actually love, there are a number of other easily avoidable errors. Failing to study and understand your partner’s taste is probably the most fundamental error when gifting a watch to a woman.
Another mistake is getting too much into the history, story, and technical points of the brand. All these things may appeal to you, but chances are your wife or girlfriend won’t be so smitten. Many women focus on the aesthetics. Colors can work, but resist the extravagant. Don’t stray far beyond white, gray, or bronze if choosing a colored watch.
It’s a good idea to check out the brands she favors in shoes, bags, and clothes. Each brand tells a story and communicates its values. Just be sure that the watch brand you choose communicates similar values. Don’t know a brand’s values? Go to their websites, where they are front and center in black and white for all to see.
Step #4: identify what the watch communicates to others
The watch a woman wears tells others something of her personal style. Dordet of Hermès and Knoop of IWC agree with this point. A functionally simple and elegant timepiece says something quite different than an oversized gold watch with a bright yellow dial containing four subdials. Yet both have their places.
Here are the seven messages Martin, Knoop, and Dordet identified as being communicated by a watch:
- Individual style such as power, prestige, or efficiency.
- Sense of fashion along with being a trendsetter or a happy follower.
- Self-confidence, maybe the ability to make sense out of complications.
- Personal taste and sophistication.
- Attitude: fun, trendy, current.
- An appreciation for beautiful objects.
- An interest in well-crafted, precision objects.
To this list I would add one last item: the woman receiving this gift is loved and appreciated. If your choice hits at least three of your partner’s preferred messages, I’d say you’re definitely headed in the right direction.
Step #5: match the brands with intel from Steps 2-4
My small panel identified eight well-known brands as potential matches with a woman’s taste (and it’s not surprising that both IWC and Hermès were at the top of the lists). Here’s what the chosen brands communicate:
- Hermès: not a show-off brand; “the essential” and sobriety are the key values
- IWC: this brand speaks to a sophisticated audience; there’s more of an interest in watch detail, movement, and the brand story
- Cartier: unique designs that are timeless
- Rolex: aesthetics that transcend fashion changes; the most recognized and recognizable of watches
- Jaeger-LeCoultre: watch design that captures past, present, and future trends
- Omega: beauty, quality, reliability, and tradition
- Piaget: watchmaker and jeweler combined
- Patek Philippe: timeless design in a highly exclusive package
Whichever brands you select must have a large enough collection so that you can choose from a variety of possibilities.
Step #6: choosing a large men’s watch or not
Sometimes choosing what is marketed as a man’s watch can work in your favor. And sometimes not.
Laurent Dordet believes, “When giving a man’s watch the design must communicate and support a more feminine style. That is why the most successful gift pieces are designed and made for a woman right from the start of the project.” Dordet cautions that most of the time a man’s watch on a woman is just too big. “Still, if the piece is adapted to the style and the values of the woman, then why not?”
Christian Knoop concurs. He cites IWC’s Portofino hand-wound and pilot’s watches as potential ladies’ watches precisely because of their size and design. “Larger watches on a woman can look very cool and make a statement.”
Step #7: identify the watch specs that fill your needs
“The high-end manufacturers have ladies’ lines deep enough to cover most options, as it is important to remember that no two women are alike. But when it comes to buying patterns, some — especially European women — prefer steel, while others like precious metal,” IWC’s Knoop reveals. “The Asian market values precious gemstones on their watches. And some like complications — the moon phase is very popular — while others just want a simple, elegant dial.”
Steel almost always works, and it’s usually the lowest of the price points. Pink gold is often the preferred choice over yellow gold today when looking at precious metals. In my opinion, if you’re torn between white gold and platinum, go with white gold. The two are roughly similar in color, though platinum does have more weight. And white gold is usually less expensive. Choosing a single material is a more traditional and, some may say, conservative look. Yet several manufacturers (Rolex and Omega are just two) produce some extraordinary pieces in combinations of gold and steel (see For The Love Of Two-Tone Watches).
Adding gems to the piece definitely ups the wow factor, though do note that precious stones also raise the price of the watch.
