Kathleen McGivney, a New York City-based tech consultant and avid watch collector, has a theory about why watch collecting — like carpentry, construction and truck driving — continues to be dominated by men.
“There are dive watches, dress watches, watches inspired by automotive things and pilot’s watches, but then there’s a category called women’s,” she said. “Women are not a monolithic she-mystery that all want the same thing. I think the industry misses that.”
There are signs, however, that the situation is changing. At the popular watch website Hodinkee, the percentage of readers who identified as female in 2015 was 2 percent; now, it’s 15 percent, said Cara Barrett, manager for social media and special projects.
To help shed light on what women want in a watch, The New York Times spoke to six female collectors — including Ms. McGivney — about the way they discovered their love of timepieces, which brands and styles are particularly appealing, and what it is like to be a woman in the traditionally masculine watch world.
Beyond the solidarity they share with fellow collectors, their fondness for watch-spotting on Instagram and their love for the stories attached to their favorite mechanical timepieces, the women are united in their passion for models typically marketed to men.
“I don’t want you to shrink it and pink it,” Ms. Barrett said. “I want it to look the same as the guys’.”
New York City
Growing up in Arizona in the 1980s, Ms. McGivney had what she described as “a few Swatches.”
She never imagined that, by 2015, she would begin to devote her nights and weekends to a second job as chief executive of RedBar Group, a global community of watch collectors.
Ms. McGivney’s fascination with mechanical watches began, as so many of these things do, on social media, after she discovered that Adam Craniotes, her friend and a former colleague at a technology company, was presiding over weekly Manhattan meetups for a group of watch enthusiasts. The informal gatherings, which began in 2007 at the (now closed) Korean dive bar Red Bar Cafe, drew dozens of collectors who came for the watches and stayed for the cocktails and camaraderie.
“Every week, Adam’s posting pictures of himself in a dark bar hunched over a bunch of watches — so I texted him,” Ms. McGivney, 45, recalled. “He said, ‘You should come out — no snobs.’ I tested that theory.”
At their first RedBar meeting, in 2013, Ms. McGivney and her husband, Atom Moore, a photographer, placed their joint collection of about 30 Swatches on a table next to coveted models by Rolex and Patek Philippe.
“We were expecting people to laugh, but they were so cool,” she said. “I quickly realized the ‘no snobs’ thing was real. We started coming every week.”
To bring a formal structure to the group and create a charitable giving program, Ms. McGivney and Mr. Craniotes established RedBar Group as a limited liability company in 2015. Today, the organization has 64 chapters in cities from Copenhagen to Cincinnati. But female membership in RedBar is “still really small,” she said. “The industry doesn’t really talk to women that much, so it can be intimidating. It’s not a demographic that’s spoken to, so they may not have knowledge.”
Ms. McGivney and Mr. Moore’s collection, however, now includes what she called “north of 50 watches.” It is an eclectic mix of contemporary models by independent makers, including the Atum by Moritz Grossmann, and vintage pieces, such as the Patek Philippe Ref. 3574 steel watch she was wearing when we talked.
“It’s from 1974 — my birth year — and it’s manual wind,” she said. “If you hear the watch industry talking about women, they think they don’t want manual wind watches. By stating that unilaterally, they’re missing out on a potential audience.”
Ms. McGivney is especially fond of timepieces featuring moonphase complications like the “big, glorious moon” on her Arnold & Son HM Perpetual Moon wristwatch. (And the tattoo on her left arm was copied from a vintage timepiece she no longer owns.)
“The fact that they can make something work with such precision and so many tiny parts — it’s like sorcery,” she said.
Dr. Ko, an anesthesiologist, was in the middle of an operation in 2017 when she could not resist the urge to buy a wristwatch.
“The patient’s asleep on the table; I’ve got to get this watch,” Dr. Ko, 42, recalled of a special-edition Vacheron Constantin Historiques Corne de Vache 1955 timepiece she coveted because it is called a doctor’s watch, with a pulsation scale designed to measure heartbeats per minute. While her patient was under general anesthesia, she saw on her phone that the watch was for sale on Hodinkee.
Dr. Ko clicked on the site’s inquiry button, then received a call from Vacheron Constantin about 20 minutes later, informing her that one model was left.
