The Watch Industry & Celebrity Marketing Through the Ages

The Watch Industry & Celebrity Marketing Through the Ages

Celebrity Watch Deals Are Nothing New—But Are They As Compelling As They Once Were? 

Last year, watch media was flown into Mykonos, Greece from all over the globe. The occasion? The 75th Anniversary of the Omega Seamaster. The real reason folks came out? Dinner with George Clooney, the salt-and-pepper Hollywood heartthrob on Omega’s payroll.

A play-by-play account of the experience from an insider ran in Revolution Magazine:

The sun was setting on a beach Omega managed to make private for the evening. Picture this: 2,000 candles covered the sand where a strong breeze was making sure my hair would make me look as if I had just gotten out of bed, or as if I had stuck two fingers into an electrical socket. There were 140 guests split into two tables and I was fortunate enough to sit at George Clooney’s…I mean, he’s a fuckin’ 62-year-old god I would date in a split second, even if, for the record, he is my Dad’s age. Thankfully, he’s married to a goddess named Amal Clooney, and fully taken. Although… I have to say that when I laid eyes on him, it felt as if I was struck by a bolt of lightning from Zeus himself.

omega ceo george clooney celebrity watches
Omega CEO Reynaldo Aeschlimann (far left), George Clooney, (right of center), and a few other of Omega’s notable celebrity partners in Mykonos. (Photo Credit: Revolution)

Needless to say, celebrities are a highly effective tool for getting the watch media to write about a certain event or product. That much is evident from the sort of celebrity coverage the watch world gave to the Met Gala the other week. In fact, entire TikTok and Instagram accounts have cropped up dedicated to covering what watches celebrities wear. And with them, a large following. W.O.E. is indifferent when it comes to this kind of celebrity marketing and I can confidently say a movie star wearing a watch has never impacted my buying habits. That said, for better or worse, celebrity endorsements are a massive part of modern watch culture. What we think about them doesn’t matter. They’re not going anywhere. 

So how exactly did we get here? What happened to the iconic watch advertisements featuring people of real consequence shaping the course of history? 

It has to do with the shifting aspirations of watch consumers, the changing role of the wristwatch, and the influencer economy. In this Dispatch, we’ll explore how watch marketing shifted from pilots, explorers, and divers to vapid Hollywood celebrities and K-pop superstars.

The Early Age Of “Celebrity” Testimonials 

Charles Lindburgh Spirit Of St Louis celebrity watches longines
Charles Lindbergh pictured alongside the Spirit of St. Louis in 1927. 

Many pilots died trying to claim the Orteig Prize, a $25,000 cash prize for anyone who could fly from New York to Paris nonstop. Charles Lindbergh famously won the prize in 1927, but not before between six and 15 pilots perished in the competition, depending on the source of reporting. Lindbergh eventually became somewhat of an ambassador for Longines and later developed the “Lindbergh Hour Angle Watch” with Philip Van Horn Weems of the US Navy, an early pioneer of modern aerial navigation techniques. A celebrated pilot and explorer, Lindbergh was one of the earliest “celebrity” ambassadors for Longines in the ‘30s. 

Longines Hour Angle Watch charles lindburgh watches of espionage
A 1931 advertisement for the Longines “Lindbergh Hour Angle Watch”.
In the aviation world, one mid-century aviator’s name looms large, and that is, of course, Chuck Yeager. He was famously a Rolex ambassador, but he wasn’t the first ambassador who challenged the status quo in a profession and rose to stardom that Rolex founder Hans Wilsdorf would capitalize on. Wilsdorf was a brilliant marketer, and while the testimonial model was certainly used before, he took it to a new level and leveraged celebrity status in a novel way. 

chuck yeager rolex gmt master ad
Rolex advertisement featuring legendary pilot Chuck Yeager.

In 1927, Mercedes Gleitze swam across the English Channel with a Rolex strapped to her wrist (some accounts say it was around her neck). She was just 26 years old and spent a grueling 10 hours in the water. When she reached shore, her watch was in perfect order. In the 1920s, this was an incredible feat of engineering and paired well with the equally challenging real-world accomplishment. Wilsdorf then made her a brand ambassador, using Gleitze’s stardom as a record holder to demonstrate the waterproof properties of the “Oyster” case. 

Mercedes Gleitze swam across the English Channel with a Rolex strapped to her wrist
An advertisement for Rolex’s Oyster case technology celebrating Mercedes Gleitze’s English Channel swim. 

That was the first instance of “celebrity” ambassadors by Rolex. Now back to Yeager. It was in 1987 that Yeager first appeared in a Rolex advertisement, although the brand had worked with him during his years of service as an aviator on product testing and development. It was only in the ‘80s that he became a spokesperson for Rolex. Rolex regarded airmen as celebrities in the mid-century era, because they were. Various advertisements even cite the Crown’s involvement with the US Air Force’s Thunderbirds, the jet demonstration team. During the ‘50s and ‘60s, the image of American might via the Thunderbirds helped Rolex sell watches. 

vintage rolex thunderbirds ad
Rolex advertisement highlighting the brand’s relationship with the US Air Force Thunderbirds.

