The Rolex man looked very pleased with himself. ‘Rolex is joining Twitter!’ he announced, clapping his hands together. ‘But!’ came the warning, ‘ours will be a MONOLOGUE, and not a DIALOGUE!’ Four years on, Rolex has yet to tweet under its official handle. Speaking personally, my follow request is still pending.

To be fair to Rolex and its kin, a lot – probably too much – was expected of how the luxury watch industry would evolve in the digital age. Rolex’s Twitter account may be a symbol of the industry’s awkward relationship with online media, but let’s not forget that fundamentally watch brands pedal antediluvian technology and levels of dis-connectivity last fashionable around the time of the Crimean War. Moving from that to Snapchat was never going to happen overnight.

It doesn’t help that the watch industry is notoriously secretive and protective of its intellectual property, either. The web, and social in particular, has obliged it to react faster than it’s ever had to before and created an accountability network it will probably never be comfortable with, not least because it opens it up to the scourge of the industry – counterfeiters.

But them’s the breaks. Watch brands have – mostly – come to terms with the internet, and embraced the good. As they should. The digital age, perverse though it might seem, has fanned the flames of an analogue industry, giving watch companies unprecedented access to their customers and creating a new generation of mechanical watch enthusiasts, vastly expanding the market.

Rolex is yet to tweet under its official handle

No one has yet calculated how big the impact of digital media on the watch industry is – how could you? – but it’s been game-changing.

The internet has spawned a new breed of watch retailer (pre-owned seller WatchFinder, founded in 2002, is predicting turnover of £60m this year), a new genre of specialist online watch magazine, and a new cohort of wristwear-focussed influencers, most of whom ply their trade via social media. The sum total of which made an unquantifiable contribution to an industry boom that has made household names of brands like Patek Philippe and Hublot.

The origins of the digital watch media landscape go back to the collector forums of the mid-1990s. Timezone.com was founded in 1995 as a hub for collectors to share ideas and trade information, and built up a following of die-hard enthusiasts that’s still loyal – but ageing – today. It was followed in 2001 by fellow authority PuristsPro (now Watchprosite), a multi-brand discussion forum with moderators all over the world. Both retain influence, despite being all but impenetrable to the uninitiated in this fluid, social age.

These forums were followed by a younger generation of hobbyists who combined a nascent interest in watches with digital media savvy to create blogs, and then full-blown online magazines. In 2007, Ariel Adams launched ‘A Blog to Read’ from his Los Angeles base, changing the name in 2012 to A Blog to Watch to reflect its watch focus. Today, the site averages 90k page views a day and pulls in 800k views to its YouTube channel every month.

Hodinkee, started a year later by then UBS project manager Benjamin Clymer in New York, now racks up 750k uniques a month, has 306k followers on Instagram and in June sold almost $500,000 worth of vintage watches through an online platform it launched in March this year. Hodinkee has become a model citizen for online watch content, merging last year with Kevin Rose’s (he of Digg fame) online watch content aggregator Watchville and scoring an investment of $3.6m to back its expansion into ecommerce.

Benjamin Clymer and Kevin Rose, Hondikee’s founder and chief executive, respectively

In their wake have come myriad others: SalonQP in London, Monochrome Watches in Holland, Time and Tide in Australia, Quill & Pad in Switzerland, Watches by SJX in Hong Kong… These are the influencers now, channelling new product and breaking stories, offering industry comment and criticism with increasing confidence.

But it was the advent of social that really pushed the watch industry agenda, albeit beyond its control. Initially the momentum was with Twitter and hashtags like #womw (‘what’s on my wrist’), but in parallel with a wider shift, it’s the visual medium of Instagram that is currently capturing the mood of the watch-buying community most effectively.

None epitomises this shift more than Londoner Anish Bhatt, who set up his ‘Watch Anish’ Instagram account in 2012. Young, ambitious, fashion-conscious and obsessed with the lifestyles of the rich and famous, he has built up an Instagram following of 1.6m, and is now the self-styled king of watch social media.

Watch Anish has amassed a huge social following

His follower base is said to include Hollywood A-Listers, international footballers and an arm’s length of multi-millionaires who aren’t averse to going into watch stores with their phones and Anish’s brash, candy-sweet pictures to utter the immortal words, ‘I want that one’. He now has bases in London, New York and Dubai and charges four-figure fees and up for brand-sponsored posts.

As we know, business models like these didn’t exist 10, even five years ago. By and large, brands have taken time to adapt, and the industry metamorphosis from shy-and-retiring digiphobe to online junky is far from complete. Patek Philippe, for example, still won’t allow its retail partners to publish prices of its watches online.

Still, the change and its impact have been seismic. The time when brand websites launched with stark warnings against buying watches online is a distant memory. Digital media has meant Switzerland has had to become far more comfortable with online activities.

There are even rumours that Rolex is set to break its online fast and finally allow retailers to display its products and prices on their websites for the first time. That would almost bring the world’s most important watch brand in line with the rest – even traditionalists like Cartier and Jaeger-LeCoultre now sell some of their watches online. At a time when the watch industry is experiencing dramatic decline (Swiss exports are taking a hammering at the moment), the need to embrace digital and harness its potential couldn’t be more palpable.

Rolex, incidentally, did get its monologue. Today it has 1.4m followers on Instagram but it has, it would appear, never felt the urge to respond to the comments left alongside any one of its 373 posts. Plus ça change.

Time 2.0: Who To Read, Follow & Like

Hodinkee

Highly influential, intelligently researched and written, vintage-obsessed, borderline academic online watch magazine that is now successfully bridging the gap between editorial and ecommerce.

hodinkee.com

A Blog To Watch

Online watch magazine with a huge following, chock-full of news and expert reviews on thousands of watches covering a broad price spectrum.

ablogtowatch.com

SalonQP

The UK’s leading online fine watch authority, curated by seasoned watch journalists, and host of London’s eponymous premier watch event.

salonqp.com

Watchville

Watch content aggregator (website and app) for devoted watch nerds that channels the best of the watch web – and illustrates just how much online watch content there is out there these days.

watchville.com

8past10

Latest addition to the watch social community, bringing imagery and discussion together in a way that compensates for Instagram’s chronic limitations as a forum for debate.

Find it in the app store.

Watch Anish

Instagram’s watch-pimp-in-chief shoots hyperwatches against backdrops of hypercars, billionaire mansions, bespoke tailoring and, on occasion, scantily clad women.

@watchanish