Still clicking: The improbable survival of the indulgence watch business | Simon Garfield
The Long Read: In an increasingly digital macrocosm, beings are still willing to spend huge amounts on analogue timepieces. The inquiry is, why?
On 17 March 2016, the watch manufacturer Breitling opened a lavish new stalling at Baselworld, the worlds biggest watch carnival, to show off its recent wonders. There was the Avenger Hurricane, a brawny pitch-black and yellow extravaganza in a special polymer casemade specifically to survive all extremes of superhuman adventure( 6,500 ). There was the Superocean Chronograph M2 000 Blacksteel, with full functionality at a magnitude of 2,000 metres( 3,850 ). And there were at least 60 other pieces, each out-glistening the other in an attempt to demonstrate a brand-new and costly road to tell the time.
And then there were the fish. Above the acces to the temporary browse which, at 10 metres high, was really more of a pavilion was a big container supporting 650 jellyfish. The container certainly more of an aquarium was the size of a new London Routemaster bus sliced down the middle.Empty, it weighed 12 tonnes; its 16,113 litres of ocean included another 16.5 tonnes. Because it contained so many fish and so much water, the cisterns slopes were made from a 13 cm-thick mantle of methacrylate, a transparent information similar to plexiglass.
Precisely what the jellyfish had to do with selling watches was a whodunit, and it would remain a riddle until they were removed from the container when the pavillion closed. Perhaps they represented impunity; perhaps they were a remember of the sort of happening you could see if you purchased a Breitling diving chronometer. But the strangest event about the cistern was that most people who find it precisely gazed up and swiftly moved closer. Considering where it was, it didnt seem extraordinary at all.
For eight days each year, Basel becomes the centre of the watch world. The fairs organisers claimed 150,000 compensating visitors and 1,800 labels spread over 141,000 sq. metres of exhibit cavity. Admission expenditure 60 Swiss francs a daylight( nearly 50 ), for which one could have bought a neat Timex. Near the Breitling pavilion was an obelisk for Omega, and a palace for Rolex. TAG Heuer adorned its booth with a TAG Heuer-sponsored Formula 1 racing car. One could spend many hours sauntering the plush carpets here, and encounter many very handsome men and womenpromoting Breguet, Hublot, and Longines, and very many handsome men and women buying their wares, too. Some booths were also selling jewellery including Chanel, Gucci and Chopard and some labels were selling watches covered in jewels: symphonies of the unnecessary, such as the Harry Winston Premier Moon Phase 36 mm, with mother of bead and 104 brilliant-cut diamonds.
The show was a occasion of our mastery of timekeeping, and of the elaboration and years of training that get into representing objectives of attractivenes and accuracy. But it was also a observance of excess and superfluousness, of watches that exist simply because they can, like animal acts at a circus. Numerous worked on “the worlds largest” intricate heights to act operates almost beyond usefulness: there used to be watches with a docket that lasts 1,000 times; there were watches establishing the phase of the moon in another experience zone. And then there were parts such as the Aeternitas Mega 4 from Franck Muller, made from 1,483 components. This would announce the hours and quarter-hours with the same gong sequence as Big Ben. At its opening, it was portended by its makes as the more complex wristwatch ever made, and a grandiose work of art.In addition to its 36 complications a complication is basically a neat subterfuge was the ability to tell the time. Another complication is because it rate 2.2 m.
And therein lies the mystery of the modern timepiece. These dates , no one requires a Swiss watch to tell the time or a watch from any country. The occasion exposed on our mobile phones and other digital inventions will always be more accurate than the time exposed on even the most skilfully engineered mechanical watch, hitherto the industry has a visual proximity in our lives like few others. The storefronts of “the worlds” big-money streets glow with the lustre of Rolex and Omega; newspapers and magazines appear to be kept in business predominantly by watch adverts; airfields would be empty shells without them. The export quality of the Swiss watch trade fell by 3.3% last year, due primarily to a downfall in demand from the eastern Asia. But it is up 62.9% compared with six years ago. In 2015 the world bought 28.1 m Swiss watches valued at 21.5 billion Swiss francs.
We live in uncertain financial ages, but watch costs at Baselworld picture no signals of making a cut-price concession to the unstable yen or rouble, or even the most recent rival from the Apple Watch. Surely, the opposite seems to be true: the higher the asking price, the greater the plea, for cheapness may suggest a decrease in quality.
So the Rolex Oyster Perpetual Day-Date 40 in platinum( The watch par excellence of influential parties) is on sale for 41,700, while the platinum Patek Philippe Split-Seconds Chronograph with the alligator leash( For men who take accuracy seriously) is 162,970. For some collectors, this would be considered entry-level: the most complicated limited-edition watches sell for 1m or more. These watches have a waiting list, as “the worlds” merely contains so many squinting lord craftsmen who can prepare them, and even they havent received a lane to extend the day beyond 24 hours.
But why do we continue to buy these over-engineered and redundant machines? Why do so many beings pay so much better for the purposes of an part whose principal role may be bought for so little? And how does the watch industry not only survive in the digital age, but survive well enough to make a 16,000 -litre saltwater shrine to its continued supremacy of an obsolete art? Far beyond the reveal of occasion, watches tell us something about ourselves. And so the answers to these questions lie within our inclination for extreme fiction, our consumption of stupefying marketing, our unbridled and impudent ability for fanfare, and our restored reverence for artistry in a digital world.
And perhaps there is something else clicking away at us a be thought that the speeding up of our daily lives may soon testify devastating. When watchmaking began, we had no theory of packed calendars and unbreakable deadlines, much less of quality period or me period. Our epoches were not ruled by the clock. These daylights, having wreaked this ungovernable blizzard of rush upon ourselves, we may be grateful for anything not least a beautiful windable timepiece that reinstates at the least an illusion of control.
