Juan Smith was 10 years old when he got his first Swatch wristwatch, the colorful, plastic, timekeeping staple of 1980s youth fashion.
"I wanted one in every color," said Smith, 36, of Pleasant Hill. "I thought I was someone important. Now, I can't for the life of me get my 7-year-old daughter to wear a watch."
With daylight-saving time officially wrapping up at 2 a.m., millions of Americans will turn their clocks and watches back one hour. But as the popularity of automatic, time-adjusting mobile phones and MP3 players continues to soar, fewer people need worry about the retro ritual of manually resetting their clocks.
A survey by Seiko Watches in Japan concluded that the number of people there between the ages of 16 and 49 wearing wristwatches fell from 70 percent in 1997 to 46 percent in 2006. And with more than 50 percent of American teenagers owning their own mobile phone, sales of wristwatches in this country declined by 10 percent, from 2005 to 2006, according to the Donegar Group, which tracks fashion merchandising.
"This may lead to a perception that most Americans no longer buy and wear watches," said Jean-Louis Van Den Bosch, a watch expert for nearly 30 years. "The fact is cell phones can give you the time, but a watch is a status symbol. And you can't bring a sports car into the boardroom."
The decline in necessity and popularity of former must-have style items such as custom cuff links, expensive cigarette cases and lighters has freed up disposable income for accessories like watches.
Van Den Bosch, of Julianna's Fine Jewelry in Corte Madera, said that while sales among teens have slowed, the Swatch Group, which owns more than 20 brand-name watch labels including Omega (007's wristwatch) and Tissot, has done a better job lately selling watches in the $1,500 to $5,000 price range. The Swatch sport watches of the 1980s, which are still available, retail from about $60.
Temple University business Professor Ram Mudambi has studied Swatch and its business practices for decades.
"Bottom line: The margins on Swatch brand, even in its heyday, were never as large as those on the company's luxury lines," said Mudambi, who is also Temple's Perelman senior research fellow at the Fox School of Business. "Swatch and the luxury lines probably contributed about equally to company profits in the late 1980s and early '90s, with Swatch falling and the luxury lines rising since then."
Maria Mendoza, who works at a small watch shop in downtown San Francisco that sells timepieces ranging from Fossil to Swiss Army, said teens who formerly sprung for a $100 watch are now scooping up models as pricey as $1,200.
Van Den Bosch said that although just 3 percent of Americans own watches that retail for at least $300, they are the same men and women who typically own several of the most expensive kinds of timepieces.
This is true for Lars Dittmann, shopping with his wife in downtown San Francisco, who said he habitually wears his blue-faced Citizen model.
"It has long been a habit for me to flip my wrist for the time," said Dittmann, 37, who received the watch as a gift from his father. I have three other nice watches at home, but I wear this one because of its value to me."
Just as there is no shortage of mid-range and luxury watches flooding the market, there is no shortage of watch advertisements, either. Celebrity spokespeople for Tag Heuer include golfer Tiger Woods, tennis star Maria Sharapova and actress Uma Thurman, whose advertisements are prominently featured in glossy fashion magazines, men's publications and newspapers.
Male collectors frequently see their watch purchases as investments, as the value of high-end watches often increases over time. Robert Saenz, who works at the Tag Heuer counter at Bloomingdale's in San Francisco, said he counts newly minted college graduates among his loyal customers.
"Guys come to me and say they want understated elegance," Saenz said. "Men look for quality, versatility, durability and style."
When men reach their 30s and 40s, Van Den Bosch said, they typically become interested in brands such as Rolex, Breitling, Patek Philippe, Vacheron Constantin and Girard-Perregaux. Sales for such watches, he added, have only increased since the emergence of mobile phones and iPods.
But it's women who seem to be purchasing more watches in the $200-$600 range, incorporating them as fashionable accessories, noted Judy Phuong, of Coach, in the Village at Corte Madera. "Ladies can wear them casually, but they can also dress them up," she said. "Some of our most popular watches can be worn on the same arm as bangle bracelets and then worn separately as well."
Some aficionados, such as Alex Howard, 25, have come to view themselves as collectors.
"In high school I mostly used a clock to tell the time, and later my cell phone," she said. "In the last couple years, I wore a chubby bracelet-style watch. Now I have moved on to more elegant, versatile models."
One telling sign that wristwatches are making a comeback was the number of attendees wearing them at the recent opening-night galas at the San Francisco Opera House and Davies Symphony Hall. Many of the best-dressed patrons wore jewel-encrusted cocktail watches every bit as sparkling and eye-catching as their timeless earrings, necklaces and minaudieres.
"What we are seeing is a return to the classics," said Giles Marsden, director of Tiffany & Co. in San Francisco. "Cocktail watches with beautiful diamonds will never go out of style."