Still clicking: The implausible survival of the luxury watch business | Simon Garfield
The Long Read: In an increasingly digital nature, people are still willing to spend huge amounts on analogue timepieces. The query is, why?
On 17 March 2016, the watch manufacturer Breitling opened a lavish new stop at Baselworld, the worlds biggest watch exhibition, to show off its latest marvels. There was the Avenger Hurricane, a beefy pitch-black and yellowish extravaganza in a special polymer casemade specific to survive all extremes of superhuman adventure( 6,500 ). There was the Superocean Chronograph M2 000 Blacksteel, with full functionality at a degree of 2,000 metres( 3,850 ). And there were at least 60 other components, each out-glistening the other in an attempt to demonstrate a brand-new and costly behavior to tell the time.
And then there were fishing operations. Above the entry to the temporary store which, at 10 metres high, was actually more of a pavilion was a big cistern regarding 650 jellyfish. The cistern actually more of an aquarium was the size of a brand-new London Routemaster bus sliced down the middle.Empty, it weighed 12 tonnes; its 16,113 litres of liquid lent another 16.5 tonnes. Because it contained so many fish and so much liquid, the cisterns sides were made from a 13 cm-thick coating of methacrylate, a transparent substance same to plexiglass.
Precisely what the jellyfish had to do with selling watches was a whodunit, and it would remain a whodunit until they were removed from the tank when the pavillion closed. Perhaps they represented impunity; perhaps they were a remember of the kind of thought you could see if you purchased a Breitling diving chronometer. But the strangest act about the tank was that most people who determined it exactly glanced up and rapidly moved on. Considering where it was, it didnt seem unusual at all.
For eight days each year, Basel becomes the centre of the watch cosmo. The fairs organisers claimed 150,000 tourists and 1,800 firebrands spread over 141,000 sq. metres of exhibition space. Admission expenditure 60 Swiss francs a day( 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 strolling the plush carpets here, and encounter many very handsome men and womenpromoting Breguet, Hublot, and Longines, and so many handsome men and women buying their wares, extremely. Some kiosks is likewise selling jewellery including Chanel, Gucci and Chopard and some firebrands were selling watches contained within jewels: concerts of the unnecessary, such as the Harry Winston Premier Moon Phase 36 mm, with father of bone and 104 brilliant-cut diamonds.
The show was a celebration of our familiarity of timekeeping, and of the elaboration and years of training that get into constituting objectives of elegance and accuracy. But it was also a occasion of excess and superfluousness, of watches that exist simply as they can, like animal acts at a circus. Many worked on the most intricate degrees to act performs almost beyond usefulness: there used to be watches with a calendar that lasts 1,000 times; there were watches demo the phase of the moon in a different hour zone. And then there were components such as the Aeternitas Mega 4 from Franck Muller, made from 1,483 constituents. This would announce the hours and quarter-hours with the same gong sequence as Big Ben. At its launch, it was heralded by its creators as the more complex wristwatch ever reached, and a lofty work of art.In addition to its 36 complications a complication is essentially a neat ploy was the ability to tell the time. Another complication was that it payment 2.2 m.
And therein lies the riddle of the modern timepiece. These periods , no one requires a Swiss watch to tell the time or a watch from different countries. The period exposed on our mobile phones and other digital devices will always be more accurate than the time displayed on even the most skilfully engineered mechanical watch, hitherto the industry has a visual presence in our lives like few others. The storefronts of “the worlds” big-money boulevards brighten with the lustre of Rolex and Omega; newspapers and publications appear to be kept in business predominantly by watch adverts; airfields would be empty shells without them. The export appreciate of the Swiss watch trade fell by 3.3% last year, due primarily to a downfall in demand from the east 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 doubtful economic eras, but watch costs at Baselworld present no signals of making a cut-price concession to the unstable yen or rouble, or even the recent competition from the Apple Watch. Surely, the opposite seems to be true: the highest the asking price, the greater the plead, for cheapness may be mentioned a reduction 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 strap( For men who take accuracy gravely) 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 world simply contains so many squinting lord craftsmen who can become them, and even they havent obtained a road to extend the day beyond 24 hours.
But why do we continue to buy these over-engineered and redundant machines? Why do so many people offer so much for the purposes of an component whose principal operate 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 mastery of an outmoded prowes? Far beyond the say of day, watches tell us something about ourselves. And so the answers to these questions lie within our propensity for extreme fiction, our uptake of dazzling sell, our unbridled and flagrant ability for affectation, and our revitalized reverence for workmanship in a digital world.
