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  • Tim Paulsen wears his Panerai Radiomir timepiece in Pacifica, California, April 7, 2012. Paulsen, 35, has been collecting watches since his grandfather gave him a pocket watch when he was 15. He has a collection of 72 watches and says it's addicting. (John Green/Contra Costa Times/MCT)
  • An Ingersoll Bison timepiece is featured in the collection of Tim Paulsen, of Pacifica, California, April 7, 2012. Paulsen, 35, has been collecting watches since his grandfather gave him a pocket watch when he was 15. (John Green/Contra Costa Times/MCT)
  • Some of the timepieces in the collection of Tim Paulsen, of Pacifica, California, are displayed April 7, 2012. Paulsen, 35, has been collecting watches since his grandfather gave him a pocket watch when he was 15. (John Green/Contra Costa Times/MCT)
Sunday, April 29, 2012

It’s about time – watches are back

WALNUT CREEK, Calif. – Move over iPhone, the wristwatch is back.

A wave of statement-making timepieces has renewed interest in this classic men’s accessory. A vintage gold Rolex or a modern Devon Works Tread with conveyor belts not only tells time – it tells you something about the man wearing it.

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.

Tim Paulsen of Pacifica, Calif., is happy to see the return of the timepiece.

“I’m glad to see people interested in them because maybe now I’ll be able to see them in more storefronts,” he says.

Paulsen, who works for a pharmaceutical company, owns 72 pieces, including a $400 limited-edition white Casio G-Shock with a red ticker, a submarine-inspired Italo Fontana U-boat Flightdeck chronograph for $4,000, and a titanium, 60-mm-faced Panerai PAM 341 that cost him $22,000, he says.

“I build my clothes around my watch,” says Paulsen, 35. “It’s like my purse.”

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 last month. Look for gunmetal grays and matte blacks for the holiday season and updates to the classic James Bond diver watches, DePrez says.

“Watches are going through a modern re-emergence but they have a really rich history that men appreciate,” DePrez says. Last year, the retailer moved its inventory of men’s watches from the jewelry department to men’s clothing, where they now share coveted space with silk ties and tech accessories.

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 unique watch is like a classic car, explains Kyle O’Connor, an authorized dealer at the Watch Shoppe in Walnut Creek, Calif., where he sources rare, limited-edition, pre-owned and new watches for Davidson & Licht Jewelers, which opened the store in August.

“A customer will ask me to find him a 1972 Omega Seamaster or a Rolex with a few years on it for 30 percent less than it’d be new,” O’Connor says. “Like golfers or race fans, they love stopping by to talk and learn about the design or technology of their favorite timepieces.”

O’Connor said the current watch craze is an homage to style icons, like Steve McQueen, who made the TAG Heuer Monaco famous, and Paul Newman, synonymous with the Rolex Cosmograph Daytona.

“You can wear a watch for a few years and sell it for another one when your style changes,” he says.

A passion for vintage led brothers Mitch and Andrew Greenblatt of Danville to launch Watchismo, an online retail store for unique watches, in 1998. Within five years, they began to see improved designs in the contemporary market and added modern brands. That’s when business boomed, Mitch says.

Today, they feature thousands of mechanical styles from Japan, Italy, Germany, the United States and Switzerland, starting at $100.

“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.”

Customers interested in high-end mechanical “time machines” from “The Vault” are hosted by appointment in Watchismo’s luxe brick-and-mortar man cave, where the Greenblatts plan to curate watch shows and “Clocktail Hour” parties later this year.

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, while 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.

It’s also a reminder that the timepiece has shifted from a necessity to a form of status and expression, says Nicolas Travis, who covers men’s fashion on his blog, Style Flavors.

“Watches are more portable than fast cars,” he says. “When you look at a man, you look at his shoes, his suit, and now, his watch.”