Partnerships were not limited to the high-flying variety. Underwater, Aqualung was touting its relationship with Jacques Costeau, underwater adventurer and documentarian, and Doxa was also tied up in this partnership. The ‘60s were an age of adventure, and Costeau’s films and shows filled viewers' imaginations with the magical world beneath the sea—providing a point of view they’d never seen before. 

A 1958 ad from US Divers, the United States Aqua Lung affiliate, using Cousteau to market its diving equipment.
A 1958 ad from US Divers, the United States Aqua Lung affiliate, using Cousteau to market its diving equipment. 

All of these “ambassadors'' (different brands called them by different names) had one thing in common: their popularity came from performing feats against the odds and contributing something important to their field. In other words, their real-world accomplishments moved the needle.

As a generalization, the same can’t be said about today’s celebrity watch ambassadors, the majority of whom come from film, sports, or music. But this change also has to do with the fact that the watches being advertised back then filled a much different need than the watches of today. It’s easy to forget today, but watches were once tools.

The Transmogrification From Tool To Luxury In Watches

Jacques Cousteau and Luis Marden wearing Aqualung equipment, excellent social proof for Aqualung as a brand
Jacques Cousteau and Luis Marden wearing Aqualung equipment, excellent social proof for Aqualung as a brand. (Photo Credit: National Geographic)

Among Dr. Robert Cialdini’s “Weapons of Mass Influence'' is the concept of “social proof”. This means that in most instances, humans observe their environment and surroundings to learn what is the “correct behavior”. In simple terms, it’s looking to prominent figures for influence, observing what strategies have worked for successful individuals in the past. If Jacques Costeau used Aqualung diving equipment when he produced his famous documentary The Silent World in ‘56 and laid the foundations for what would become an era of undersea living research, then Aqualung could cite him as social proof that their equipment performed well enough for Costeau to carry out his job, which ultimately contributes to the field of undersea scientific research. 

Up until the advent of phones, smartwatches, and other “wearables” that keep time, the crucial task was solely that of the mechanical wristwatch. There was no other choice. It wasn’t necessarily a fashion accessory, it had to perform its job just like any other tool one would rely on. 

Jacques Cousteau and Luis Marden wearing Aqualung equipment, excellent social proof for Aqualung as a brand tudor fxd french commando hubert
While often considered luxury items, watches are still critical tools in certain instances. (Photo Credit: Tudor Watch)

Now in 2024 that’s not the case for the broader public. In the W.O.E. community it still very much is—while timepieces are in part about culture, they are still crucial tools used to accomplish tasks. But it’s important to remember that suits in Geneva aren’t necessarily marketing watches for the niche W.O.E. crowd. To reach a larger qualified demographic, watches are now marketed as luxury accessories. 

The key takeaway is that while watches were once a necessity for the masses, they now primarily serve as a luxury item for those with horological interests and money to spend. 

Classical Expressions Of Heroism Replaced By Celebrities

Han So Hee, the star of K-drama Nevertheless, became an Omega ambassador in 2022
Han So Hee, the star of K-drama Nevertheless, became an Omega ambassador in 2022. 

Since the watch isn’t necessarily what it once was in terms of the role it plays, that means the way most watches are marketed and positioned must change, too. 

To prove the point, let’s look at the inverse of the above hypothesis: Tools that have always been tools will still use “testimonial” style advertising, citing ambassadors that use their products for their jobs.

Take a look at diving equipment manufacturer, Draeger’s online catalog and you’ll see operators, not celebrities, using their products. 

The same goes for just about any gear company that’s popular in our community. You won’t find celebrities endorsing companies producing power tools and gear to get the job done. 

So why did it happen in watches?

Watch brands, like any other company, have one purpose: to make money. And in 2024 this means mainstream appeal. They’re going to make the most effective investment in terms of share of voice (SOV), often hiring agencies to make smart investment decisions that ultimately lead to the highest number of sales. 

brad pitt breitling watch ambassador celebrity marketing
Whether we like it or not, actors like Brad Pitt, a Breitling ambassador, are an excellent vehicle for boosting watch awareness and sales.

For better or worse, celebrities are synonymous with luxury and wield great influence. Brad Pitt, David Beckham, and Lady Gaga are leveraged to create social proof, which is in stark contrast to the “hero” or boundary-pushing individuals brands may have looked to in the past. The truth is that traditional celebrities simply have larger followings than outstanding individuals moving the needle in the world today. Investing in celebrity partnerships exposes a higher number of individuals to the brand. 