The Patek Philippe showroom at 18 New Bond Street has been done up in a sophisticated palette of sycamore, brass and alabaster. Here we may find the revered Swiss companys entire current Patek collection, stretching from the relatively modest Calatrava and Aquanaut simulates( beginning at around 5,000) to the incongruous Grandmaster Chime Ref 6300 in grey amber, fatty as a fist, which expenditure in the boundaries of 1.7 m.
One enters the shop through a double-door airlock, guarantee that no one goes in who may not appreciate delicate creativity, and no one buds who has not settled their detail. The showroom at 400 square metres, the largest single-brand watch outlet in the UK was not sufficiently large to host its own opening defendant in December 2014. The event was held in a glass pavilion in the courtyard of Somerset House, embellished for the night in a mode that would not have gazed out of place in the heyday of Versailles, albeit a Versailles lit by LED illuminations on fake cherry trees.
The London salon is the most modern of Pateks three flagship supermarkets, but they all share a similar retail psychology. The others, in Paris and at the companys home in Geneva, envelop the clientele in an indistinguishable citrus fragrance, and in all three, the piped music is as suave and alluring as 1950 s Monaco. There are a few subtle differences, the companys PR chief tells me. In London you get biscuits with your coffee, whereas in Geneva you get chocolates.
In all three accumulations an imminent acquire is become more pleasurable, and most likely, following the arrival of champagne. The London outlet has a lower-ground domain resembling a library, and a glint, gently well-lighted celestial area where prospective customers may inspect watches with eventual discretion. The entire showroom has purposely expelled all elements of the digital macrocosm: “there wasnt” iPads or electronic tills, and the staff have experienced a track in calligraphy to enable the careful inking of client receipts and guarantees.
My expertise is reaching parties joyous and to create an environment my customers experience, responded Ed Butland, the accumulates chairman. We will show you any part suited to your needs and environment. Money is the latest concept we want to talk about. On the day I called, Butland was not wearing his usual watch, a manually wound platinum Calatrava with a two-tone dial, but imparting a wear-test on a stainless-steel ultra-thin push porthole Nautilus that had just been serviced.
An iPhone has no soul, he enunciated. With most electronic inventions theres precisely a screen and a back, and nothing that connects you with whats actually going on to make it handiwork, and goods-for-nothing moving. Theres no human element and no human emotional connection. This partly interprets the longstanding petition of a mechanical timepiece of any make.A few weeks before my tour of the showroom, I had visited Patek Philippes headquarters in the Geneva suburb of Plan-les-Ouates, where I talked to Thierry Stern, the companys chairman. He had his own thinkings on why the watch endures.
We should never forget that its roughly the only jewellery we can have as a gentleman, he remarked. And its something neat! We should never forget that. Its is not simply a watch, its a piece of art. If they[ our purchasers] want to keep it as something of value, fine. I would prefer to see them wearing it. Its also a honor I recollect. Yes, you could grant a quartz or digital watch to your son for his bridal, but I do not conceive those types of items today will last-place. They will change each year, like telephones, so should I etch a[ digital] watch like this and answer Joyous Birthday from your daddy, and then what are you going to do the next year?
Patek Philippe prides itself on being the last independently owned watchmaker in Geneva. The corporation has been in the mitts of the Stern family since 1932. Thierry Stern, who is 46, took over from “his fathers” Philippe six years ago. He is gently unassuming and comfortably portly, and fairly lacking in the hauteur one may expect from the heads of state of such a distinctive brand.He address gently and chortles easily one has no trouble portrait him selling ties, or with a toilet of fondue in front of him. He recalled a congregating he had recently in New York with industry rulers from Silicon Valley, and he was surprised to see how many of them wore Patek. When he asked them why, he told me, They all said the same: It accompanies us down to earth, and its nice to have something mechanical when youve been working in the digital macrocosm for so long.
In the last six years Stern has increased annual production from about 40,000 watches to 60,000, which is still a minuscule output compared to a Swiss monster like Rolex, which produces more than 700,000 watches a year. Exclusivity is a key to usefulnes. Stern maintained that he was not worried by a difficult start to the year and potential impacts of Brexit on sales; he had just approved the designs for the collecting for 2028. When youre dealing here experience, he showed, it makes it possible to take the long view.
Patek Philippe, which sold its first watch in the 1850 s, has never been at the vulgar death of the market, and doesnt look for endorsements from stellar footballers and rappers the room other firebrands do. Jay Z, for example, “whos had” rapped about owning a Hublot and the big-face Rolex( I got two of those! he boasts in a duo with Kanye West on their book Watch the Throne) might not seem the most likely customer of the more subtle Patek brand. But he is: “hes been” recognized at basketball games wearing a 120,000 Grand Complications model in white amber. Perhaps he likes the gentility and( relative) imprisonment of it, a 21 st-century billionaire yearn for an updated 19 th-century masterpiece. Either lane, he is certainly an ardent buyer of the firebrands bright marketing.
Patek has guided practically the same advert for the last 20 times, and it contains a tagline that is both enduringly effective and highly annoying: You never actually own a Patek Philippe. You simply look after it for the next generation. The row is accompanied by images of examples in the different stages of self-satisfaction: a father-god sat at a piano with his son, a mom chortling with her daughter over lifes little luxuries. The photo, taken by Herb Ritts, Ellen von Unwerth, Mary Ellen Mark and other artists whose wreak hangs in museums, are available to conjure a sense of responsibility and family obligation, of empire and heritage. They may plea primarily to someone with new money aspiring to be someone with old money. Buy an expensive watch, they seem to be suggesting, and you will belong.