“As is common practice when you need a bathroom break or something, I had a nurse assist me in monitoring everything while I found my credit card and gave the information over the phone,” she said in an email. “I don’t condone making an impulse buy of about $50,000, but I don’t regret it!”
A native of Southern California, Dr. Ko discovered her interest in timepieces when she was a medical resident: While studying at bookstores, she was drawn to the watch magazines. “It would be nice to have one nice thing for the rest of my life,” she recalled thinking as she was flipping through their pages.
In 2008, while she was still a resident, Dr. Ko bought her first mechanical watch, a Nomos Tangente, on a trip to Hong Kong. She described it as “a steppingstone” to her dream watch, a Chronomètre Souverain by the celebrated Geneva watchmaker François-Paul Journe, which she finally bought in December 2012.
Over the next few months, a series of unfortunate events befell the F.P. Journe watch — from scratched lugs that drove Dr. Ko “crazy” to being robbed at gunpoint in Berkeley, Calif. (the watch was found later and returned). Eventually, she sold it.
“It was cursed,” she said.
In 2013, Dr. Ko purchased a replacement only to have it arrive, she said, “with a dent in the case due to carelessness during shipping.” Still, she wore it on a solo pilgrimage that fall to the 88 Temples of Shikoku in Japan and sold it upon her return. (Dr. Ko, a self-described “recovering Japanophile,” has visited the country 49 times over the past two decades.)
In 2014, she purchased the Souverain for the third and (she hopes) final time, and had it engraved at the factory with a Romanized version of her Chinese name, C.P. Ko, as well as her birth year, 1977. She now wears that model to work.
Since then, Dr. Ko has amassed a prestigious array of watches. In 2017 alone, she bought two more Vacheron Constantin wristwatches: a Traditionelle that marked the brand’s centenary in the Japanese market, and a vintage square 222 model. She also purchased two Omega Trilogy 60th Anniversary sets, three Omega Trilogy Speedmasters and an Omega “Speedy Tuesday” limited edition.
Dr. Ko acknowledges that her love of Speedmasters — the model that Buzz Aldrin took to the moon in 1969 — is “like an obsession.”
“Sometimes, when a new one comes out, I’m like, ‘Ugh, do I have to spend more money?’” Dr. Ko joked. “They tell a history — when I bought them and what they represent.”
Royal Tunbridge Wells, England
Twice a month, Ms. Haizelden makes the hourlong train journey from her home in southeast England to central London to attend a RedBar watch collectors’ meetup. Even though only a handful of women and 70 or more men usually attend, Ms. Haizelden, a budding collector, said she did not feel the least bit intimidated.
“Everyone gets on so well,” she said. “As soon as you start talking and say what you like and what you know, people are understanding.”
As head of operations at David Carpenter, a watch retail and repair shop on Tunbridge Wells’s main street, Ms. Haizelden could school most people on the ins and outs of mechanical timepieces. And yet, the shop is where she encounters the most sexism.
“Sometimes, when a customer comes in with a watch, if there’s a male member of staff, they’ll look over my shoulder to get his attention,” she said. “That annoys me.”
After all, Ms. Haizelden, 34, has worked with mechanical watches since 2006, when she took a customer service job at Breitling’s regional service center in Tunbridge Wells. “I knew nothing about watches, but I loved working there,” she said.
Six years later, Ms. Haizelden saw an ad for the Victory chronograph by the British watchmaker Bremont and got in touch with Nick and Giles English, the brothers who founded and own the brand. In 2013, they hired her to do stock balancing at their headquarters in the Oxfordshire town of Henley-on-Thames.
After three years of service, they gave Ms. Haizelden a Bremont ALT1-C — a 43-millimeter men’s timepiece in steel, her first luxury watch — that she took with her when she moved back to Tunbridge Wells later in 2016. In December the next year, she accepted a job with Mr. Carpenter, a friend from her days at Breitling, to help run his retail store.
With so many vintage watches passing through the shop, Ms. Haizelden often has first dibs on models that catch her eye, like the manual-wind 1960s Zenith wristwatch she bought in September 2018. Her expertise seems to have made her a resource for people in the market for older models.
“A friend of mine asked me how to wear a vintage watch,” Ms. Haizelden said. “I told him, ‘Think of it like your granddad — take it out once a week. You can take it to the pub, but be careful. And don’t leave it in the rain.’”
