I spent a lot of time discussing the Oscars online last week. But my friends and I didn’t waste time on Will Smith and Chris Rock, or even on the awards themselves. Instead, we focused on what the celebrities were wearing on their wrists.
DJ Khaled sported a magnificently gaudy Jacob & Co. watch known as the “Billionaire,” which contains 713 diamonds and cost $3 million. At least two A-listers—Rami Malek and Jake Gyllenhaal—wore Cartier Tanks. A third, Kodi Smit-McPhee, showcased a custom snow-globe-style Cartier that GQ pronounced to be the night’s “best accessory.” Of particular note, for reasons explained below: Both Andrew Garfield and Jamie Dornan wore new variations on the well-known Omega Speedmaster that aren’t yet available to us mere yobs.
Men’s watch subculture tends to focus closely on classically styled Swiss watches produced by the likes of Rolex, Longines, Patek Philippe, TAG Heuer, IWC, and Omega. And while there’s room for experimentation and novelty (e.g., Australian actor Jacob Elordi’s square-faced TAG Heuer Monaco, pictured above), the best-known and most highly-sought after models tend to cluster around the same basic look within a set of defined subcategories.
And that brings me back to the Omega Speedmaster, a storied watch that, over the last six decades, has arguably done more to define that iconic look than any other model.
Buzz Aldrin wore one on the moon—which is why you often hear people refer to this type of Speedmaster as a “Moonwatch.” Last year, an original from 1957 sold for US$3.4 million, almost twice the once-record price paid for Elvis Presley’s Omega. To this day, Omega’s marketers have masterfully maintained the Speedmaster’s stark Cold War crew-cut aesthetic, while also playing up its romantic lunar legacy, and pumping out special editions for collectors and niche markets. In 2022, buying a new Moonwatch will cost you about US$6,000.
Omega could keep milking this cash cow for eons. But instead, it’s done something radically different. Omega’s parent company is The Swatch Group, which also owns (you guessed it) Swatch. As most readers will know, Swatch watches aren’t particularly expensive. (The word “Swatch” is a portmanteau of “second watch,” signifying the idea of a semi-disposable plastic timepiece that you buy, put on, and take off like any other fashion item.) And Omega marketers naturally have kept a firewall between their own upscale brand and the parent company. But everything changed on March 23rd, when Omega and Swatch shocked the watch world with the MoonSwatch—a cheap, plastic (oh, sorry, I mean “bioceramic”) version of the venerable Moonwatch.
The thing isn’t identical to a real Speedy, of course. The word “Swatch” is right there on the dial; the finish is of lesser quality; and, most importantly, the MoonSwatch is powered by a replaceable battery, a technology shunned by any self-respecting watch hipster. Within this subculture, a “real” watch is one that‘s powered entirely by spring-loaded mechanical forces. But glance at the MoonSwatch quickly and, yeah, you can fool the eye for a second into thinking you won the lottery. Innards aside, the 11 MoonSwatch varieties are all beautifully designed.
And so within the online watch forums I frequent, the MoonSwatch has produced an unsettled mix of disdain, desire and confusion. These are people (and I’m one of them) who’ve spent much of their lives either prizing or coveting a genuine Speedmaster. Now, suddenly, the same company that gave us the Speedy is also pumping out US$260 quasi-knockoffs. Imagine how women’s handbags fanatics would react if Hermès International S.A. owned, say, the Guess brand, through which Hermès produced a knock-down leatherette version of its signature Birkin bag—call it the Girkin—at 96 percent off the original Birkin price. MoonSwatch is the watch-world version of that scenario.
Weird as this brand mash-up was in theory, the early market results must have thrilled Swatch Group executives, as demand vastly outstripped supply: Swatch stores were lined out all over the world, sometimes for days, in advance of the MoonSwatch launch. In many cities, customers literally camped out on sidewalks.
In Toronto, that included Stephanie Hung, a young woman who bought her MoonSwatch at the downtown Eaton Centre location on Saturday after a 20-hour sidewalk vigil that began on friday afternoon. “Swatch employees told us that we were only allowed to buy one watch per person after I’d been in line for five hours already,” she wrote in a report posted to the Canada Watch Club Facebook group. And even under that limitation, most people seem to have gone home empty-handed: “Four hundred numbered tickets were given out [permitting the holder to buy a MoonSwatch], but there may have been 1,000 people in line. It sounds like only 75 watches were available, not even the 100 to 150 they quoted me [originally].” As of this writing, resellers seem to be at least quadrupling their money, with the ads I see on local buy-sell sites quoting prices in four figures.
