Star-spotters love SIHH, Baselworld and other high-profile watch events because that’s when the brands get to flaunt their A-list – or in some cases, Z-list – ambassadors. And yeah, it is kinda cool bumping into Pierce or Bryan. From actors to tennis court champions, football players to rock bands, every type of racing driver, any supermodel with name recognition: watches are the ultimate form of real-life product placement because they’re small and can be found on the celeb’s wrist.

For the brands that pursue the famous, nothing beats getting those stars to attend meet-and-greet sessions with easily-flattered clients or even allegedly-jaded hacks. The latter quickly lose their composure in the presence of sport or pop culture gods. Over the years, my sleeve has been tugged countless times by fellow scribes, to the exclamations of: “Hey, isn’t that Arnie/Gigi/Orlando/Kate/Roger?”

From left: Stéphane Bianchi, Jean-Claude Biver, Cara Delevingne and David Yarrow
From left: Stéphane Bianchi, Jean-Claude Biver, Cara Delevingne and David Yarrow

CEOs seem to love it even more than the scribes, and one or two are known for having more photos taken with celebrities than even your typical New York restaurateur. Hmm… I wonder if there are office walls at various manufacture HQs, festooned with just such cosy images, like you used to see at the now-defunct Stage Deli.

Forgive any taint of cynicism, because I really do get it. And yet…I wonder if ambassadors actually sell watches. I have stated before the instant response whenever I ask about this, e.g. “Has anyone ever bought a watch because George/Cara wore it?” The exasperated PR or CEO always says the same thing: by placing watches on famous wrists, they get coverage in the glossy magazines which would otherwise be more preoccupied with the notables’ attire.

This is the time of year when the machinery is cranked up to 11: awards season, culminating in the Oscars. I stopped counting the press releases from brands which used the Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild Award ceremonies as billboards. I only hope that Breguet was sharp enough to strap a discreet Classique on Gary Oldman’s wrist, who – at the time of writing – is sweeping the board with his astounding performance as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour.

Gary Oldman portrayal as Sir Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour (Image © Focus Features)
Gary Oldman portrayal as Sir Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour (Image © Focus Features)

Turn to any of the coverage of exclusive society parties, and you can spot well-placed items – not just watches, but handbags, sunglasses and other accoutrements – that imply “gilt” (without the “u”) by association. It’s a way of telling us mere mortals that, provided we have the means, we, too, can experience a frisson of the life enjoyed by the famous.

So deeply entrenched in the watch industry is the ambassadors shtick that it takes either a brave or a supremely successful brand to eschew completely associations with the famous. Conversely, there are brands which don’t actually need ambassadors, but who continue to support them. Whether a habit or an addiction, the best-ever watch endorsements are those which happen independent of the companies’ promotion departments.

You know the roll-call: Steve McQueen’s Rolex Submariner and his Heuer Monaco, which – though pitched by the brand – was favoured by real racing drivers. Rudolph Valentino and the Cartier Tank he insisted on wearing in his final film. John Lennon’s Patek Philippe. Elvis Presley’s Hamilton Ventura and Rolex King Midas. Buddy Holly’s Omega. Anything to do with NASA. And the ultimate benediction: Paul Newman’s, er, Paul Newman. These pairings were unsolicited and those who care about authenticity know this.

John Lennon and his Patek Philippe (Image: www.charlestearle.com)
John Lennon and his Patek Philippe (Image: www.charlestearle.com)

Because fact-and-fiction, myth-and-reality and other competing aspects of our existence have been blurred by social media and a general, global lowering of criteria, it may be that distinguishing between them no longer matters. For all of the above watch choices, which were made by the famous wearers, it must be said that most hired (or simply watch-gifted) ambassadors are chosen for aptness.

Rolex is a perfect example of ensuring that those it reveals as owners of their watches are admirable achievers. Federer? Clapton? Kiri te Kanawa? We are talking AAA-list. Breguet is even more blessed in its unpaid-for name-dropping: Napoleon, Ettore Bugatti, Churchill. And Patek Philippe? Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington are enough to convince me of the brand’s absolute respectability.

In the post-Harvey Weinstein era, much could change vis-à-vis distaff ambassadors. I anticipate fewer CEOs being photographed with their hands on starlets’ tushies than in the past: I am sure the #MeToo movement will ensure that anything even remotely tacky or cheesecake-y will be frowned upon. Which is actually a clarion call to the entire watch industry which it probably didn’t need.

Elvis Presley and his Rolex King Midas (Image: www.demesy.com)
Elvis Presley and his Rolex King Midas (Image: www.demesy.com)

Aside from the elegant, haute couture-clad, and deliberately non-suggestive ladies on certain stands, especially those of companies with jewellery to sell as well as watches, the watch industry (unlike, say, the car biz) is remarkably free of what are disparagingly called “booth babes”. And that’s a good thing, because #MeToo means that sex no longer sells. As for fame? That’s still money in the bank.