o most people, status is having some designer's name stamped on the rear end of a pair of jeans. But there is another, more subtle and much more expensive symbol of succcess that is racking up record sales this Christmas in toney stores from Fifth Avenue to Rodeo Drive. It's the expensive Swiss watch, or--as jewelers like to refer to it--the time piece.

This may be a bleak holiday for most Americans who are vulnerable to vicissitudes of the economy, but prosperous status-seekers are making business better than ever for the stores selling gold and jeweled watches.

As one French jeweler in New York explained, "With a Rolex a man is an arrived guy."

"I'm amazed at the letters containing checks we're getting from all over the country," says Robert Wexler, managing director of Tourneau on Madison Avenue, which carries virtually every make of watch.

According to Wexler, the surge in interest in expensive watches began about five years ago. Wexler, whose business has been in his family for five generation, says sales of Swiss watches at his stores here and Bal Harbour, Fla., have increased at a startling annual rate of 40 percent to 60 percent during the past few years.

Explaining the popularity of the expensive time pieces, Wexler said a watch makes a statement unlike any other product; after all, nobody knows who made your suit.

Furthermore, while it used to be considered a cliche to give a retiring worker a watch, more and more corporations are buying expensive watches to say goodbye to valued employes, he said.

Among the Swiss-made watches that jewelers say are enjoying the most success are Ebel, Baume & Mercier, Piaget, and Rolex. The Japanese makers, who have captured a large part of the lower-priced watch market, are no competition for the Swiss on the upper end of scale where digital watches and Oriental makes are viewed as declasse'.

Since most buyers are seeking more than time from their watches, it is not surprising that Rolex watches, the most easily identifiable of all, are the hottest sellers. With their telltale yellow gold, stainless steel or combination bracelets, Rolex Oysters (so called because they are guaranteed waterproof) start at $725.

But it's the more expensive Rolexes that sell so well that buyers must wait months for delivery.

"The only problem is supply," says Wexler, whose stores maintain waiting lists for the Rolex steel and gold model ($2,100) and the President ($7,900 for band and watch, $3,600 for band alone). Only eight years ago the President cost $1,000, he said.

"It's astounding," says Eve Phalis, manager of Theodore Nye jewelers on Connecticut Avenue and N Street NW in Washington, who now sells more expensive watches than anything else in the store. "Rolex watches are the hot, hot item and we just wish we had more of them."

Theodore Nye advertises an irresistible financing scheme that allows the credit-worthy buyer who can't live without a Rolex to acquire one without laying out any cash up front. For no downpayment, no interest, and with one year to pay, you too can own a Diamond Oyster ($1,047.92 a month for his, $716.67 for hers). So far Theodore Nye has encountered no deadbeats, she says.

"One of our customers bought a white gold Rolex three years ago, a yellow gold one last year, and this year he is buying a diamond dial," says Phalis. "That's what's nice about Rolexes: You can add to them."

Rolex is owned by a Swiss foundation named after Hans Wilsdorf, the founder of the 76-year-old Geneva concern. The foundation is typically Swiss about revealing sales figures, but according to Rolex's U.S. president, Rene Dentan, about 22 percent of the production comes to this country. "We are trying to cope with the demand," says the apologetic Dentan, who adds that Rolex watches are most in demand in the Sunbelt states of Florida, Texas and California.

Which is precisely the point made by Lawrence G. Kaufman, manager of Van Cleef & Arpels Time Boutique. "While the Rolex has a terrific movement," says Kaufman, whose store doesn't carry the popular make, "it's a bit clunky. They like it out West, but here in New York we like to think we're more sophisticated."

Among the brands favored by Van Cleef is Piaget, the Swiss company that produces watches with truly shocking price tags. At Tourneau, for example, there is an opel and diamond women's watch selling for $65,000, and Van Cleef has one with emeralds, diamonds and gold for $98,000.

Instead of the "clunky" Rolex, Kaufman suggests a very thin Piaget watch with a sliver of black onyx for a face at about $4,800. And, for the "perfect match," he offers a set of matching onyx and diamond cufflinks for $3,800, or for a woman, matching earrings.

A few doors down Fifth Avenue, William S. Corti, managing director of Bucherer Inc., says that certain of the high-priced watches--above $5,000--"know no sales resistence." And even at Tiffany & Co., where big spending is endemic, a salesman described demand for Rolex and other costly watches as "unbelievable." Pointing to a particularly popular Patek Philippe watch, he said with a shrug, "It's $5,000 for the watch with a strap, and if you want a bracelet, it's $10,000."

Cartier, meanwhile, holds firm to its traditional design with Roman numerals on the watch face. The famous store's patented square Tank watch (created in 1918 in honor of the American tank corp) is selling with renewed vigor at prices ranging from about $1,000 up to $10,050. And for about $6,800 more, m'lady can have a Tortue with a gold-and-diamond bracelet.

Clocks are not enjoying the same popularity these days, presumably because they can't be displayed as readily as watches. But pocket watches are "in," according to Wexler of Tourneau, especially the design that displays the phases of the moon ($6,900) and the $20 gold coins that can be made into pocket watches for $3,500 and up.

Bouncing one of the light coin-watches in his palm, Wexler said, "It would be easy to toss it to a paperboy, wouldn't it?"