And perhaps there is something else clicking away at us a feeling that the speeding up of our everyday lives may soon support overwhelming. When watchmaking embarked, we had no conception of jam-packed calendars and unbreakable deadlines, much less of quality experience or me age. Our epoches were not ruled by the clock. These daylights, having fetched this ungovernable hurricane of rush upon ourselves, we may be grateful for anything not least a beautiful windable timepiece that reinstates at the least an apparition 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 frameworks( beginning at around 5,000) to the outlandish Grandmaster Chime Ref 6300 in white amber, fatty as a fist, which expenses in the boundaries of 1.7 m.
One registers the store through a double-door airlock, guarantee that no one gets in who may not appreciate elegant geniu, and no one foliages who has not settled their accounting. The showroom at 400 square metres, the largest single-brand watch outlet in the UK was not sufficiently large to host its own opening party in December 2014. The contest was held in a glass pavilion in the courtyard of Somerset House, decorated for the darknes in a mode that would not have ogled out of place in the heyday of Versailles, albeit a Versailles lit by LED daylights on bogus cherry trees.
The London salon is the most modern of Pateks three flagship supermarkets, but they all share a same retail psychology. The others, in Paris and at the companys home in Geneva, enclose the clientele in an indistinguishable citrus aroma, and in all three, the piped music is as suave and alluring as 1950 s Monaco. There are a few subtle changes, the companys PR chief tells me. In London you get cookies with your coffee, whereas in Geneva you get chocolates.
In all three accumulations an imminent obtain is obliged more pleasant, and more likely, with the arrival of champagne. The London outlet has a lower-ground expanse resembling a library, and a twinkle, gently illuminated planetary room where prospective purchasers may cross-examine 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 undergone a direction in calligraphy to enable the careful inking of purchaser receipts and guarantees.
My expertise is reaching parties joyous and to create a climate my clients experience, said Ed Butland, the stores director. We will show you any part suited to your needs and event. Money is the last stuff we want to talk about. On the working day I visited, Butland was not wearing his usual watch, a manually wound platinum Calatrava with a two-tone dial, but deporting a wear-test on a stainless-steel ultra-thin change porthole Nautilus that has now been serviced.
An iPhone has no soul, he replied. With most electronic devices theres only a screen and a back, and nothing that connects you with whats actually going on to make it cultivate, and goods-for-nothing moving. Theres no human element and no human emotional contact. This partly clarifies the longstanding petition of a mechanical timepiece of any make.A few weeks before my tour of the showroom, I had seen Patek Philippes headquarters in the Geneva suburb of Plan-les-Ouates, where I talked to Thierry Stern, the companys president. He had his own considers on why the watch endures.
We should never forget that its nearly the only jewellery we are in a position have as a gentleman, he replied. And its something neat! We should never forget that. Its not only a watch, its a piece of art. If they[ our patrons] want to keep it as something of value, fine. I would prefer to see them wearing it. Its likewise a honor I repute. Yes, you are able throw a quartz or digital watch to your son for his bridal, but I do not anticipate those types of items today will last. They will change each year, like phones, so should I engrave a[ digital] watch like this and suggest Happy Birthday from your papa, 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 company has been in the handwritings 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 quite lacking in the hauteur one may expect from the heads of state of such a distinctive brand.He express gently and laughs easily one has no trouble painting him selling ties, or with a flowerpot of fondue in front of him. He recalled a encountering he had recently in New York with industry presidents 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 brings us down to world, 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 whale like Rolex, which produces more than 700,000 watches a year. Exclusivity is a key to desirability. 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 collect for 2028. When youre dealing with age, he recommended, it helps to take the long view.
Patek Philippe, which sold its first watch in the 1850 s, has never been at the rude death of the market, and doesnt look for endorsements from sun footballers and rappers the practice other brands 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” discerned at basketball games wearing a 120,000 Grand Complications model in grey amber. Perhaps he likes the elegance and( relative) self-control of it, a 21 st-century billionaire hankering for an updated 19 th-century masterpiece. Either behavior, he is certainly an avid buyer of the brands brilliant marketing.
Patek has flowed 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 portraits of representations in the different stages of self-satisfaction: a leader seated at a forte-piano with his son, a father tittering with her daughter over lifes little indulgences. The photographs, taken by Herb Ritts, Ellen von Unwerth, Mary Ellen Mark and other artists whose wreak hangs in museums, are available to stir a sense of responsibility and family obligation, of empire and heritage. They may appeal primarily to someone with new money aspiring to be someone with old money. Buy an expensive watch, they seem to be mentioning, and you will belong.