Her-ology: Talking Women and Watches With Barbara Palumbo
Her-ology is about speaking with women in watch culture about watch culture.
Looking through the history section of any given watch brand's website will show you countless images of elderly, moustachioed Swiss gentleman proudly standing to their creations; but this isn't the 1800s anymore and women hold more positions of authority in the watch industry than ever before. Hermes' Vice-President of Strategy and Communication, Cartier's Head of Movement Creation and the President of Audemars Piguet are all women but it's likely you didn't know that.
Her-ology is about speaking with women in the watch industry about all things time. My first guest is Barbara Palumbo, writer of whatsonherwrist, a blog dedicated to discussing everything about watches from a female perspective.
TC: Barbara, thank you for taking the time to speak with me. Could you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got into watches?
BP: Gladly, I'm a forty-three-year-old freelance writer, mother of two, and wife of one (that I know about). I would consider my métier to be writing about the jewelry and watch industries by taking a humorous approach to them; a skill that has both set me apart as well as given me a bit of a reputation as a "controversial blogger” (whatever that means). I have worked in various industries since 1996 – manufacturing, retail, wholesale, marketing, internet retail, luxury sales, design, and media – and was first introduced to high-end timepieces back in 2000.
BP: Watches weren’t always on my radar as a topic I wanted to learn more about until the last two years or so. I began reading articles written by Revolution Magazine and Hodinkee and started to become more interested in horology largely because of how well these articles were written. But I also noticed – as explained in a blog post I wrote about a year ago on my jewelry blog – that there was an element largely missing from a lot of what I was reading: the voice of women. And while several of the world’s most talented watch journalists are women, I couldn’t find a site set up that focused solely on women in the watch world, their points of view, watches available for them, or stories about them. It was then that I decided I would give writing about the watch world a go. So far I have no regrets. So far. But, there’s still time.
TC: It's dreadful that despite reading about watches everyday, I struggle to name more than a handful of female watch journalists and writers; Roberta Nass, Elizabeth Doer, Cara Barrett and yourself are about all I can manage. By combining the staff of A Blog To Watch and Hodinkee, easily the two most influential watch sites, you have a total of 40 people and only three are women, that's pretty shocking. How can an industry that is so male dominated better speak to women?
BP: By honestly, probably speaking a little less and listening a little (or a lot) more. By being more fun and less stuffy. By challenging the norm and going outside of their comfort zones. And by realizing, finally, that women drive nearly 80% of all consumer purchasing through a combination of their own personal buying power and the influence they have on other buyers. There’s a cliché we Italians tend to use a lot in our lives: “Money talks. Bullsh*t walks.” When the watch industry decides to adopt that phrase, we’ll start seeing some changes happen, I believe. The industry needs to find its meaning as it pertains to their female consumer but even more importantly they need to convert that meaning into desire.
TC: What are some of the worst sins that the Swiss Watch industry commits when designing women's watches?
BP: Oof. Well, “sins” is your word, my friend. I’m too green to use the word “sins.” Plus, I’m the new kid on the block. I haven’t put enough time in to piss off the Swiss yet.
TC: I gave up on not pissing off people long ago. I will always attempt to be respectful in my opinions but when something is wrong, like Hublot arranging a one-time promotion with a man convicted of multiple counts of domestic abuse, I'll gladly speak my mind. Anyway, I digress.
BP: From a design standpoint, the watch industry might want to start looking at women’s careers and what women are doing daily in today’s society, before they sit down to design a new everyday model. Take me, for example. I work largely from my home office although I travel about one week out of the month. I don’t necessarily want a watch that’s glitzy. I occasionally have meetings during the week where I need to be dressed up, and for those moments, my watches with diamonds on the bezel or at their hour markers work perfectly. But when I’m in my jeans, headed out to a concert with my husband, or picking up my kids from camp, I’d like something durable, practical, versatile, and preferably automatic. It doesn’t have to look like a man’s watch, nor does it have to look like a woman’s.
TC: I think there are a lot of missed opportunities when it comes to gender neutral watches. I know Hodinkee's Cara Barrett was very impressed with the Tudor Heritage Black Bay 36, a watch that can be worn by either gender without looking overtly feminine or masculine. It's a shame that female watches are so often constrained to either being a smaller, blingier men's watch or a delicate, barely functional flowers.
BP: There are exceptions, of course, but it could have something to do with the fact that a lot of the watch brands still have heterosexual men at the helm, and if men can’t figure out women in general, how on Earth can they figure out what a woman might want on her wrist? I am half joking, of course, as a large percentage of the world’s most successful clothing and shoe designers are men, but when it comes to watches, the choices do become thin. Look, women are not easy. I know this, firsthand. What we love today we will hate tomorrow and what looked great yesterday will wind up in today’s “donate” bin, but, the industry might want to think about the fact that they can’t keep pumping out the same styles/categories/marketing campaigns and expect different results.
