Move over iPhone, the wristwatch is back.
Since cellphones and other gadgets became popular timekeepers, watches have lost some of their luster.
But thanks to the timepiece's retro appeal and new bold designs, style-conscious men are giving them a boost -- as a fashion accessory. They were strapped to the wrists of male models strutting the runways at last February's New York Fashion week, and the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry reports that watch sales in 2011 were the highest in 20 years.
The trend crosses all price points, from more common labels, like Timex and Tommy Hilfiger, to luxury brands, like Rolex and Tag Heuer. Sales of watches up to $300 increased 22 percent from 2010 to 2011, while those priced $300 to $1,000 increased 25 percent, according to LGI Networks, a market research company that tracks the industry.
And the Swatch Group and Fossil both increased production on their wallet-friendly men's fashion watches after seeing sales increase by at least 40 percent last year.
The women's category is expanding as well, but not as fast as men's watches. If anything, women like borrowing their guys' watches because it makes a sexy statement, says Mary DePrez, the national watch buyer for Nordstrom.
Bright colors, rubber straps and military-chic were among the trends she spotted at Baselworld, an annual watch show, in Switzerland in March. Look for gunmetal grays and matte blacks for the holiday season and updates to the classic James Bond diver watches, DePrez says.
This renewed interest in watches is an effort for men to rediscover their identity in contemporary society, says Blake Buettner, a contributor for Hodinkee, the online magazine for watch geeks, which attracts 250,000 unique visitors a month and helps curate high-end vintage watch sales, including a sale May 25-27 at The Common in San Francisco.
"This is a romantic vision of what a guy should be and have in his arsenal, whether it's an old pipe, a great leather jacket from the 1970s or a cool mechanical watch," says Buettner, of St. Louis. "It kind of makes him feel like he belongs in a gentleman's club."
A passion for vintage led brothers Mitch and Andrew Greenblatt of Danville to launch Watchismo, an online retail store for unique watches, in 1998.
"Everyone has the same cellphone, so the watch is able to be more like a mechanical sculpture for the wrist," Mitch says. "Some of them are like an extension of the Bionic Man."
With magnified hours and minutes in the form of convex eyes, the $5,700 steel Azimuth Mr. Roboto is a modern homage to 1950s tin robot toys.
The best-selling Mr. Jones The Accurate makes a more intellectual statement. The hour hand on the $189 timepiece reads "remember," and the minute hand reads "you will die."
The carpe diem message hits you every time you see yourself in the mirrored face.