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How Do Affordable Watches Generate Hype?

March 15, 2024

How attainable watch brands both big and small have successfully generated hype through limited drops and artificial scarcity

When you hear the term "hype watch," it's likely that you think of two models: the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak and Patek Philippe Nautilus. Add to those the Rolex Daytona and anything Richard Mille has made and you get a decent picture of the 2022 watch market bubble. These models skyrocketed in popularity, becoming well-known status symbols with a cultural impact reaching far beyond the watch world. Much of their success can be attributed to social media influence. Royal Oaks, Richard Milles, and Rolexes grace the wrists of many celebrities, ensuring their relevance in pop culture. But as mechanical watches more generally have grown in popularity, a new breed of "hype watch" has emerged, one driven not by glitzy social media influencers but by true watch enthusiasts. In the wake of a MoonSwatch craze and several hard-to-get releases from microbrands, the term "hype watch" may be in need of redefinition.

The Hype Watch Redefined

So, then, what is a hype watch? Better yet, what is a "hype" product in the first place? One definition is an item that becomes successful largely through social media exposure and scarcity. Sneaker and streetwear brands have long generated hype through drops–think of when Supreme-branded bricks sold out in minutes. "Dropping" a product normally means making it available at a set time and in limited amounts. Combine that with social media attention on platforms like Instagram and you get a perfect recipe for a buying frenzy. Consequently, the use of drops soon caught on in other industries, from skateboards to Stanley water bottles.

Using drops has several benefits. The most obvious is creating urgency from nothing. By limiting the amount of time a consumer can get a product, a brand tricks the consumer into making a purchase they might ordinarily postpone. In other words, the sense of excitement a drop creates can cloud a customer's judgment.

In watch collecting, price perception is distorted. A $600 watch like a Furlan Marri meca-quartz chronograph is actually a fairly large purchase for what is essentially a fashion accessory. However, when compared to a Rolex, $600 may seem like petty cash. When a product is dropped, the consumer may think "well, it's only $600, and I won't be able to get it at any other time, so I may as well buy one." They may even consider that the watch can be sold for a premium on the secondary market, so the risk of losing money and regretting the purchase is lower. Scalpers buy the product with this express intent.

More practically, using drops is a tool to reduce overhead for smaller companies. These brands only sell a set amount of inventory at specific times. Additionally, if they make watches available for preorder in a specific time slot, they know exactly how to meet demand while still maintaining the excitement of a limited availability window. Also, by artificially creating scarcity, a watch brand can afford to produce fewer watches; a watchmaker can charge higher prices because demand surges during drop times. Once scalpers cotton on to the craze surrounding a watch, the effect snowballs. Buyers with no intention of keeping the watch snap up units to make a quick buck on Chrono24 or Ebay.

Notable Affordable Hype Watches

Omega X Swatch MoonSwatch
Perhaps the most famous example of this phenomenon is the MoonSwatch, a joint release from Swatch and Omega that originally retailed for $260. In 2022, Omega stooping to partner with an affordable brand like Swatch was unheard of. The idea that you could get an authentic watch from a luxury brand like Omega for less than $300 led to a frenzy. The demand for this watch extended far beyond enthusiast circles. During the initial craze, prices on the secondary market rose to double and even triple retail prices. According to Swatch, over one million units were sold in 2022. Despite this, Swatch managed to artificially maintain scarcity by making the watch exclusively available in boutiques. On launch day, people lined up outside stores to get their hands on their favorite model. This tactic was aided by scalpers who rushed to resale sites, jacking up prices for those unable or unwilling to go to stores.

The watch itself offered poor value and was carried solely by its association with Omega. Several quality issues emerged, ranging from coloring rubbing off to easily broken chronograph pushers. The cases were made of Bioceramic, a proprietary mixture of plastic and ceramic. To further capitalize off of the hype surrounding the model, Swatch released several Mission to Moonshine Gold Watches. These low-effort releases were normal MoonSwatches with "moonshine gold" chronograph hands and were only available briefly at select locations. 

Baltic MR01

In October 2021, Baltic effectively used drops to debut its new vintage-inspired dress watch, the MR01. The French microbrand released the new model in runs of 200 pieces in three colors. The model sold out in two hours. Baltic only made the model available again in two scheduled preorder periods in 2022. The watch received an overwhelmingly positive response from the media and hobbyists. The design offered a taste of high-horology watchmaking in a very affordable package. The elegant proportions, well finished dial, and micro-rotor movement (achieved through Chinese production) called to mind watches worth several times its 550-euro price tag. The model grew so popular that scalpers rushed to purchase it after realizing they could make easy cash on resale sites. However, Baltic seems to have caught up with demand after the initial craze. The MR01 is now back in stock and the number of listings on Chrono24 has decreased significantly.

Studio Underd0g Watermelon Watch

The small British watchmaker Studio Underd0g has grown a cult following. The brand started in the pandemic when Richard Benc, a former designer for Braun watches, got fed up with the absurd over-seriousness of the industry. His playful, colorful designs like the now famous Watermelon Watch don't take themselves too seriously. The brand sells its watches using a simple drop model in which products are available on its site for a limited time. If you want to get one from the official website, you'll either have to be lucky or sign up for email notifications. Otherwise you'll need to pay a premium of several hundred dollars on eBay or Chrono24. At the time of writing, all models are sold out.

Furlan Marri Meca-Quartz Watches

In 2021, Furlan Marri's release of five limited edition meca-quartz chronographs took the watch world by storm. The quintet was widely lauded by reviewers for offering exceptional finishing and attention to detail. The design drew comparisons to classic chronographs from the likes of Patek Philippe and Vacheron Constantin, from which the brand took heavy inspiration. Furlan Marri released several more editions, once again in limited quantities. Notably, all previous models will never be produced again. This sales practice further increased the hype surrounding the models. While the chronographs originally sold for around $500, many fetched over $1,000 on the secondary market.

Closing Thoughts

In some of these examples, the intentions behind the scarcity or limited drops are far less clear-cut than those which underpinned luxury streetwear. Often, demand is unforeseen and production simply cannot keep up. In the case of very new brands like Studio Underg0g, continuous production of watches may not yet be possible.

Lack of availability is becoming an ever greater problem for watch buyers, and one they vocally oppose. Nobody likes to jump through hoops to get a watch, even if that very difficulty is what makes many watches so desirable. Making watches limited, which typically involves drops in the case of small brands or creating a long process to get a watch in the case of Rolex or Patek Philippe, is undoubtedly an extremely effective way of generating hype around a product. Given the success affordable brands have seen by using it, the drop method is likely to stick around.


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