Still clicking: The improbable existence of the luxury watch business | Simon Garfield
The Long Read: In an increasingly digital world, people are still willing to spend huge amounts on analog timepieces. The inquiry is, why?
On 17 March 2016, the watch manufacturer Breitling opened a lavish brand-new stalling at Baselworld, the worlds biggest watch fair, to show off its latest marvels. There was the Avenger Hurricane, a beefy pitch-black and yellowish 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 depth of 2,000 metres( 3,850 ). And there were at least 60 other items, each out-glistening the other in an attempt to demonstrate a brand-new and expensive space to tell the time.
And then there were the fish. Above the enter to the temporary store which, at 10 metres high, was actually more of a pavilion was a big cistern impounding 650 jellyfish. The container actually 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 water contributed another 16.5 tonnes. Because it contained so many fish and so much water, the cisterns sides were made from a 13 cm-thick layer of methacrylate, a transparent information similar to plexiglass.
Precisely what the jellyfish had to do with selling watches was a riddle, and it would remain a riddle until they were removed from the container when the pavillion shut. Perhaps they represented liberty; perhaps they were a reminder of the sort of happen you could see if you purchased a Breitling diving chronometer. But the strangest happen about the tank was that most people who recognized it precisely glanced up and hurriedly moved closer. Considering where it was, it didnt seem peculiar at all.
For eight days each year, Basel becomes the centre of the watch nature. The fairs organisers claimed 150,000 paying guests and 1,800 labels spread over 141,000 sq. metres of show seat. Admission expenditure 60 Swiss francs a period( virtually 50 ), for which one could have bought a nice 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 waste many hours ambling the plush carpets here, and encounter numerous very handsome men and womenpromoting Breguet, Hublot, and Longines, and very many handsome men and women buying their wares, too. Some kiosks is likewise selling jewellery including Chanel, Gucci and Chopard and some labels were selling watches contained within ornaments: concerts of the unnecessary, such as the Harry Winston Premier Moon Phase 36 mm, with father of bead and 104 brilliant-cut diamonds.
The show was a celebration of our proficiency of timekeeping, and of the refinement and years of training that get into realise objectives of grace and accuracy. But it was also a celebration of excess and superfluousness, of watches that exist simply because they can, like animal ordinances at a circus. Many worked on the most intricate levels to play serves almost beyond usefulness: there were watches with a calendar that lasts 1,000 times; there were watches picturing the phase of the moon in a different occasion zone. And then there were components such as the Aeternitas Mega 4 from Franck Muller, made from 1,483 ingredients. This would announce the hours and quarter-hours with the same bell sequence as Big Ben. At its propel, it was heralded by its manufacturers as the more complex wristwatch ever made, and a grandiose work of art.In addition to its 36 complications a complication is essentially a neat ruse was the ability to tell the time. Another complication is because it cost 2.2 m.
And therein lies the whodunit of the modern timepiece. These periods , no one is in need of Swiss watch to tell the time or a watch from different countries. The time displayed 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, yet service industries has a visual attendance in our lives like few others. The storefronts of the worlds big-money expressways glow with the lustre of Rolex and Omega; newspapers and periodicals appear to be kept in business mainly by watch adverts; airports would be empty eggshells without them. The export significance 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 against six years ago. In 2015 “the worlds” bought 28.1 m Swiss watches valued at 21.5 billion Swiss francs.
We live in uncertain financial eras, but watch costs at Baselworld demonstrate no signalings 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 higher the asking price, the greater the appeal, 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 fasten( For men who take accuracy severely) 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 employer craftsmen who can manufacture them, and even they havent found a direction 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 compensate so much better for an item whose principal function may be bought for so little? And how does the watch industry not only survive in the digital age, but survive well enough to erect a 16,000 -litre saltwater shrine to its continued domination of an outmoded prowes? Far beyond the warn of time, watches tell us something about ourselves. And so the answers to these questions lie within our inclination for extreme fantasy, our intake of amazing commerce, our unbridled and shameless capacity for fanfare, and our reincarnated respect for artistry in a digital world.
