Welcome to Further Details, a recurring column where we investigate what purpose an oft-overlooked product element actually serves. For this installment: the reason watches are set a certain way in photographs.
In advertisements and even many of the more professional-looking photos on the likes of Instagram, you'll reliably find watch hands set to 10:10, or thereabouts. If you've never noticed this before, you won't be able to unsee it now (go ahead, browse our watch archives). If you have noticed it, you might have wondered: why?
Does it have some cryptic meaning or practical purpose? Is the Illuminati exchanging coded messages somehow related to Da Vinci's Vitruvian Man? Many watches are, in fact, full of little cues and deep-cut references of many kinds that might only be recognized by hardcore collectors or professional watchmakers. Setting the hands to 10:10 in pictures, however, is not one of them.
Enter: science. While it's not some sort of conspiracy, a 2017 study published in Frontiers in Psychology does suggest the possibility of subliminal consumer manipulation.
The hypothesis was that the 10:10 hand setting would produce a pareidolic effect — in other words, the brain's tendency to see patterns or shapes where there are none. Seeing faces is an especially common and familiar example of this phenomenon, and you've no doubt experienced it yourself. In this case, the hands' upturned shape was postulated to resemble a smile, resulting in positive reactions and increased "intention to buy."
The study reported to bear out the hypothesis that the shape was associated with a smile, and moreover showed the effect to be stronger among women than men. Neutral (11:30) and "sad face" (8:20) hand settings showed no effect on test participants. (Yes, parents, this is where your tuition dollars are going.)
Symmetry and aesthetics
But I don't buy it. I don't really see the smiley face nor a strong argument that this is the origin of the 10:10 setting's popularity.
Symmetry is a far more plausible reason. The 10:10 hand position simply lends the watch's face — and the whole picture — a more pleasing visual balance. The V shape frames the logo, which is usually under 12 o'clock, and it draws the eye downward in a natural way. The hands in any old random position can look messy and actually be a little distracting in a photo.
Watch companies and watch photographers have long been doing this without any insight from psychology students (though, interestingly, it only became common in watch ads around the 1950s, according to Hodinkee). I like to take a watch photo myself, from time to time, and if I want it to look more polished (like for a review) I'll often set the hands to 10:10 — and I'm not doing so in order to sell any watches.
To be precise, most watches are set to just before 10:10, like 10:08 or so. This is so that the minute hand doesn't overlap with the 2 o'clock index, allowing you to see both the hand and and the index clearly. If you see a smiley face and that helps watch companies move marginally more product, well, that's a bonus.
There are no conspiracies or deep mysteries of the human mind in watch ads, just the unassailable reasoning: because it looks good.
Other watch settings for photography
Why not set the hands to 1:50? The reason 10:10 is more ideal is that it helps balance other elements on the dial, most typically the seconds hand and date display. You'll find that seconds hands are usually positioned on the 9 o'clock side of the dial in order to compensate for the longer minute hand — not to mention the common 3 o'clock positioning of date displays. The aim is for balance rather than strict symmetry because a watch dial is never going to be perfectly symmetrical, anyway.
What about the date? Though far less standardized than 10:10, the 8th is a popular date for many watch brands. Yes, it's naturally symmetrical, but it also doesn't hurt that 8 is considered a lucky number in the massively important Chinese market.
Many brands have standardized settings for publicity photos: Seiko seconds hands are usually set to around 47 seconds where often long counterweights don't obscure any other dial elements; it often sets its date to Monday, the 6th. Rolex likes Monday, the 26th. Oris sets its watches to 7:53:07 (essentially the standard hand positions, but switched). Parmigiani promotional photos set the hands to reference the time its founder was born: 7:08am, December 2, 1950 — visual balance be damned.
We've mostly been talking about analog watches, but does the same apply to digital displays? Casio materials consistently show its digital watches set to June 30, 10:58:50. Nobody knows exactly why, but it's a pretty good bet that it simply looks balanced and helps showcase the watch's features.