On days when she needs a waterproof timepiece, Ms. Haizelden will reach for the Oris Aquis dive watch she bought in December before a trip to New Zealand. She had been eyeing it since September, when she spotted it at a RedBar global meetup in New York City.
“I thought it was the perfect holiday watch,” Ms. Haizelden said.
But she did not take it diving. “I’m not that brave,” she said. “But I splashed around in the sea. That does count, doesn’t it?”
Ms. Silva’s parents presented her with her first watch, a Bucherer ladies’ timepiece, when she was 17.
“I hated it,” said Ms. Silva, 54, an art consultant. “I wanted a man’s watch. Why was I obliged to have a sweet, small, rectangular woman’s watch?”
Convinced that she did not like watches, Ms. Silva did an about-face in 1997 after meeting the man who would later become her husband and seeing his hoard of 1970s sport wristwatches, which included storied Swiss brands like Tudor, Heuer, Omega and Rolex.
“When I saw his collection,” Ms. Silva said, “it was like a new world opened to me.”
Ms. Silva began collecting 20th-century wristwatches with an emphasis on men’s models from the 1930s and ’40s, whose relatively small case sizes fit her perfectly. “Modern watches are soulless, cold, shiny bling to me,” she said in an email. “Whereas vintage watches have a soul, and the charm of imperfections.”
At its peak, her collection, which she shares with her husband, once numbered some 100 pieces. Now they have about 50 watches — virtually all of them vintage mechanical models, including pieces by the Swiss maker Longines and a 1930s Rolex Bubbleback, which was named for its protruding bubblelike case.
Among her favorites is a 1960s Abercrombie & Fitch Seafarer tide watch made by Heuer that she bought in 2010 from a fellow collector. The deal was brokered by Jeff Stein, moderator of OnTheDash, his forum devoted to vintage Heuer timepieces.
“It took me more than 10 years to find it as it’s difficult to find them all with their original parts, untouched and honest as the one we own,” Ms. Silva said in an email. “In order to be a good vintage watch collector, one has to be very patient.”
To arm herself against unscrupulous or inexperienced sellers, Ms. Silva took a course on watch polishing in 2018 at the Watchmakers of Switzerland Training and Educational Program (better known as WOSTEP) in Neuchâtel. (Buffing is frowned upon by vintage collectors, who say that removing even the tiny bit of metal lost in polishing changes a watch’s original architecture.)
“You don’t always get a vendor that is honest — or maybe he doesn’t even know,” she said. “So you have to make a little investigation.”
The pieces, she finds, are well worth the wait. In 2018, while visiting a friend who owns a watch parts shop in Biel, Switzerland, she saw a photo of a 1935 steel and gold Alpina Gruen doctor’s watch with a black gilded dial in mint condition. She dropped everything to take the hourlong trip to Bern to see the piece in person. Last fall, on a return visit to the country, she was finally ready to buy it.
“I couldn’t leave Switzerland without it,” Ms. Silva said.
For a long time Ms. Kondo, a homemaker, looked at watches as fashion accessories. She owned a quartz Omega wristwatch that was a gift from her father, and a Franck Muller Cintrée Curvex with a diamond-set bezel that she had bought for herself. But it was not until 2003, when she bought herself a Golden Square timepiece by the Geneva-based watchmaker Roger Dubuis, that her fascination with mechanical watches took root.
“Later on that year, I visited a watch exhibition in an important department store in Tokyo and I discovered that people were impressed with my watch,” Ms. Kondo wrote in an email. “At that time, it was unusual for a woman to wear a technical watch in Japan. This experience triggered me to learn more about beautiful watchmaking.”
Ms. Kondo, who will say only that she is in her 40s, now owns 30 prestige watches — half of which she shares with her husband — and she counts three highly sought timepieces as her favorites.
The first is a 2016 Patek Philippe Grand Complications Ref. 5959, a 33-millimeter model in platinum featuring a split-seconds chronograph, one of watchmaking’s most sophisticated complications. The second is a 2019 Audemars Piguet Royal Oak “Jumbo” Extra-Thin model with a salmon-colored Petite Tapisserie dial. (The name may seem contradictory, but when the Royal Oak was introduced in 1972, its 39-millimeter case size was considered large. And in this particular model, the 8-millimeter-thick case is considered rather slender.)
