Gone are the days when a dainty jewelry watch was the only proper accoutrement for a lady’s wrist. In 2020, women want statement watches, and one of the best places to find them is the pre-owned and vintage market—for men.
Before the 1980s, men’s models came in smaller sizes, commonly 36 mm or 38 mm—too modest for some men’s tastes today, which typically veer from 42 mm to 50 mm—but perfect for women who crave a power watch.
Whether pre-owned, vintage or new, the watches that women are seeking are unusual and big. It’s not that women are shunning feminine watches; it’s that femininity has taken on new meaning. “Women need a timepiece that is highly functional, robust and can multitask—many of the same needs that are included in the engineering of a man’s watch,” says Christie’s watch specialist Rebecca Ross.
The most popular men’s status brands on the secondary market— Rolex, Patek Philippe and Audemars Piguet—tend to find favor with women as well. And for good reason: They’ve managed to be pillars of design with decades-long staying power. Female collectors’ favorites, dealers say, are the Rolex Submariner, GMT-Master and Daytona Reference 16528, as well as the Patek Philippe Nautilus References 3700 and 3800 and midsize versions of the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak. None of these styles, all designed in the ’60s and ’70s, was originally intended for women.
Patek Philippe’s 3800, in particular, has become a go-to model for women, thanks to its smaller 37.5 mm size, compared to the 3700 at 42 mm. The size of the dial isn’t the only difference: Because the 3700 is more male-friendly, it’s priced about three times higher than the 3800, typically going for $80,000 to $100,000. The 3800, on the other hand, has climbed respectably from its price of less than $10,000 five years ago, but is still at about $30,000 for basic steel or yellow gold and $50,000 for white gold, according to dealer Eric Wind, owner of Wind Vintage. He calls the 3800 the “perfect downsized proportions” for women.
“We see women driving additional demand for popular unisex-friendly watches, like the men’s Rolex Daytona, which can resell for up to two times the original retail price,” says Matthew Clarke, watch merchandising manager at The RealReal, the pre-owned luxury e-tailer.
Still, women’s designs have their fans. Patek Philippe has the highest resale value among women’s high-end models, at 49 percent, Clarke says. One of the brand’s most popular women’s watches is its latest launch, from 2018, the self-winding Twenty~4 Automatic, a re-introduction of the original model first released in 1999 and then priced at about $6,250 with diamond accents on the bezel. Several of those older models have been spotted on sites such as 1stdibs, priced as high as $10,000. Meanwhile, a diamond-encrusted style of the original Twenty-4, which unlike the modern round version is square-faced, recently sold at Christie’s New York for $81,250. Other best-selling women’s watches are the Rolex Datejust and Day-Date and Cartier’s Ballon Bleu de Cartier and Tortue models.
Cartier—but not just any Cartier—is also in demand. “I recently had a female client request a Cartier Crash, which is not a typical request; that’s a real [men’s] collector’s watch,” says Cameron Barr, founder of the West Coast-based vintage and pre-owned site Craft + Tailored. “That’s not a watch a lot of people know about unless they are really into watches, and we had to go on the hunt for it.” Barr also had a regular customer request another men’s classic: a Cartier Tank with a Paris dial, showing that she too had done her research. Barr sees a growing market with female collectors and plans to launch a female-centric sister site in the next year.
The rising interest in Cartier’s unique models is starting to drive up prices, says James Lamdin, founder of the pre-owned watch e-tailer Analog/Shift. Recent requests from his clientele have included vintage Cartier Tank Cintrée, Santos de Cartier, Crash and Tank Louis models. Low inventory, he says, is making the pieces more desirable. “Also, I think that there are going to be some probable near-future increases on things like the ladies’ Rolex Datejust and the 28 mm Datejust with exotic dials,” says Lamdin. “I’m not talking about mother-of-pearl or diamond-studded. I’m talking about malachite.”
Unique dials are also proving popular at Craft + Tailored. “One of my female colleagues wears a 1970s Rolex Datejust with a burlwood dial on an Hermès strap,” Barr says, “and she gets stopped in the streets every time she puts it on.”
The Swiss watch industry, which is increasingly trying to expand its reach with new collections for women, would be wise to pay attention to what’s happening in the secondary market. Great watches are not about male versus female—if their mechanics and aesthetics are just right, they can appeal across genders (and not just two).