Behind the times

As devices spring up to keep people punctual, watches are increasingly behind the times.
Tuesday, January 9, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 2:07 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

They’re on computers. They’re on stoves. They’re on PDAs, digital cable menus and cell phones. Even some coffee tables are made out of them. Clocks are built into many everyday objects.

These days it takes more effort to not know what time it is than to tell the time.


Cristina Ingalls restocks watches at the watch and jewelry counter at Target. (ADAM WISNESKI/Missourian)

Just as e-mail has replaced letter-writing, cell phones may be wiping out the need for watches. Even the youngest kids are asking moms and dads for cell phones, not watches — unless the watches have pink velvet straps, rhinestones or silver-blue metallic faces.

The watch is no longer a ubiquitous tool. Its essential information is readily available elsewhere.

Christy Ingalls, who works at Target’s watch counter, said she has seen countless people come in to buy watches in her two years there. Most purchase “cool” watches.

“Sporty ones and ones with bling sell most,” Ingalls said. “Especially around the holidays because everyone who doesn’t know what to get for someone buys him or her a watch.”

But people’s relationship to watches is dependent, to a great extent, upon age.


Walk through a high school, into a coffee shop or into a mall and it is hard to spot people in their teens and 20s wearing a watch. Interviews with a number of teens and young adults, like Carson Munroe, 20, revealed that many don’t like things moving around on their hands and wrists, especially if they are active.

“I just ask people around me what time it is. It’s such a burden to wear on my wrist every day,” Munroe said.

Many use their cell phones to tell time, even if they have timepieces strapped to their wrists.

It’s like wearing glasses without prescription lenses. Watches, like glasses, can be pure fashion statements.

Gordon’s Jewelers manager Jennifer Eaken described one young client who came in twice to buy Wittnauer watches. Wittnauer is a high-end brand often purchased for its aesthetics, Eaken said.

Sarah Porter of Helzberg Diamonds has seen the same trend: Younger consumers buy for looks.

“Movado watches are very popular with the younger generation because they’re known for being fashionable,” Porter said. “They’re so fancy, you can’t even tell the time on them.”

Despite the wealth of designer watches in stores, young consumers keep turning to cell phones.

“I always have my cell phone on me. It’s so easy to pull it out to see the time,” said Maja Gubic, 15. “I would wear a watch maybe for a special occasion. A nice one, maybe with silver or gold or rhinestones.”


Watches are commonplace among baby boomers. They represent timeless, intimate gifts that perform an important function. After all, there were no cell phones in the ’50s.

Many baby boomers have a sentimental attachment to watches. Some have worn theirs for decades.

“This one’s been on my wrist since I was 8!” said Sharon Kliebenstein, 42. “I’d be lost without one.”

Many baby boomers say that it is much easier to glance down at your wrist than it is to dig through a purse or pocket to find a cell phone. But there are watch converts among younger customers.

“Some people come in and say ‘I don’t even know why I’m buying this when I just use my cell phone anyway,’” Porter said.

Consumers in this younger group also buy expensive watches because they’re fashionable and can be status symbols. And some purchase timepieces based on their work or recreational activity.

Timex is capitalizing on niche markets and is coming out with a specialized watch that measures elevation for the climbing type and one with heart rate monitors for runners.

For baby boomers, it’s usually a combination of style and function that prompts purchase. Steven Walker, 32, predicts they will be around for a while.

“I don’t think they’ll ever get rid of them until they come out with some kind of Bluetooth device you wear in your ear that emits an automated sound telling the time whenever you demand it.”


Using cell phones to tell time may seem a silly notion to some members of a generation who were born during a time when no self-respecting gentleman would be caught dead wearing a wristwatch. Hats — and pocket watches — were mandatory for the well-dressed man.

During the the ’20s and ’30s, watch companies slowly began adding wrist models to their catalogs. They were the new fad, and chances are, if a person had one then, he or she is still faithful to it.

“I have seven wristwatches and a pocket watch that was given to me as a gift,” said Bob Woolley, 79. “My dad had one, and I’ve always loved their old-fashioned charm.”

While white faces and black leather straps are common styles among the over-60 set, many women enjoy collecting them in a variety of colors and styles to coordinate with their outfits. The idea of replacing classic timepieces with cell phones isn’t popular with this group, particularly Woolley’s wife, Margaret.

“The only time we carry cell phones is when we travel long distances,” Margaret Woolley said. “I put my watch on early in the morning — I’m always conscious of the time, and it’s always there for me — right there on my arm.”

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