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Instagram Turbocharges the Watch Market

By Alex Williams

An undated handout photo of a 1970 Rolex Submariner, pictured on Instagram.

On Thursday, it was a stylishly retro 1962 Bulova Super Compressor on @analogshift that won my heart. On Wednesday, it had been an elegantly understated 1970 Rolex Submariner, courtesy of @jasonheaton, that quickened the pulse. Tuesday had brought its own obsession, a vintage Heuer 3647 Carrera chronograph, regrammed on @hodinkee.

Damn you, Instagram.

Daily, if not hourly, my social-media addiction causes flare-ups of a second, closely related, malady: vintage watch deficit disorder, a chronic form of watch envy that inspires thoughts of raiding the 401(k) account.

I am hardly alone. Among watch obsessives, the effect of Instagram can hardly be overstated. Facebook’s explosively popular photo-sharing app not only serves to unite members of this fusty, long-obscure subculture the world over, but it has also helped spread watch obsession among the digital generation, turbocharging the vintage market in the process, several prominent dealers said.

“Instagram is absolutely driving the enthusiasm for watches,” said Paul Altieri, who runs Bob’s Watches, an online retailer of vintage Rolexes, in Huntington Beach, California, a company I have purchased from before. “It’s a major thrust in our business.”

In the last three years, his company’s Instagram following has surged to more than 71,000, from fewer than 5,000. And business has boomed right along with it, with revenue up some 30 percent this year.

To Altieri, the twin spikes seem like more than a coincidence. “We’ll post a new green Rolex anniversary model Submariner from 2004, complete with box and papers, and, usually within minutes,” he said, people will message him, “Hey, let me know the price.”

It’s a big change for a hobby long associated with panelled studies, elbow patches and discretion. Indeed, until recently, watch enthusiasts had few opportunities to show off prize pieces aside from dinner parties with friends or geeks-only online forums like TimeZone or WatchUSeek.

 

 

Instagram, by contrast, is everything that traditional watch collecting was not: young, colourful, brazenly digital and populist. (The app has some 700 million users worldwide.)

And showing off? It is the lingua franca of the medium, a wellspring of covetousness that inspires FOMO and a gotta-have-it hunger among users regarding seemingly any and all Instagram subjects: travel, food, fashion and, lately, watches.

“Watch collecting is a very tactile hobby, and if it can’t be tactile, it is visual,” said James Lamdin, the 33-year-old founder of Analog/Shift, a high-end Manhattan vintage watch boutique with more than 72,000 Instagram followers.

 

 

Those visuals were once limited on old-school online forums, where “uploading images of watches basically required a degree in coding,” he said. Not so with Instagram, where lovingly styled “wrist shots” of vintage Omega Speedmasters or Heuer Autavias can be enhanced, sharpened and uploaded within seconds for all the world to see.

Images of rare collector pieces on Instagram can create a feeding frenzy among collectors. Last year, for example, after Hodinkee, the watch site with over 378,000 Instagram followers, posted a photograph of the coveted 1969 Rolex “Paul Newman” Daytona reference 6241 available for sale on its online shop around 9 a.m. one day, messages were pouring in within seconds. Five minutes later, a buyer in his 30s snapped up the treasured Rolex for US$175,000, a record price for the site, said Ashley Kinder, who manages Hodinkee’s retail operation.

“Before that,” Kinder said, the buyer “had only ordered with us once to purchase a US$150 watch strap.”

Certainly, marketing fine timepieces on Instagram has its limits. Because most use the app as a forum for sharing photos among friends, many users chafe at overt salesmanship by retailers, said Yoni Ben-Yehuda of Material Good, a New York seller of luxury goods known for its salonlike retail space in SoHo. That is why his company tends to emphasise arty photos celebrating the lifestyle associated with fine timepieces (say, street shots of fashionably dressed New Yorkers), rather than catalog-style shots of specific timepieces for sale, he added.

But the landscape could change quickly.

Thousands of apparel, jewellery and beauty retailers, including the likes of Kate Spade, have begun to experiment with Instagram’s recently introduced shoppable photo tag, which allows users to buy directly through the app without interrupting their scrolling.

When watch retailers start using this technology, “get out of the way,” Altieri said. “It’s going to be like a tidal wave that hits the shore.”