Jaeger-LeCoultre, Omega, Rolex, and Hermès (among many others) have expert gem setters within their manufactures.
Bracelet or strap?
If you want your gift to be worn often, the experts say your best bet is putting the watch on a metal bracelet. However, Hermès’ Dordet obviously also has quite a lot to say about leather straps. “Hermès is known for its fine leather goods, and we find that our female clients love our leather straps. They are warmer and softer than a metal bracelet. Our “double tour” [double wrap] straps are extremely popular.”
If you know that a leather strap is preferred, then stick with black, brown, tan, or a neutral tone that will go with any outfit.
“Even though creating an appropriate bracelet is more of a challenge for the designer, of course it’s an important part of the offering, especially for women,” Knoop adds. “The Portofino’s mesh bracelet gives it a different character from the leather strap. We also offer bracelets on our Pilot watches and the Da Vinci line for exactly the same reason.”
Think about the dial color as it relates to the case and strap. The dial is the literal face of the watch; everything else is a supporting actor. If your aim is to provide a piece that is worn often, then choose a white, ivory, or a silver-colored dial. Maybe black or deep blue (though more risky). The point is to have a dial that works with the entire piece, and one that integrates into and complements multiple colored outfits.
There’s more to a dial than just its color — consider the dial’s “furniture”: blued-steel hands and markers that match the case seem to be a favorite alternative to steel, white gold, pink gold, or platinum. The IWC Da Vinci line is a good example of how a colored set of hands can change the watch’s appearance (see IWC Da Vinci 2017: The Ultimate In Masculine Watches Finds A Female Side With Automatic 36 + Automatic Moon Phase 36).
There are complications and then there are COMPLICATIONS. Hermès’ Dordet feels that any complications added to just the hours and minutes tend to diminish the look of the piece.
Knoop disagrees. “A sweep second hand adds a dimension of precision to the piece. Our company is known for its precision timepieces and a discerning brand identity.”
Hermès also has several models with sweep second hands and subdials for small seconds.
A date window is also useful for most everyone. Both of our brand experts agree that their watch dials look more elegant without it, but so many women like having a date window that they offer it.
Other complications add interest to the watch. For some women, adding a moon phase seems to be a welcome addition. Rather than place the moon in the traditional vertical axis, Hermès often puts it off to the side between 10 and 11 o’clock.
All three experts see the stopwatch function of a chronograph as a complication that is growing in interest among women. At the moment IWC doesn’t offer it in its dedicated ladies’ collection
Hermès, on the other hand, has gone the non-traditional route with its Slim d’Hermès L’Heure Impatiente, a unisex watch.
The subdial located at 4 o’clock “patiently” counts down the first eleven hours. In order to increase suspense even more, a retrograde hand on a separate arc at 7 o’clock displays the final 60 minutes. At the end of the hour, the grande finale is audibly accompanied by one single cheerful gong. Arguably, this is more amusement than a frequently used function. Still, it elevates the cool factor by 10!
Step #8: confused?
If you’re feeling a bit overwhelmed about now, then take your lady watch shopping. But before you go, walk her through Steps 1-7 and specifically scope out some of the possible winners you’ve already found. And here are questions that need answers before stepping into a watch shop:
- How and where will she be wearing the watch?
- What sort of outfits will she be wearing the watch with most often?
- What does she want the watch to say about her?
- Identify the 2-3 brands that match her answers above.
Selecting the right authorized watch dealer.
Once you’ve decided on the final watch — or have narrowed the choices to something manageable — you probably could just buy it online. But where’s the romance and fun in just clicking on a website? Instead, why not go to one or more authorized watch dealers of the brand(s) you’ve chosen? And don’t worry about pressure sales tactics; the professionals at most authorized dealers are there to assist in a decision that is expensive, complicated, and one you want to get right the first time.
There is nothing wrong with calling ahead to speak with your sales person or schedule an appointment. Be sure they understand the research you’ve done and your intent.
One final point from Nola Martin provides the cherry on top. “Don’t forget about the presentation: wrap it. And if the watch is presented on a bracelet have it sized ahead of time the way she likes wearing a watch. Some women like it to stay put on the wrist, others prefer it sliding around. Attention to such detail is a super nice touch!”
