Fashion 

Goodbye Cartier, Hello Rolex: Enter the Era of the Engagement Watch

Couples are eschewing the engagement ring for something more functional: a watch.

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Youn Chung never wanted an engagement ring. Before meeting her husband, Chung found herself lamenting her love life with a friend, and the idea of receiving a more practical token of commitment — a watch — came up. Chung, who frequently worked with her hands (she ran a business making three-dimensional paper cards), knew a ring would get in the way of her handicraft. In addition, she wasn’t fond of the social mores that accompany engagement rings — “how much did it cost; how many carats; is it white gold; is it this or that?” she illustrates. 

When Chung eventually met her husband and things got serious, she mentioned her preference for an engagement watch over a ring, explaining that she wanted something beautiful and meaningful that was also functional. In 2011, she got her wish — her husband, Toru, proposed with a Rolex Oyster Perpetual, and the two wed a year later.

Chung was an early adopter of a nuptial trend that seems to be gaining momentum. In May, global shopping platform Lyst reported a 42 percent spike in watch searches that include terms such as “wedding,” “couple” and “engagement.” As the vintage watch market booms and savvy collectors sell particularly in-demand models for a hefty profit, the engagement watch is beginning to emerge as an appealing alternative to the traditional engagement ring.

“Diamonds and other stones have not proven to be a good store of value in terms of keeping up with the overall financial markets.” – Eric Wind

Eric Wind, collector and owner of Wind Vintage, explains that watches hold both sentimental and financial value, something that can’t always be said for rings. “Except for some of the largest and most unusual pieces, diamonds and other stones have not proven to be a good store of value in terms of keeping up with the overall financial markets,” he notes. And although rings are classic symbols of love, they don’t always stand the test of time. “[Diamonds] don’t have an emotional appeal to future generations, as people often don’t know what exactly to do with them and how to wear them,” Wind remarks, countering that a watch is a “timeless purchase to be handed down.”

Indeed, Chung hopes to pass down her engagement watch as a family heirloom. Similarly, Arsha Hasan, an attorney living in New York City, decided to gift her fiancé an engagement watch as an homage to his late grandfather, who always wore a timepiece with a red and blue “Pepsi” bezel. Hasan’s fiancé had mentioned wanting to wear a similar style to keep his grandfather’s memory alive — “I tucked that away as information to keep,” Hasan recalls. When the two got engaged last year, she presented him with a 1999 Rolex GMT-Master, a model often referred to as the “Pepsi.”

“Being engaged means a lot more than buying something for each other, but he did buy me a really nice ring.” – Leia Zion

With traditional engagements, one partner typically proposes to the other with a lavish gift — the engagement ring — without reciprocation. Some brides-to-be view wedding watches as a way for their partner, who may not enjoy wearing jewelry, to receive an equally meaningful token. Leia Zion, a hairstylist in San Bruno, California, knew a ring wasn’t a fitting gift for her fiancé. “He’s a mechanic, so if he did wear a ring, it would have to be rubber,” she says, adding that bands bother his fingers anyway. Instead, Zion figured that her fiancé — an avid watch collector — would appreciate a timepiece. Zion purchased him a Seiko as placeholder in the lead-up to their wedding (set for sometime next summer), and plans on eventually gifting him a vintage Rolex Datejust.

“Being engaged means a lot more than buying something for each other, but he did buy me a really nice ring. I’d like to reciprocate that level of gift,” Zion says. “I would rather it be something that he is going to wear and use and actually love, rather than spend thousands of dollars on a ring that he’s never going to wear and not really care about,” she expresses, pointing out that men’s rings aren’t typically anything to write home about. “It’s usually just a gold band, so not as fun.”

Bolstering Chung, Hasan and Zion’s choices, Wind cites classic Rolex models such as the Datejust, Oyster Perpetual, Day-Date, Datejust and Submariner as popular choices among couples. “It’s safe to say these models will never go out of style,” he asserts, adding that watch brands such as Cartier, Patek Philippe and Jaeger-LeCoultre also see interest. His advice on choosing an engagement model? “It’s a special and important time, so I would encourage each person to get the watch they have wanted for a long time, rather than trying to match with [their partner].”

As people increasingly eschew traditional notions of marriage, opting for minimal Zoom weddings and abandoning ceremonies completely, engagement watches are poised to become the next big thing. The pandemic, too, could be contributing to couples’ newfound taste for timepieces. Burdened with a heightened awareness of mortality, couples regard watches — the mechanisms that track our course in seconds, minutes and hours — as precious reminders of life and health. As Wind puts it: “The very nature of the watch reminds us that our time here is limited.”

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