Millennial 'watchfluencer' on how the 'old boys' club' got disrupted by status-obsessed Gen Z: 'A lot more people know what wearing a Patek Philippe says about you'

A little over a decade ago, Anish Bhatt started posting photos of luxury watches on Instagram. He’d been a watch collector for a while, but when he started taking it seriously in the early 2010s, he told Fortune, he noticed that there just wasn’t much content out there for people looking to learn more about timepieces. Online forums were full of obscure, technical information, and the notoriously insular, wealthy market just wasn’t set up for beginner buyers.

“At that time, there wasn’t really any media directed towards a younger audience,” said Bhatt in an interview with Fortune. “It was kind of like an old boys’ club … [so] on Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat, we grew very quickly.”

Since then, Bhatt has built a social media watch empire. His Instagram account @watchanish, which boasts 1.7 million followers, is as much a lifestyle page as it is a watch account: he posts photos of himself living the luxe life, driving hypercars and sipping champagne on yachts—always with a flashy timepiece on his wrist. He’s spawned dozens of imitators and sparked a new, hyper-online class of watch collectors.

But Bhatt’s Instagram page was an early indicator in what’s become a sweeping trend much bigger than one man and one account: a fundamental shift in the demographics of the watch market. Gone is the dominance of the old-money watch collector crowd, with their Rolexes, their grass tennis courts, their tailored suits, their Grand Cru. The watch market is awash with a new generation of status-obsessed, tech-savvy Gen Z collectors.

“A purchase today of a watch is, I would say, a lot more than it used to be about the status of that watch or that brand,” said Bhatt, adding that this younger demographic “is much more informed than their counterparts used to be … they understand the value of watches, [and] they also understand the status that it gives them. Some huge collectors that I know are not even 30 years old yet, [with] collections that are outstanding.” 

But don’t take Bhatt’s word for it: Professionals in the luxury space—and the data—back up what he’s saying. Gen Z’s social media-fueled hyper-attention to high-status timepieces has transformed the market.

The COVID transformation

This crowd poured in during Covid, sending watch prices sky-high. And even as the market’s settled down, Gen Z has proven they’re here to say: A recent BCG survey found that 54% of Gen Z respondents had increased their spending on luxury watches since 2021, and Sotheby’s estimated 30% of its watch sales last year were to buyers aged 30 and under. The once-so-exclusive market is bigger and younger than ever, which also means that watch sellers are having to adapt to the online micro-trends that are driving buying habits.

“Eight years ago, nobody was looking at watches on Instagram. Now, it’s the most prevalent place to see a watch,” said Sotheby’s American head of watches Geoff Hess in an interview with Fortune. “It’s the most important part of watch advertising—social media.”

Bhatt’s online presence slowly gained traction with Gen Z and millennial attention through the 2010s, but it exploded during Covid. Young buyers, who were spending more time looking at watch content online and had fewer places to spend their money, poured into the luxury timepiece market. Prices soared: some models were selling for 10 times what they were before the pandemic, according to Bhatt. 

“It was a bit speculative,” said Edouard Caumon, US Manager at Watchfinder, in an interview with Fortune. “Some brands basically created the bubble, because they were limiting [production of] some key timepieces, some iconic models.”

The old buyers are increasingly getting priced out

On one hand, Covid was a boon for the watch community. An influx of new buyers increased the value of the market and boosted its prestige. But it also had its costs. 

“It was not atypical to see a watch that was [worth] $50,000 suddenly [sell for] $100,000,” said Hess. “That led to a lot of collectors saying, ‘I’m priced out. I’m done. It’s not fun anymore for me.’”

Speculators with little actual interest in watches leapt into the market, trying to flip watches for profit and pricing out more knowledgeable and serious buyers—a new phenomenon for a niche industry that had historically been dominated by wealthy, knowledgeable collectors.

“For years, I think the notion of investing in watches was taboo. It was always just ‘Buy what you love, don’t worry about investment. And if you even said that word, you got a slap on the wrist,’” said Hess. “During Covid, I think that the investment piece became an unhealthy part of the equation. It became much more about investment and much less about passion … And I think what we’ve seen is a resetting, and now there’s a very healthy balance.”

Although prices are largely back to what they were pre-pandemic, the watch market’s demographics have permanently shifted. Young, Gen Z buyers have emerged as a lasting force in the new watch market. A recent BCG survey found that 54% of Gen Z respondents had increased their spending on luxury watches since 2021. For the most part, industry insiders see that as a good thing.

“Today, we see a younger and younger demographic that is much more informed than their counterparts used to be,” said Bhatt. “They’re much more knowledgeable, they understand the value of watches, [and] they also understand the status that it gives them. Some huge collectors that I know are not even 30 years old yet, [with] collections that are outstanding.”

‘Mob wife’ watches?

But a social media-obsessed crowd means that the market is more susceptible to online microtrends than ever. The ‘mob wife’ trend is all over TikTok right now, with users emulating the over-the-top, luxurious visual aesthetic of characters like Carmela Soprano from HBO’s hit series. Already, that trend has filtered out into the watch world: buyers are scrambling to source the distinctive watch styles these characters wear.

“Clearly, the buying behaviors have shifted, and the new generations are embracing this,” said Caumon. “For the ‘mob boss wife’ trend, we see this trend translating into a peak on gold timepieces, smaller case sizes [and] out of ordinary shapes.”

Sellers are already seeing the effects. Leading auction house Sotheby’s reported record-high sales last year, led by a new, young clientele: Gen X buyers overtook Boomers for the first time since Sotheby’s started collecting data, and 30% of all watch sales were to buyers under the age of 30.

“Watches are getting more attention than ever before,” said Hess. “People are discovering the joy of meeting other like-minded people, learning history and learning about the stories. Our buyers certainly reflect that—our watches are seeing very significant interest, more than ever before.”

Bhatt says one of the biggest changes about watches hitting the mainstream through social media is that they’ve become a more recognizable status symbol. These days, it’s not just niche collectors who can recognize the value of the unassuming watch on your wrist. Influencer like him have widened the pool of people who can identify a luxury timepiece—and the level of clout you can get for wearing one.

“Today, because of the spread of information through social media … a lot more people know what wearing a Patek Philippe says about you, let’s put it that way. So the status implication is a lot bigger,” said Bhatt.

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