After a one-year pandemic break, the Sun Valley conference recommenced in idyllic Idaho last week. The “summer camp for billionaires,” as it’s known, gathers titans of industry to hammer out deals and tackle the most pressing issues of our time, like: how can we also beat Jeff Bezos to space? And despite the overwhelming wealth of those in attendance, the fashion is often derelict: these (mostly) men typically give into their worst casual-dressing impulses. Good news for us, though: the T-shirts, hoodies, shorts, and puffer jackets are often paired with outrageously expensive watches.
These outrageously expensive watches are the product of a rather unique environment. At Sun Valley, attendees aren’t dressing for a work meeting, a shareholder-placating spot on Mad Money, or even a night out to eat expensive, tweezed-together food. Instead, they’re dressing for a far more intense task: to fit in with and impress their billionaire counterparts. (In the past, there has been no bigger Sun Valley grail than the merch from the conference itself. North Face made logo-d jackets for previous editions before yielding the job this year to Zero Restriction, according to NPR.) And while you might expect to see plenty of turbo-grade watches from brands like Richard Mille—the ones known as the billionaire’s handshake—the reality on the ground was far different. These were the watch-wearing trends we noticed this year.
The Dress Watch Death Knell
The watches on display at billionaire summer camp match up with the trends we’ve seen across the collecting community. A prime example: Chuck Robbins, the CEO of Cisco, stood despite wearing one of the watches you’d expect to see at an event like this. Robbins was pictured in a Patek Philippe Calatrava, one of the finest and most elegant watches in the world. It’s simple, dressy, and unflashy—a piece of quiet luxury that plays well with Loro Piana cashmere and Brunello Cucinelli suits—and theoretically the ultimate rich-guy businessman watch.
But Robbins was the only guy wearing the watch—and one of the only attendees wearing a dress watch at all. Only Netflix CEO Ted Sarandos’s Glashütte Senator Observer compared in terms of dressiness. Even the single Cartier on display, belonging to retired Army general David Petraeus, was the brand’s driving-inspired (and not-so-subtly named) Drive.
Casual Is King
Although there weren’t many takers for Robbins’s Calatrava, another Patek Philippe popped up more than once at Sun Valley. Both Jeffrey Katzenberg, the former Disney chairman and would-be Quibi king, and Mirakl co-founder Adrien Nussenbaum were seen wearing by far the most casual watch in Patek Philippe’s catalog: the Aquanaut. After the success of its already-dressed-down Nautilus, Patek released the Aquanaut in 1997 to appeal to a customer who wanted a luxe watch to wear with their luxe sweatsuits. And few watches make more sense, paradoxically, amid the casual vibes at Sun Valley’s gathering of the billionaires.
It wasn’t just the Aquanauts, either. Michael Fux, the CEO of Comfort Revolution, wore a Royal Oak souped up like a sports car. The stock version of that watch already leans casual; and Fux’s comes with a tachymeter, the busy complication taken from pilot’s watches, and plenty of subdials. Insurance mogul Evan Greenberg wore the brand-new Rolex Explorer II—a watch that’s designed for spelunking. Zander Lurie, the former CEO of SurveyMonkey, opted for an all-black IWC Pilot’s Watch—a piece not without resonance given the 90-plus private jets that touched down in Sun Valley last week.
The One True Power Move
There were plenty of nice watches at Sun Valley, but the conference’s ultimate horological status symbol was something incredibly affordable—or, even better, no watch at all. The most striking thing about this photo of Bill Gates and Evan Greenberg making their way across a lawn is that while Greenberg goes for the Rolex, Gates is content to wear one of his signature Casio watches. Apple CEO Tim Cook, meanwhile, wore an Apple Watch, as did Twilio CEO Jeff Lawson and former CIA associate deputy director of operations Robert Richer. Mark Zuckerberg didn’t wear a watch at all!
Cook, Zuck, and Gates continue to feed the idea that great business people don’t need a great watch to assert their status. You don’t need to do a wrist check to know where these guys rank on the Forbes’ list. In fact, eschewing an expensive watch seems intended to send a different type of message about the frugal pragmatism of our oligarch overlords. In that way, billionaire summer camp is not so different from regular summer camp: the cool kids always find a way to separate themselves.