Rapper’s delight: how hip-hop got serious about watches

Watch any mainstream hip-hop music video, and you’ll likely spot one if not all of the following tropes: heavy gold chains with blinged-out pendants; a hot set of wheels, often a classic low rider; and a performer with their watch of choice fully in view.

All of these elements nod to the notion of flaunting excess wealth that, some say, is at the root of hip-hop culture. Like jazz and blues, hip-hop rose as a response to the oppression and marginalisation of Black communities across the US. Its artists’ overt displays of status symbolise success and victory against the establishment.

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It’s become so much of the industry’s identity that you’ll find rappers name-checking top brands in a high proportion of hit songs – on Migos’ 2018 album Culture II, the rapper made 28 references to Patek Philippe alone.

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Kendrick Lamar accepted the best rap album Grammy earlier this year sporting a Rolex Oyster Perpetual in turquoise. Photo: Getty Images/TNS

While conveying a loud, proud image of success may be at the heart of the culture, how that street cred is communicated has changed over time. Rappers of the 1970s through 90s went for the tried and trusted Rolex, often seen on the wrist of pioneers like Tupac and Snoop Dogg. Over time, this appetite for bling evolved from the staple Day-Date of the genre’s heyday, to watches outrageously (some would argue tastelessly) customised with aftermarket diamonds and precious gems. More recently, the community began to embrace the ever-so-popular trend of quiet luxury.

Back in the day, an essential element to flaunting wealth is that it had to be visible. Hence, rappers often opted for big, flashy designs that fit right in with the oversized craze the watch industry was driving in the 1990s and 2000s.

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“At first, Rolex was the brand that symbolised success,” says Sebastian Vivas, Audemars Piguet’s heritage and museum director. By the mid-1990s, the community was embracing more ostentatious brands and models. The very substantial Audemars Piguet’s Royal Oak Offshore became a grail watch for many rappers during this time. “It came to embody prestige and success with its outsize design and high value – the yellow-gold version weighs over 400 grams,” adds Vivas.

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Rap star Tupac Shakur, shown in July 1994. Photo: AP

Celebrating its 50th birthday in 2023, hip-hop’s emergence in the late 70s came at a pivotal moment in the watchmaking world. Around this time, the Gérald Genta-designed Patek Philippe Nautilus and IWC Ingenieur began to challenge the industry’s perception of luxury. Expensive timepieces were no longer paired only with a leather strap and reserved for black tie galas or the boardroom; stainless steel and gold sports watches with bracelets found their way to country clubs and golf courses.

Watches from this era gave new meaning to refinement and casualness. By the 1990s, wearing a Breitling Navitimer of 44mm or more with an oversized football jersey and a pair of baggy jeans, all while spitting savage rhymes, just kind of made sense (think Nelly).

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Jay-Z attended the 65th Grammy Awards in February sporting a Patek Philippe Grandmaster Chime worth an estimated US$2.2 million. Photo: Getty Images

“The hip-hop world’s affinity for sports watches – their constant mentions of AP, Patek Philippe, Rolex and Richard Mille in their lyrics – have contributed to the surge in popularity of sports watches over the past five years,” says Austen Chu, co-founder and CEO of watch resale platform Wristcheck. “Pop culture plays a crucial role in shaping and influencing trends and buying habits in the watch world. It serves as the most prominent top-of-the-funnel, awareness-building factor.”

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And in a world where “ties are disappearing, sneakers are worn with suits and luxury watches with T-shirts”, says Vivas, “genres and stylistic barriers are blending … art is feeding off pop culture”.

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Rihanna sporting a Jacob & Co. Brilliant Skeleton Northern Lights at Super Bowl LVII. Photo: Handout

The bling and bold trend continued to be a big part of the streetwise persona over the past two decades. Aftermarket customisations provided a way for rappers, and these bust-down watches, says Chu, accounted for what most rappers were buying 15 years ago.

Jewellers with connections to hip-hop, such as Ben Baller and Johnny Dang, iced out everything from Casio G-Shocks to Pateks and Rolexes. The customisations can distort the factory designs, devaluing the pieces, and are hard to resell. “They often lack waterproofing and don’t do justice to the watch itself,” says Chu.

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A growing appreciation for watches means more rappers are now embracing “plain Jane” timepieces, as rapper A$AP Ferg calls them. “Even if a famous rapper is seen wearing an iced-out watch, it only carries prestige within the rap community if it’s a factory modification,” Chu says.

Today, successful business moguls like Jay-Z and Pharrell Williams no longer rely on overt displays of wealth to stand out, instead sporting pieces that reflect knowledge and taste in watches.

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DJ Khaled wearing his shimmering Jacob & Co. timepiece and a tracksuit from his collaboration with Rihanna’s Savage x Fenty collection. Photo: @djkhaled/Instagram

“Other than gem-set pieces, you see celebrities from the hip-hop scene wearing more ‘flex’ pieces such as luxury sports watches with a complication, like Audemars Piguet’s perpetual calendars or Concept tourbillons, Patek Philippe’s perpetual calendar chronographs such as the ref. 2499, minute repeaters and split-seconds chronographs,” says Gertrude Wong, watch specialist at Philips.

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Vivas has also noted this growing appreciation for watchmaking. “Tastes became more complex and refined – we saw a surge of interest in different materials, including black, blue and white ceramics. The same goes for complicated models – many complicated models ranging from oversized to extra-thin models now sit on the wrists of hip-hop artists.”

More artists have come to embrace an “if you know, you know” mindset when curating their collections. They’re drawn to investment pieces, sometimes with irreplaceable provenance: Jay-Z was spotted at this year’s Oscars after-party wearing what’s been dubbed one of the most coveted Patek Philippe watches in the world, a vintage yellow gold ref. 2499 – crucially, sans diamonds.

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Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Offshore Jay-Z 10th Anniversary. Photo: Handout

These high-profile celebrities have generated an unmeasurable buzz over the past decade. When Patek partnered with Tiffany & Co. to launch a blue dial Nautilus, Jay-Z was one of the first to be spotted with the watch, and that dominated news cycles for weeks.

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“For 20 years, they’ve been rapping about Rolex; for almost 20 years, they’ve been rapping about AP; and more recently, in the past 10 years, they started rapping about Patek, and the past five years, Richard Mille. And those are the brands as well on the secondary market that are performing the best,” says Chu.

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Pharrell Williams working a Richard Mille timepiece bearing his name. Photo: Robert Jaso

As brands have begun to understand these musicians’ cultural clout and the number of eyeballs they can capture, official collaborations have begun to take form. Prior to Audemars Piguet’s Royal Oak Offshore Jay-Z 10th Anniversary watch – launched in 2005 to celebrate a decade of work by the generation-leading talent – the controversies associated with hip-hop were considered by many to be incompatible with the world of haute horlogerie, says Vivas.

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The Richard Mille 52-05 Tourbillon Pharrell Williams. Photo: Handout

In 2019, Richard Mille followed suit with a timely artist tie-up: the RM 52-05 Manual Winding Tourbillon Pharrell Williams. “The diehard watch nerd enthusiast might not care about this influence. But for the average person, pop culture is still extremely influential,” adds Vivas. “That’s how you hook people in.”

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