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The watch as cultural icon

Dennis R. Hall (University of Louisville, Louisville, Kentucky, USA)

International Journal of Culture, Tourism and Hospitality Research

ISSN: 1750-6182

Article publication date: 28 March 2008




To explore the evolution and function of the wristwatch as a contemporary cultural icon.


To apply the concepts of iconography and of postmodern cultural theory to the general history of watches and to examine the meaning watches in contemporary culture.


Because the watch oscillates between use and signal values, the watch enjoys a distinct iconic status in contemporary American culture, evoking a host of often conflicting associations: those allied to work, productivity, enterprise and success, on the one hand, and those related to self‐indulgence, status luxury and excess, on the other hand. The development of cheap electronic movements ought to have spelled disaster for the watch both as a business and as a cultural icon, but beginning in the 1980s the watch aggressively fought back within the signal economy to represent a postmodern sense of the concept of time and culture.

Research limitations/implications

Wrist watches have a much fuller history, technical and cultural, than reported here and many more metonymic associations than those considered in this paper.

Practical implications

Considering the wrist watch, a common bit of material culture, as a cultural icon enables one better to consider and to appreciate the iconicity of common objects, as well as the iconicity of places and people.


This paper models a way of considering the meanings of things, applicable to the host of technological things that increasingly fill daily life: cell phones, PDAs, Blackberries, laptop computers, and the like.



Hall, D.R. (2008), "The watch as cultural icon", International Journal of Culture, Tourism and Hospitality Research, Vol. 2 No. 1, pp. 5-11.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2008, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

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