Enthusiasts say their shared interest has widened their social circle as they bond over all things horological.
Two years ago, Johnathan Chan, Helbert Tsang and Carlos Pang — friends from Hong Kong with a shared interest in timepieces — booked a table for three at a cigar club in the city’s Central district so they could chat about watches over drinks.
A week before the get-together, the men promoted their new group, the Horology Club, on Instagram in case anyone else wanted to join. As the evening drew nearer, they had to keep expanding the reservation to accommodate more RSVPs. In the end, 25 watch enthusiasts showed up. Since then, they’ve organized about 20 monthly watch events, some attracting as many as 100 people.
“We never intended to start a watch club,” Mr. Tsang said last month on a video call joined by Mr. Chan and Mr. Pang.
And yet their group now counts nearly 500 members and has spawned four to five subgroups dedicated to interests such as sports, art and photography.
“Watches are just the lubricant,” Mr. Chan said.
It is a dynamic familiar to watch enthusiasts around the world, many of whom have discovered that meeting new friends is easier than ever thanks to the hundreds of watch meet-ups happening every month in cities from Seattle to Sydney.
Take it from Kathleen McGivney, chief executive of RedBar Group, a New York-based watch collector organization with about 90 chapters worldwide.
“We add a new chapter seemingly every week,” Ms. McGivney said on a recent call. “We’re on every continent except Antarctica.
“If there’s anybody reading this at one of the science stations in Antarctica, reach out!” she added.
You can credit the fervor over meet-ups (like many recent trends in the watch world) to the pandemic, which expanded the ranks of watch enthusiasts as well as their collective appetite for in-person gatherings.
“As people were able to get together, people were hungry for it,” Ms. McGivney said. “It always comes back to the community for me. People come together because of this common interest, and they then forge friendships that go way beyond that.”
It’s a far cry from the early days of the mechanical watchmaking renaissance, which coincided with the birth of the internet. For anyone interested in meeting other watch lovers in the late 1990s and early 2000s, online watch forums, usually dedicated to specific brands, presented the best opportunity. But beyond their virtual limitations, they came with their own set of challenges.
David Sharp, a Glasgow-based collector who helped found RedBar U.K. in London in 2016, described the online forums as “slightly toxic, where dissenting voices that didn’t align with what the group thought of the brand were shunned or banned,” he said by phone recently.
“But as Instagram began to build, things became more democratized because you could talk on your own,” he added. “Then brands themselves ran events and invited clients. You’d meet other people who were invited as well, and you’d engage with them.”
Now, opportunities abound when it comes to making friends in the watch world. And the focus is unquestionably on inclusivity.
Georgia Benjamin, a 32-year-old digital-marketing designer from England who now lives in Los Angeles, made that realization this spring, when she joined the Neighborhood Watch Club, a three-year-old collectors group founded by another expat, Jarrod Cooper, a watch lover from Australia, now also in Los Angeles.
She had imagined there would be a very high barrier to joining any watch club — maybe even requiring ownership of expensive watches, she said on a recent call. And, she said, “I thought nobody would be interested in this overly excited gal who wanted to talk about watches.”
“My first event was a swap meet,” Ms. Benjamin said. “I said I wasn’t going to buy a watch, but I bought a gorgeous Omega Constellation pie-pan with a gilt dial. I met all the big L.A. vintage dealers and it was so much fun. It opened my eyes to how prominent the community is in L.A. and also how small and connected it is.”
When Mr. Cooper founded the club, he was very deliberate about emphasizing its open-to-all ethos.
“No matter who you are or what you own or don’t own, everybody’s welcome,” he said on a recent call. “I’m a big Seiko collector, which you can get for a few hundred dollars. No one really cares if you’ve got the latest Rolex.”
The experience of enjoying watches in a judgment-free zone, surrounded by people from diverse backgrounds, is what the collector Jason Gong, who had worked in the field of diversity, equity and inclusion, sought to foster when he founded Complecto, a New York-based watch community, in 2021.
“The deeper I got into the rabbit hole of watch collecting, I noticed there was a glaring lack of representation in watch media, and at events, of women, especially women of color, and people of color,” Mr. Gong said by phone recently.
“I was able to draw parallels between my day job as a D.E.I. practitioner and see that the same barriers were afflicting the watch industry and collector community more broadly,” he added.
Mr. Gong held his first meet-up in April 2022 at a hotel in New York City. He had spent months planting seeds for the event. “I focused largely on other underrepresented enthusiasts I knew through the hobby,” he said. “Most of these meet-ups tend to be male and white. I was very aware when I stepped in a room and saw a Black or brown person or a woman or woman of color, I naturally gravitated to them.
“Over months of going to every event that I could, I started to socialize and found a lot of folks that were chomping at the bit to come through,” he added. “And for dozens of people that was their first meet-up.”
Complecto now has a mailing list with more than 2,000 names, he said. “The only requirement we have for membership is a shared sense of values around creating a more inclusive, diverse watch industry,” Mr. Gong said.
“I want to reach people who aren’t here yet,” he added. “Maybe they had a bad experience at a boutique, maybe they were profiled or dismissed. Complecto is the antithesis of all that bad energy.”
A couple of years before Mr. Gong founded Complecto, Dr. Albert Coombs, a dental implantologist in Washington, D.C., was motivated by a similar instinct.
A lifelong watch lover, Dr. Coombs, who is Black, began collecting serious timepieces in 2013. “Walking into a store and realizing nobody looks like you — I know that feeling,” he said by phone.
During the pandemic, Dr. Coombs and a fellow collector, C’Quon Gottlieb, now a luxury watch specialist in Miami for the retailer DavidSW, decided to form a group focused on appreciating horology through the lens of Black culture. Its members founded Official CP Time in December 2020 — the initials stand for Cultured Perspective — and held their first meet-up in early 2021.
“Originally, we catered to Black collectors, but we heard so many stories from different walks of life, we’ve ended up including everyone,” Dr. Coombs said. “Now we have a large Persian population, as well as Asian. If you love watches, then you belong in this group.”
With about 1,000 active members, he said, CP Time has held events in different cities, including Denver, New York City and Miami. The group is returning to Miami in December to celebrate its three-year anniversary with an event at the Cartier boutique in the Design District. Last November, Mr. Coombs even organized a meet-up in Accra, the capital of Ghana, where he’d traveled to attend his sister’s wedding.
“We wanted to create a safe space where everybody’s watch is celebrated,” Dr. Coombs said. “It puts positivity out at a time when inflation is insane and politics suck.”
Regardless of the kind of watches collectors bring to meet-ups, security is a universal concern. “We really don’t want to bring attention to ourselves,” said Mr. Cooper of the Neighborhood Watch Club.
So how can you sign up for events or connect with a group? Mr. Sharp of RedBar U.K. echoed other meet-up founders when he encouraged prospective members to search out local groups on social media.
“Typically, every group has a specific Instagram account — RedBar Glasgow, RedBar London, RedBar New York,” Mr. Sharp said.
“We don’t talk about meet-ups or events in the public sphere,” he added. “We encourage people to sign up for the mailing list. We do some basic background checks to make sure the person isn’t there for nefarious purposes.”
Henry Flores, founder of the Classic Watch Club in New York City, said his group was referral only, largely because of security concerns. But the virtual get-togethers he has organized regularly since the start of the pandemic are easier to join.
Newcomers who stick with the group may find that, like Mr. Flores, the watch friends they meet become trusted advisers.
“Our group tends to be very vintage focused,” Mr. Flores said. “That’s part of the reason I assembled it: I wanted a sounding board for when I wanted to buy a vintage piece.”