BP: My opinions can be swayed if the arguments against them are backed up with either facts or a damned good story. Take diving, for example. I am not a water person in the least, but a day may come when I might read a well-written article about a dive watch that was beautifully photographed somewhere in the Indian Ocean and immediately I run out and sign up for diving lessons, followed up with a purchase of a Seamaster. I live for a tale that I can insert myself into. Give me an ad that isn’t associated with a celebrity. Tell me – through real life scenarios, or through an impassioned story line – why I need another watch. Why I need your brand’s watch. Speak to me, and explain to me why I won’t regret my purchase. I am open minded and I’m a good listener. I am a woman, after all.
TC: Which brands do you think do women's watches right?
BP: For me, there is something so very real and so very genuinely proper about a classic Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso for women. It doesn’t have to be an elaborate model. Just a simple, gold Reverso will do. I especially love the new Reverso One Cordonnet, as it can be worn with a business suit, or to a soccer practice, or to the movies. That’s the versatility I spoke of earlier. And the story behind the Reverso makes it even more special. And while I don’t own one (yet) it is the watch I covet most.
TC: Many years ago (when I was still living in England and my wife was still my fiance), we went up to the Jaeger-LeCoultre boutique in London and she fell in love with the Reverso . When a design works for nearly one hundred years and looks good on any wrist, that's when you know you've done a good job!
BP: I also feel that Bremont’s Solo 32 model makes a lot of sense. It’s labeled as a women’s watch, however, I feel that it falls into a gender-neutral category. It’s automatic, not overly masculine looking, and is accompanied by a good story. It hits all the right notes, in my opinion. Plus, Nick and Giles are as cute as buttons. I was probably supposed to think that and not say it. Oops. There are certainly others who make gorgeous high-jewellery watches like Chopard, Piaget, and Harry Winston, but the above stand out for me as pieces I would and could wear in my daily life.
TC: Over the last twenty years you've been working in jewelry and watches, how has the industry changed for women working within it and those being sold to?
BP: I would like to say that the industries have gotten more accepting of women in positions of power or craft and less misogynistic on the whole, but that would be a stretch (I can hear the eyes rolling already). In some cases things have gotten better for women, but in others, the industry appears to be going backward. I don’t think women ask for things or want things or demand things because we’re trying to make waves, be difficult, or be political. I think we ask for, want, and demand what we feel is fair and equal.
BP: The biggest goal I have set for myself is to be there in every way for the women in these industries who are younger than I and who need guidance, positivity, and mentoring. The women in their twenties and thirties who have chosen a career in watches or jewelry need to see that there were strong women who came before them, who sacrificed in the name of them, and who battled through all of the adversity so that the next generation could believe that the goals they set for themselves were not impossible. I am only the person I am because I had and have women – and men – to look up to, and with each generation that works toward gender equality, the idea of it becomes more realistic.
BP: With regard to how women are being sold to I honestly don’t know if a lot has changed, but I’m hopeful that very soon this will no longer be the case. Statistically speaking, women are the consumers who count most, and many industries have not only figured that out already but have also marketed to them successfully. I think the watch industry is still struggling with it, though. But, I do believe that at the very least it is being discussed and taken seriously.
TC: My manager at the first jewelers I worked at was a force to be reckoned with and I think you two have a lot in common! She became a manager at a young age and didn't let anything or anyone's perception of her get in the way of what she wanted. If she didn't hire me as a part-timer I wouldn't have discovered my love of watches and I'd probably be stuck working a job I hate instead of writing about my passion so I have her to thank for getting me started! Which women in the watch world do you admire?
BP: I admire anyone – male or female – who breaks tradition and goes outside of the norm. In terms of watch design, I think Scottish designer, Fiona Krüger, is shaking things up a bit while not losing the art of traditional watchmaking. She’s a millennial, Scottish, and a woman. I mean, talk about being a watch outsider!
BP: I also give a lot of credit to Kathleen McGivney who is the COO of the watch enthusiast group, RedBar. She manages the group’s operations, events, and charitable giving and is a watch collector as well. And on a personal level, I greatly admire my friend of sixteen years, Michelle Peranteau, who was Marketing Director at Baume et Mercier for many years before heading over to Harry Winston. I know what difficulties she’s had to overcome and yet she still thrives in this industry and never looks behind her.
TC: What advice to women looking to get into the watch industry be?
BP: Find your voice. Find your passion. Be honest about what you like. Be forthright in your opinions. Don’t listen to the naysayers. Don’t worry about not knowing every name for every watch part (yet). Stand your ground when you think you’re right. Know your worth even when you’re wrong. And don’t do anything for “exposure” when you know you should be getting paid.
TC: And finally, what watch are you wearing right now?
BP: Right now? As I type this response? The Swatch Irony I bought for myself in Lugano, Switzerland in 2003. But the crystal is a bit scratched so I would rather show you a picture of the Hermès Heure H I got earlier in the year simply because it has been a fairly reliable watch for me and the strap is my favorite color so I wear it several days per week. It’s an eye catching watch that I feel represents where I am in my world right at this moment, so I am sticking with it until my life goes through another significant change, which it likely will, because I refuse to live in a universe where I’m not challenged.