And perhaps there is something else ticking away at us a feeling that the acceleration of our daily lives may soon demonstrate overwhelming. When watchmaking embarked, we had no hypothesi of jam-packed calendars and unbreakable deadlines, much less of quality day or me time. Our epoches were not ruled by the clock. These days, having produced this ungovernable cyclone of rush upon ourselves, we may be grateful for anything not least a beautiful windable timepiece that reinstates at 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, straining from the relatively modest Calatrava and Aquanaut frameworks( beginning at around 5,000) to the outlandish Grandmaster Chime Ref 6300 in lily-white amber, paunch as a fist, which expenses in the region of 1.7 m.
One enrols the establishment through a double-door airlock, guarantee that no one get in who may not appreciate elegant creativity, and no one needles who has not settled their history. The showroom at 400 sq. metres, the most significant single-brand watch shop 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 darknes in a mode that would not have looked out of place in the heyday of Versailles, albeit a Versailles lit by LED suns on imitation cherry trees.
The London salon is the most modern of Pateks three flagship storages, but they all share a similar retail psychology. The others, in Paris and at the companys home in Geneva, enclose the clientele in an identical 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 supermarkets an imminent buy is obliged more pleasant, and more likely, following the arrival of champagne. The London outlet has a lower-ground neighborhood resembling a library, and a twinkle, gently well-lighted planetary area where prospective customers may scrutinize watches with ultimate discretion. The entire showroom has intentionally ostracized all elements of the digital macrocosm: there are no iPads or electronic tills, and all staff members have undergone a course in calligraphy to enable the careful inking of client receipts and guarantees.
My expertise is doing beings glad and to create an environment my patrons experience, pronounced Ed Butland, the stores administrator. We will show you any item suited to your needs and occasion. Money is the latest act we want to talk about. On the day I visited, Butland was not wearing his usual watch, a manually wound platinum Calatrava with a two-tone dial, but conducting a wear-test on a stainless-steel ultra-thin progress porthole Nautilus that had just been serviced.
An iPhone has no soul, he replied. With most electronic inventions theres merely a screen and a back, and good-for-nothing that connects you with whats actually going on to make it labor, and nothings moving. Theres no human element and no human psychological joining. This partly interprets the longstanding entreaty 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 chairwoman. He had his own remembers on why the watch endures.
We should never forget that its roughly the only jewellery we can have as a gentleman, he announced. And its something neat! We should never forget that. Its not only a watch, its a piece of art. If they[ our clients] want to keep it as something of value, fine. I would prefer to see them wearing it. Its likewise a reward I repute. Yes, you are able make a quartz or digital watch to your son for his bridal, but I do not make those types of items today will last-place. They will change each year, like phones, so should I engrave a[ digital] watch like this and articulate Happy Birthday from your father, and then what are you going to do the next year?
Patek Philippe dignities itself on being the last independently owned watchmaker in Geneva. The busines has been in the sides of the Stern family since 1932. Thierry Stern, who is 46, took over from his father Philippe six years ago. He is gently unassuming and comfortably portly, and quite lacking in the hauteur one may expect from the head of such a distinctive brand.He speaks softly and laughs easily one has no trouble portrait him selling ties, or with a cup of fondue in front of him. He recalled a satisfying he had recently in New York with manufacture managers 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 produces us down to clay, and its nice to have something mechanical when youve been working in the digital nature 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 monstrou 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 the impact of Brexit on sales; he had just approved the designs for the collecting for 2028. When youre dealing with season, he recommended, 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 crass culminate of the market, and doesnt look for promotions from wizard footballers and rappers the road 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 album Watch the Throne) might not seem the most likely customer of the more subtle Patek brand. But he is: he has been recognise at basketball games wearing a 120,000 Grand Complications model in white gold. Perhaps he likes the gentility and( relative) restraint of it, a 21 st-century billionaire hankering for an updated 19 th-century masterpiece. Either practice, he is certainly an ardent buyer of the brands brilliant marketing.
Patek has passed 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 way is accompanied by epitomes of simulates in various stages of self-satisfaction: a father set at a piano with his son, a baby chuckling with her daughter over lifes little luxuries. The photo, taken a number of Herb Ritts, Ellen von Unwerth, Mary Ellen Mark and other masters whose act hangs in museums, are designed to budge a sense of responsibility and family indebtednes, of empire and heritage. They may request primarily to someone with new money aspiring to be someone with old money. Buy an expensive watch, they seem to be responding, and you will belong.