Alice Arden was already planning on asking his partner to marry him when he got a surprise proposal. He and his partner Ben Knudtson were in Bellingham, Washington, on a weekend-long staycation in November 2020. When they got back to their Airbnb, Knudtson popped the question.
Instead of an engagement ring, Arden and Knudtson cemented their union with a different item: a watch. “I think he was looking for something that fit us aesthetically, but also something that felt personalised,” says Arden. “These feel more personal.”
Arden and Knudtson aren’t the only ones who feel this way. "Engagement watches" are fast becoming a trend. On Instagram, the hashtags #engagementwatch and #engagementwatches are growing in popularity. At the same time, more sellers are marketing their watch offerings to the soon-to-be betrothed.
For some people, especially women looking to propose to their male partners or LGBTQ couples, watches are becoming a way to forgo the traditional engagement route.
Although Arden and Knudtson aren’t firm believers in the institution of marriage, they see the value in formalising their relationship in a legal way. But Arden says they wanted to approach this next step on their own terms.
Although their watches don’t match, they are both from the same brand, Original Grain, which specialises in handcrafted pieces inspired by the Pacific Northwest. The watches nod to Arden and Knudtson’s “forever home” in Seattle and their favourite beverages: The timepieces are made from repurposed wine and beer wood barrels, respectively. For the couple, watches offered an opportunity to participate in the traditions of engagement and marriage in a personal way — and without the outdated social norms or the skyrocketing price tag of rings.
“This season, more couples have been forgoing traditional rings as engagement presents, instead opting for gender-neutral watches,” says Morgan Le Caer, a content lead at global fashion search platform Lyst. During the past year, Lyst has seen a 42% increase in searches for “couple,” “engagement” and “wedding” watches. Le Caer adds that models usually marketed for men, like the Rolex Pre-owned 40mm Submariner, are getting more attention from female shoppers.
Engagement rings have been used in different iterations since the 15th century, with men traditionally giving women rings to officialize a marital agreement. But the modern significance of using diamond rings to propose dates back to the early 20th century. In 1947, diamond rings became increasingly popular after De Beers, a British company, launched an ad campaign to help boost their significance in the United States. The slogan “a diamond is forever” declared diamond rings the most valuable form of engagement present.
Since then, rings have become an essential part of modern-day engagements, with 72% of brides-to-be surveyed getting a diamond, according to the 2019 Diamond Insight Report by De Beers Group. The price of engagement rings varies depending on the carat size, metal, and brand, but according to The Knot’s 2020 Jewelry and Engagement Study, the average cost is $5,500 (roughly £4000). That’s a hefty amount to drop for many couples, especially when the responsibility falls on one partner.
For some, the lack of an object announcing their relationship status adds to the appeal of an engagement watch. Arden says that since getting engaged last November, the two have yet to come across anyone asking them about their engagement or relationship — something he’s thankful for.
“I think that if we were wearing rings, people would be curious about it,” he says. “But there is nothing pointing to my watch that says ‘This is an engagement ring.’”
Watches have had a general spike in popularity in the past few years, according to McKinsey & Co’s 2021 State Of Fashion Report. High-end pieces became a particularly strong category amid the pandemic, thanks to their appeal as investment items. Although rings continue to be the dominant engagement piece, according to experts interviewed, watches offer a versatility and intimacy that may, one day, outweigh the pros of a traditional ring.
Lisa Fristik, senior director of fine jewellery and watches at Fashionphile, has also seen an interest in the trend: Fashionphile is currently on track to sell more watches in 2021 than it did the previous year, doubling its revenue from this category. Searches for the word “watch” are up 73% on the site compared to 2020, while “women’s watch” have increased by 92% since last year. “For women, watches are seen as jewellery,” adds Fristik.
Fristik says that watches are becoming more common as engagement presents because they are seen as heritage investment pieces that — much like rings — are passed down from generation to generation. They are also, according to Fristik, a way to tailor to people’s unique tastes, which might not include rings.
Fristik would know. In 2012, she gave her now-husband a watch when the two got married because he didn’t want to wear a wedding ring. “It’s a perfect example because he said, ‘I have long skinny fingers and rings look silly on me; I’d like a watch’,” she remembers. “It’s all about personal preference.”
Come October 2021, Arden and Knudtson will be married in a small ceremony with close to 30 guests. Only then will the two venture into wearing wedding rings. When Arden thinks back to their engagement, he says that even if it'd been the other way around, he wouldn’t have chosen a ring.
“The more I think about it, watches are the thing I would have gone with,” he says.