Recently, K-Pop star Lisa launched her own Bulgari watch that takes inspiration from the Swiss Alps and the national flower of Switzerland, Edelweiss. This sort of release demonstrates the sort of deal watch companies engage in: They get to use a big name that draws in people, and in return, the celebrity gets clout and a big check. Lisa, a Thai national who is a member of a K-pop group, is not a known watch fan. It’s a transactional relationship, the same sort of arrangement that happens in the fashion world. 

john mayer audemars piguet perpetual calendar collaboration
The John Mayer X Audemars Piguet Limited Edition Royal Oak Perpetual Calendar is a rare example of a celebrity being associated with watches because of a genuine passion for horology. (Photo Credit: Hodinkee) 

On the contrary, some deals exist in the celebrity space that make a lot of sense including the John Mayer X Audemars Piguet Limited Edition Royal Oak Perpetual Calendar. Mayer stands out as the mainstream celebrity who has done a lot in terms of bringing watches to a wider audience while having a true passion for the craft. There are exceptions to every rule. 

nirmal nims purja watch special boat service bremont
Nirmal “Nims” Purja, a former Bremont ambassador, is an excellent modern example of a brand getting behind a boundary-pushing athlete and explorer. (Photo Credit: Bremont) 

While the golden era of exploration is over, there are still people today who have done far more to the advancement of humankind than any actor, fashion icon, or TikTok influencer. The problem is, that they do not wield the same influence as modern mega-celebrities do.  

While it’s true that suits in Geneva hire celebrities to promote products, it’s also true that the general buying public doesn’t buy based on heroic actions of servitude anymore. While an explorer may have hundreds of thousands of followers and a certain level of influence, their ability to alter consumer decision-making en masse for $10,000 watches unfortunately just isn’t what it once was. This is more a reflection of societal interests than it is a core problem with the watch industry. 

One of our altruistic motivations at W.O.E. is to maintain the ethos of the tool watch, using watches as a prism to tell stories of the unnamed men and women who actually make a difference in the world, not just on the silver screen.

So What About The W.O.E. Community? What’s The Best Course Of Action? 

ryan gosling tag heuer ambassador
Ryan Gosling, our nemesis and one of TAG Heuer’s modern ambassadors. (Photo Credit: TAG Heuer)

With the advent of AI, the enshittification of the internet, and social media, this celebrity trend is most likely here to stay. But that doesn’t mean that you as an enthusiast have to embrace it. There’s still plenty of marketing that big watch brands use that specifically resonates with our community. 

The celebrity trend only means that it’s harder for people who appreciate tool watches to find their tribe in the larger watch world. It’s like anything. There are groups inside a large whole, and then sub-groups inside those. What was once a much larger segment of the watch space has shrunk down to a much smaller group that occupies only a corner of the hobby now. We look at the world as it is, rather than how we might like it to be. This is just a fact. Those who simply don’t care about celebrities represent a smaller slice of the overall target market than those who do. 

Concluding Thoughts

lisa k-pop bulgari celebrity endorsements in watches
Lisa, a K-Pop superstar, recently became a Bulgari ambassador. (Photo Credit: Bulgari)

Like many interests and hobbies, what you put in is what you get out. There’s a surface-level veneer meant to appeal to the masses, and this is where standard celebrity partnerships fall. But dig deeper and there’s always another layer of authenticity and organizations doing something interesting. The deeper you go and the longer you spend wading through the watch world, the easier it becomes to separate what’s meaningful from what’s meaningless. One thing’s for sure: here at W.O.E, we’re not putting any celebrities on the payroll any time soon. 

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saudi astronaut rolex gmt master II watches in space

17 comments

@Bill – to your point looks like Bremont losing Nims Purja (pictured in this article) as an ambassador/partner came at a good time for Bremont.

Robin

Can’t believe you missed this one…
https://www.montredo.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/che_rolex.jpg

jb

I dunno exactly why — the many examples herein about celebs pushing expensive watches for the suits in Geneva — made me appreciate my humble $99 Casio G-shock GW7900-1CR more than I already do. As a humble Foreign Service officer trainee, the watch’s five alarms keep me on time for my many meetings. (Looking at the wrists of my fellow FSOs reinforces the sound decision-making reason to wear a G-shock.)

Doubtful if I will ever take the Rolex Sub out of the safe anytime soon. Not worth the unwanted attention or the heartache of loss.

Thanks for continually reinforcing the maxim that “watches are tools” and for faithfully remaining “brand agnostic.”

Pat S.

As mentioned, this unique sphere is less concerned with celebrity du jour endorsements than they are with “real world” individuals using watches in the manner and conditions they were engineered for. The cultural shift of idolization of notable achievers to more or less strictly entertainment figures is a sobering sign of the times. That said, I’m sure most watch enthusiasts can appreciate any exposure keeping the industry relevant.

Frank

To your point of not embracing the celebrity trend, I hope that this is the very last vapid Hollywood content we ever see here on WOE.

J Burgs

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