At Fratello, an online watch magazine that provides daily news on absurdly expensive watches such as Rolex’s GMT-Master II, Editor-in-Chief Robert-Jan Broer (himself a Speedmaster fan) noted that he knew of cases in which MoonSwatches were being bought up by people who already own Speedmasters. And according to his sources, Omega’s sales have been up since the MoonSwatch launch. Among readers-at-large, he wrote:
the interest in this watch exceeded all expectations! We had the MoonSwatch in the office a few days in advance, and most of the Fratello team was incredibly excited about it. But this run to Swatch boutiques and the massive amount of comments on our article, Instagram post, and YouTube video were something we had not anticipated. It became apparent though, the minute we published our [YouTube] hands-on review video, it was on. On this website, our YouTube video, and our social media channels combined, we’ve received 1,500+ comments and counting.
Over at Hodinkee, another hub for news on high-end timepieces, editor Logan Baker put together a collage of photos showing the watches being worn by some of the people lining up outside Swatch stores. These crowds were clearly a far cry from the teens in hoodies slouched outside your local concert-venue box office looking to score Dua Lipa tickets. Speedmasters (and Seamasters) were in evidence, along with plenty of Rolexes. A woman wearing a vintage TAG Heuer showed up in Las Vegas at 2am for the chance to get a MoonSwatch. A Rolex-sporting guy named Chuy says he travelled to New York from Guatemala for the same reason. In Miami, one guy was wearing an Omega on each wrist.
My sense is that a lot of these buyers will be wearing their MoonSwatches in the same way that a woman wears a replica version of her engagement ring while the real one sits in a safety deposit box: A connoisseur (or snob, depending on your point of view) can retain his dignity while wearing a knock-off product if he (and everyone he talks to) knows that he’s got the real deal tucked away somewhere.
For Speedy-less folks like me, on the other hand, the psychology is more fraught. I think the MoonSwatch is beautiful. But I already know that I’ll never buy one. Not because I own a real Speedmaster, but because I don’t.
On his popular Federico Talks WatchesYouTube channel, Federico Iossa recently went on a rant about the “morons” paying resellers inflated prices for flipped MoonSwatches. But unless you’re in the watch cult I’ve been describing, you’ll know that the real idiocy inheres in the baseline presumption that paying thousands of dollars for something that tells you the time is a sensible way to spend money.
Watch snobs commonly claim that their habit has nothing to do with the status conferred by high-end watches. Rather, they’re interested in the old-school mechanical engineering that goes into them—the springs and gears and assorted gizmos packed into a small space by wizened Swiss men huddled over workbenches with eyeglass loupes and tiny screwdrivers. You don’t get that kind of workmanship in a cheap, battery-powered quartz watch produced by the truckload on an assembly line. But the truth is that even cheap battery watches tend to be extremely accurate. And the most dependable models I own are moderately-priced solar-powered Seikos and Citizens from Japan—which no true watch snob would ever wear either.
If anyone reading this does find himself drawn into the upscale watch world, be warned: As beautiful and intricate as all that mechanical hipster technology may be, it also tends to be delicate. That’s ultimately why I ended up getting rid of my own Speedmaster a few years ago—a tortured decision that I described at great length to Bob Tarantino on his podcast last December. Fellow watch nerds would compliment me on the thing. But it always seemed to be gaining or losing time each week, and efforts to get it fixed would require shipment to Switzerland for months at a time followed by a fat repair bill.
Eventually, I vowed never to buy a watch that would break if it dropped from a gym locker, or that costs more than a good set of snow tires. That’s an arbitrary rule, I realize. But it’s one that’s easy to remember and apply. And I’ve stuck with it for three years now, notwithstanding the consumer temptations associated with my online watch-porn addiction.
The reason the MoonSwatch saga gnaws at me is that it’s exposed a different kind of consumer neurosis. This time around, it isn’t about me exercising self-control so that I resist the urge to buy a watch that’s out of my price range. Rather, it’s about interrogating my reasons for eschewing a desired object that I can afford.
If a man shuns a beautiful watch not because it’s tooexpensive, but because it’s too cheap, what does that say about whatever ultimately ends up on his wrist? Is he really looking down at the thing to learn the time—or to gain some fleeting sense of reassurance about his worth as a human?