I followed these eight steps when selecting a new watch for my wife after I bombed with the Ulysee Nardin Lady Diver that she sold (in near-mint condition) after three years of ownership.
Here are my own step-by-step results:
Step 1: forget what’s important to you.
Done. I entered my quest with an open mind. No diver’s watch for a non-diver who doesn’t appreciate tool watches — even if it has a diamond bezel.
Step 2: identify what’s important to her.
My wife’s wardrobe falls into three categories: dress to impress, business/work, and casual. I figured that the same watch should work with any of these outfits for any of the occasions she’ll wear them. I eliminated sports watches and delicate jewel-encrusted formal watches on grosgrain ribbons. A nice, functional piece that is sophisticated in its simplicity and appropriate for work and social occasions will do nicely.
Step 3: avoid the most common errors.
Sifting through her closet, I discovered that brand was important, but not in the way you’d think. No over-the-top glitzy brands you’d find in Beverly Hills or New York. Instead, small boutiques that produced limited editions or one-off pieces. Two colors dominated: black and white. My wife has a style that’s uniquely her own.
I also looked through her jewelry drawer. No yellow gold — not a single carat. Instead, most of her rings, bracelets, and earrings were stainless steel or white gold. The two [fake!] watches she wears have metal bracelets. They each have six years of hard use behind them — and look it.
My conclusion from this step was: choose a smaller, more exclusive manufacturer that is appreciated by those who know watches. Stainless steel with a metal bracelet and a white dial.
Step 4: identify what the watch communicates to others.
My wife is CEO of her own securities company. She’s also a Forbes columnist and a classically trained pastry chef (Cordon Bleu). Whether on the frantic trading floor or in her kitchen, she calmly sees clarity when others see chaos. Her wardrobe communicates all these personality traits. So should her watch.
From this I conclude: the watch dial must clearly convey the time at the briefest of glances (the securities markets move with a latency of less than a fraction of a nanosecond). Her watch must be reliably accurate. It must be durable enough to withstand scrapes along her Bloomberg machine’s keyboard as well as survive a dunking in chocolate gnash. It must be at once beautiful, fun, trendy, and perfectly crafted with no sharp edges. In other words, it needs to mirror her personality.
Step 5: match the brands.
Each of the brands listed throughout this piece are extraordinary by themselves. Each could work. But only two would work: Jaeger-LeCoultre and Omega. These two brands have no-nonsense pieces in their collections, they pieces are “washable” and survive punishment without complaint.
Step 6: go with a man’s watch?
No. There’s nothing masculine about my wife.
Step 7: identify the watch specs she’ll love.
Now we go granular. This was surprisingly easy.
- Case material: stainless steel
- Gems: no . . . maybe . . . we’ll see
- Bracelet or strap: steel bracelet
- Dial: white or ivory-colored with black or blued hands
- Complications: unnecessary. But something unusual and fun requiring no user intervention could be interesting
We sat down with the Jaeger-LeCoultre and Omega catalogs. “I could easily fall in love with any of these,” she said. “But I’d have to see it on my wrist. I want to feel how it lays. Can I read it without glasses? Is the clasp easy to use? Can I wind it easily or do I need to fight with another stupid screw-down crown?” Ouch.
Within a month we found ourselves on the Crystal Serenity. Many cruise ships have authorized dealers aboard, and the Crystal Serenity happened to have Jaeger-LeCoultre. It also happened to have our selection, the Rendez-Vous Night & Day. She tried it on, closed the clasp, wound it, set it, reset it, and . . . didn’t take it off.
Jaeger-LeCoultre Rendez-Vous Night & Day 29 mm
Women want something in a watch that’s special. The truth is, it’s often not the watch at all. At the end of the day what women want from the gift of a watch is what all of us want from any gift: that you listened; that you cared enough to take the time to figure out what was important to her in a gift and put aside what was important to you.
You might also enjoy Why I Bought My Wife An Engraved Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso Classique.
Also published on Medium.