A Tourbillon Souverain by F.P. Journe rounds out Ms. Kondo’s top three. The piece is equipped with a constant force mechanism called a remontoire that controls the heartbeat of the watch, transferring power between the mainspring and escapement to ensure its stability in timekeeping.
Like many of Mr. Journe’s devoted collectors, Ms. Kondo speaks about the device in hallowed tones. “You can see how the remontoire works from the dial and hear the sound each second,” she wrote in an email. “It looks like the watch is ALIVE. It makes me feel very peaceful.”
Ms. Kondo owns five straps for the Tourbillon Souverain in varying shades of pink, which she changes according to her outfit. She also uses the straps on three other F.P. Journe timepieces she owns. She credits her devotion to the brand — and to haute horology in general — to meeting Mr. Journe in 2005, when she and her husband attended a party at the brand boutique in Tokyo.
“He took off his watch to show us, and kindly explained how he developed it,” Ms. Kondo wrote. “To learn the history of the brand, his philosophy, his sense of innovation and ingenuity had a huge impact on me. All of a sudden, the watch became more than an accessory.”
Lung Lung Thun
As an only child growing up in Singapore, Ms. Thun would page through the high-society magazines that piled up around her home. Instead of drooling over the jewels in the pages of Tatler and Prestige, Ms. Thun fawned over the watches.
“It took me a super long time to own it — ‘You’re a girl; it’s OK to love watches,’” she said. “All the girls around me measured things by Cartier Love bracelets. ‘$50,000? I can buy five Love bracelets with that.’”
Ms. Thun, now 30, bought her first serious watch, a Chanel J12, after she graduated from college in Britain and returned to Singapore to work in banking. “I bought it because every girl had to have a J12, but I never felt anything,” she said.
Her watch habit intensified in 2016, when she moved to Hong Kong to run a securities brokerage firm. At first, however, Ms. Thun fought the urge to shop for timepieces. “I said, ‘No, I’m not going to fall into this rabbit hole,’” she recalled.
Ms. Thun’s resolve weakened after a client asked her to accompany him to the Audemars Piguet House in Hong Kong. “They showed me stuff with diamonds — I wasn’t moved,” she said. “Then, I realized that on the other side of Hong Kong, the Kowloon side, that’s where all the resellers and vintage shops are — the fun bit. So I started going there to browse.”
On one such excursion, Ms. Thun swooned over a vintage Audemars Piguet model in yellow gold, and bought it to mark the start of her professional career in Hong Kong. The piece featured an annual calendar and a moonphase, but it was small enough, she said, that she “could get away with wearing it without getting too much attention.”
The floodgates had opened. In 2018, Ms. Thun went on to buy a frosted gold Audemars Piguet limited edition designed in collaboration with the Florentine jeweler Carolina Bucci, which Ms. Thun said she wore stacked “with tons of gold jewelry.”
Ms. Thun’s love affair with the brand deepened after she was invited to tour its factory in Le Brassus, Switzerland at the end of 2018. On the trip, she was asked to name her dream timepiece, so she rattled off a few esoteric details — 37-millimeter, frosted gold, openworked double balance wheel — only to learn a few weeks later that the very model she had described had just been produced.
“It was meant to be,” she said. “I had to get it.”
The collection of seven watches Ms. Thun now owns includes a white gold RM 010 by the avant-garde French maker Richard Mille and a rose gold Datograph by the respected German brand A. Lange & Söhne, which she spotted at a 2019 dinner organized by the auction house Phillips.
“They brought out two trays of watches — one was for guys and had amazing vintage, and the other was a tray of hideous watches for girls covered in fur,” she recalled.
On her way to the bathroom that night, Ms. Thun saw the Datograph, snapped a photo and through her research, learned the piece had serious watchmaking cred. She bought it and, in a bid to give it her own feminine spin, customized it with a leather strap featuring hot pink on the underside.
Despite Ms. Thun’s impressive depth of knowledge about complications, however, she is not surprised when people assume her interest in watches is superficial.
“A lot of salespeople look at me and will just take out the watch with the most diamonds,” Ms. Thun said. “I used to feel anger, but now, I understand me whining won’t change anything. Collectively, people need to keep hearing this.”