Identity can be defined simply as the core of a person. In order to tell those around them who they are on the inside, people are able to showcase their identity using fashion and accessories. Groups of people that identify with particular classes may want to express their identity clearly so they can surround themselves with people of a similar status. It is also the case that some people strive to identify with higher classes and want to achieve status that they do not hold. This can all be done through the use of louder signals, specifically through well known wrist-wear brands. Some may question why signals of identity are important to social structures. Pierre Bourdieu, in his report entitled “Distinction”, endorses this idea. He states that “…cultural consumption [is] predisposed to fulfill a social function of legitimating social differences.” (7) That is, every act of consumption ratifies the social structure of status and class that is already flooding society. To wish to express identity by associating with others of similar classes is simply an inclination of consumer nature. Many people succeed in showing their identity and associating with like-minded people through their choice in wrist-wear though the distinctions are becoming less clear as trends ruffle the categories.
The people that have a disposable income and the means to spend their money on non-necessities can buy high end and well-known watch brands such as Rolex. Rolex watches are known for their sleek design and complex movements. Rolex watches are also world-renowned due to their pricey nature. The higher-priced Rolex allows only those that are wealthy to purchase them, lending to its elusive nature. This high-priced “watch club” means that those who wear Rolex watches can be seen as having achieved a higher status. Those that identify with a high status may feel that it is necessary to wear a Rolex. In “Signaling Status with Luxury Goods”, Young Jee Han, Joseph Nunes, and Xavier Dreze define the wearers of brands like Rolex as “parvenus” or those that associate with [others that have high status] and want to dissociate themselves from [those that have a lower status.]”(17). Not only does wearing this watch put them into a group seen as exclusive, but most people know of Rolex, a “loud signal brand”, meaning that the audience they are portraying their identity to is wide.
Those that want to associate with people of a similar class but do not want to use loud signals and overt brands may choose to wear less widely known watch brands at even higher price points. Patek Phillipe watches can cost over $1,000,000 and though they are well known among watch collectors and connoisseurs, many people may not have heard of this brand. The wearers that choose this brand may not try to dissociate themselves from people of a lower status. However, by choosing this watch, a quieter-signal brand, those that are knowledgable will understand that the wearer identifies as having a very high status. Jee Han, Nunes and Dreze describe the Patek Phillipe wearer as a “patrician” or those who use quiet signals to identify with a particular class. “Patricians” rely on the fact that their audience, though smaller, has knowledge of the branding. Bourdieu expands on this idea by arguing that something like a high end watch only has “meaning and interest for someone who possesses the cultural competence, that is the code into which it is encoded.” (2) Though many people may not know of the brand Patek Phillipe, those that do know are aware of the craftsmanship and time that is spent creating the watch. People with the knowledge of the brand are the ones that the “patricians” are trying to signal to, and therefore trying to surround themselves with.
Some people may wish to identify with higher classes and statuses but may not have the means to get there. They may choose to buy knockoff or “replica” versions of high-end watch brands to signal to an audience that they are of a certain status. Those that are part of a higher class may recognize that the watch is not real. The rest of the audience, however, may assume that the replica watch is indeed authentic and may view the person, a “poseur” (Jee Han, Nunes, Dreze, 17), as someone of a high status. Replica watches favored by “poseurs” tend to be copies of well-known and high end, brands such as Rolex, as it signals loudly to a wide audience. Those that are attempting to hide that their watch is a replica would most likely steer clear from quieter signaling high-end watch brands such as Patek Phillipe, as the group of people with knowledge of the watch brand might immediately be able to decipher it as a replica.
Some watches are worn for the sole purpose of functionality. Timex creates watches that are worn by hikers, bikers, athletes and people that simply want their watch to work and tell time. Jee Han, Nunes and Dreze define this group of people as “proletarians” or those that “do not engage in signaling.” (17) “Proletarians” are not trying to express their status, especially not through the watch they wear. The audience reads that those who wear simple yet functional watches are not necessarily trying to make any statement regarding fashion nor class.
However, watch brands such as Timex may be marketing to a more fashion forward audience in recent years thanks to a fashion movement that has been created around their target market. With the rise of trends such as “normcore” (making normal and functional-fashion cool) watches that serve a mostly functional purpose are being appropriated by those that follow fashion trends and are trying to make a fashion statement. The Timex watch may no longer identify a person as one that prefers function over fashion. Timex has been seen on models in GQ photo-shoots, is being pushed by Esquire men’s fashion lists, and has been advertising their watches to the young, urban male. As fashion trends continue to ride on the tails of functional pieces, those that would have preferred high-end watch brands are now wearing lower-end models for the sake of following the fad.
A person’s identity can be communicated and read a multitude of ways thanks to accessories such as watches, however, the expression is becoming much more ambiguous. As replicas become more precise and lower-end pieces continue to be appropriated by those that can afford higher-end watch brands, a clear identity of a person may be difficult to apprehend through their wrist-wear alone.
Bourdieu, Pierre. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. 1984.
Dreze, Xavier; Jee Han, Young; Nunes, Joseph C. “Signaling Status with Luxury Goods: The Role of Brand Prominence.” Journal of Marketing. Vol 74. (2010): 15-30.