Why Timex Is the Best Watch for the Money
“If I say to an American person, ‘It takes a licking,’ they will continue the phrase,” said Silvio Leonardi, an Italy-born executive at the Holland-based parent company of Timex. Leonardi is its senior vice president of international markets, and his mission is to keep Timex ticking as a worldwide style item.
Some of us have always known Timex to be, in cultural terms, the best watch money can buy. Historically, the brand has stood for no-nonsense, all-American classicism, offering an escape from the status-watch game. George W. Bush wore one as president to shore up his common-man bona fides—notwithstanding that a Timex is also a totem called out in The Official Preppy Handbook.
People at the company like to tell anecdotes of their chief executive showing up at a conference wearing the Easy Reader—available on the company’s website for as little as $30—and proceeding to confer with another captain of industry who is wearing the same model attached to a crocodile strap.
The appeal is as durable as the product itself. Just ask the tastemakers at Japan’s Engineered Garments, who released a $100 barber-clock version of the Camper in a run of 3,000 units last spring, which sold out in two hours.
From Tokyo, to London, to a display case in a hip men’s shop near you, Timex is leveraging its heritage (and consumer affection for that heritage) by turning to trendsetters attuned to retro-chic aesthetics. This month, the company released an Expedition Acadia field watch created with the gentrified blue-collar brand Carhartt WIP. It sold out before menswear bloggers could finish breathlessly announcing its existence.
Also this month, a two-year-old subdivision called Timex Archive will deliver its latest batch of attractive throwbacks, the Metropolis collection, in upscale department stores around the globe. In the U.S., you’re most likely to find them at Nordstrom and American Rag.
The watches are inspired by Vietnam War-era military models, and they’re notable for well-crafted reversible straps and funky crystals—“smoked and colored lenses,” the company calls them, as if spinning them as accessories akin to fun sunglasses.
Meanwhile, Timex created three special-editions, produced in runs of 100 units each, for the dapper dans who shop Mr. Porter, a tribe more closely associated with Rolex. “For a company like us, 100 units each is basically wasting money. I see it much more as a communications opportunity,’ Leonardi said. “I’m not making the company richer. I’m making the brand stronger.”
In July, the company will do its fourth collaboration with Todd Snyder. The designer's relationship with Timex dates to his tenure as head of men's design at J. Crew; Timex first tested the waters of fashion with a 2008 collaboration on a field watch. “My father and my grandfather wore them,” said Snyder. “It was the most elegant utilitarian watch at the time. It just had such a broad appeal.”
Here, the designer hits on a key point of the brand’s identity as a style item: Any yahoo with money can buy an expensive watch, but a Timex, with its unique weave of personal and pop-cultural nostalgia, has a special route to achieving sentimental value.
Ryan Babenzien knows it well. His footwear brand Greats is in the early stages of working with Timex on a reissue of the Skindiver, a watch his grandfather gave him as a child after he had outgrown the earlier gift of a Mickey Mouse Timex. “Nostalgia is huge reason I want to tell that story through this watch,” he said.
To appreciate what Leonardi has created—a state of affairs in which the plain face of the 100-million-selling Easy Reader pops up in precious specialty shops—we need a bit of context. Timex Group, founded in 1854 as the Waterbury Clock Company, is effectively divided into three parts.
There’s the mass-market division that places timepieces in Walmart and the sports and technology division that wants to sell you an Ironman. Then there is Timex Boutique, which is where Leonardi comes in. One part of its mission is to distribute slightly fancier Timex models to department stores, watch shops, and, increasingly, fashion retailers.
The series of collaborations resembles an adaptation of the sneaker-drop strategy that builds buzz, earns free press, and encourages hardcore fans to build the brand’s aura. There’s a watch for would-be woodsmen in their Red Wings and one for U.K. skaters who shop at Goodhood.
Like the Timex Archive adventure, the Mr. Porter collaboration puts Timex in the arena of a fun, impulsive purchase for the person who may own a watch that costs 100 times as much. In the same shop where you can buy a $2,000 Gucci belt, you can pick up a $150 timepiece from the Archive’s customizable Mix line via its toy-like, in-store display—a turntable featuring 12 different cases and 12 different Italian-made straps. “For a certain kind of consumer, it’s a no-brainer,” Leonardi says.
The aim is to get inside of your head, or, even better, inside the head of a 15-year-old who had never previously thought of owning a watch. “It’s about talking with people who are not wearing a watch, period,” Leonardi said.
While playing the long game with marketing, they are, in the short term, benefiting from lucky timing. A number of the watches named above involve new takes on models originally worn by service members. Timex, with its long history of military design, is fortunate that its style-conscious pivot is also happening alongside our ongoing fashion moment of bombers, field jackets, and omnipresent camouflage print.
“We have to sell the watch as a fashion accessory,” Leonardi said. “The beauty of this is that we have started at the worst moment in watch history.” He spoke of a retail slump with some degree of excitement. “These are the moments when big things happen.”