Stupid Question ™
Aug. 27, 1998
By John Ruch
Q: Why do most magazine watch ads show a time of about 10 minutes after 10 o’clock?
—C. Speciale and B. Arnason
A: It’s amazing to realize that 95 percent of non-digital watches in ads are set to about 10:10 irrespective of their brand name.
It’s even more amazing that watchmakers are so particular about something most people never even notice.
And it’s really amazing to learn that watchmakers don’t actually know why they do it or who started it when. (Well, Timex claims to have started it, but it predates their company’s existence by at least 35 years.)
For ad photos, watch companies send out non-working dummy watches frozen at a particular time. Seikos are at 10:10 and 8 seconds. Timexes are at 10:09:36. Omegas are at 10:08:35. (Actually, it’s always a little off so you can see the little notches on the dial.)
The watchmakers I talked to say that a watch ad should off all the hands without blocking the brand logo. The 10:10-ish set-up does that while framing the logo, making the face look balanced, and creating a positive-looking, upward-pointing “smiley face.” (Another setting may be used if there are subdials on the face that would be blocked by 10:10.)
This is a sensible but eerily pat answer. Why wouldn’t 10 ’til 2 be just as good? Did watches simply not sell in the 1800s, when the 10:10 standard didn’t exist?
Pocket watches became very popular in the late 1800s. Through the turn of the century, variety was the main ad aesthetic—all the time displayed were different. (It was also more common to show the watch case instead of the face.)
In the early 1900s, there was a split. In the U.S., a setting of about 8:18 (the inverse of 10:10 and presumably a “frowny face”) gained in popularity and peaked in the 1920s.
In Europe, early wristwatch companies such as Omega started toying with 9:10 or 10:10 settings in 1912-13. By 1915, Omega had firmly established its 10:08 setting and never changed again. By 1925, many others were regularly using the setting.
By the late 1930s, it was the dominant setting in both the U.S. and Europe (Elgin, which had led the 8:18 pattern, abruptly shifted to 10:09), and by the mid-1940s reached its present state of near-ubiquity.
Omega was Geneva’s most prestigious watch company. They gave me the usual half-answer about why they started using 10:08 (sans “smiley face”). Competitors were probably driven to copy it through jealousy or superstition. Now it’s passed into industry tradition.
Lest my answer be too pat, I’ll note that America’s Hamilton Watch Co. has been using a 10:13-ish setting since at least 1919. It’s possible they standardized this setting and influenced Omega—I just don’t know. (I couldn’t cajole a PR rep into digging out older ads for me.)
As a Timex spokesperson said to me, “I’ve polished my little answers and now you have it. All five of them.”