Still ticking: The improbable survival of the luxury watch business | Simon Garfield
The Long Read: In an increasingly digital macrocosm, people are still willing to spend huge amounts on analogue timepieces. The theme 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 latest wonders. There was the Avenger Hurricane, a beefy 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 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 direction to tell the time.
And then there were the fish. Above the entry to the temporary shop which, at 10 metres high, was genuinely more of a pavilion was a huge cistern holding 650 jellyfish. The cistern truly 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 areas were made from a 13 cm-thick blanket of methacrylate, a transparent substance same to plexiglass.
Precisely what the jellyfish had to do with selling watches was a riddle, and it would remain a whodunit until they were removed from the tank when the pavillion shut. Perhaps they represented liberty; perhaps they were a remember of the kind of thought you could see if you purchased a Breitling diving chronometer. But the strangest thing about the container was that most people who examined it simply glanced up and swiftly moved closer. Considering where it was, it didnt seem unexpected at all.
For eight days each year, Basel becomes the centre of the watch world. The fairs organisers claimed 150,000 compensating guests and 1,800 labels spread over 141,000 square metres of exhibition seat. Admission expensed 60 Swiss francs a era( virtually 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 kiosk 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, extremely. Some kiosks were also selling jewellery including Chanel, Gucci and Chopard and some labels were selling watches contained within ornaments: symphonies of the unnecessary, such as the Harry Winston Premier Moon Phase 36 mm, with baby of bead and 104 brilliant-cut diamonds.
The show was a celebration of our mastery of timekeeping, and of the refinement and years of training that move into building objectives of allure and accuracy. But it was also a revelry of excess and superfluousness, of watches that exist simply because they can, like animal deeds at a circus. Numerous worked on the most intricate stages to perform offices almost beyond usefulness: there used to be watches with a calendar that lasts 1,000 years; there used to be watches demonstrating the phase of the moon in a different duration zone. And then there were components such as the Aeternitas Mega 4 from Franck Muller, assembled from 1,483 ingredients. This would announce the hours and quarter-hours with the same sound string as Big Ben. At its propel, it was presaged by its manufacturers as the most complex wristwatch ever stimulated, and a extravagant work of art.In addition to its 36 complications a complication is essentially a neat subterfuge was the ability to tell the time. Another complication was that it rate 2.2 m.
And therein lies the mystery of the modern timepiece. These daytimes , no one is in need of Swiss watch to tell the time or a watch from any country. The duration exposed on our mobile phones and other digital devices will always be more accurate than the time exposed on even the most skilfully engineered mechanical watch, yet the industry has a visual proximity in “peoples 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 primarily by watch adverts; airports would be empty shells without them. The exportation ethic 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 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 epoches, but watch prices at Baselworld prove no signeds of making a cut-price concession to the unstable yen or rouble, or even the recent challenger from the Apple Watch. Indeed, the opposite seems to be true: the highest the asking price, the greater the entreaty, for cheapness may be mentioned a decrease in quality.
So the Rolex Oyster Perpetual Day-Date 40 in platinum( The watch par excellence of influential beings) is on sale for 41,700, while the platinum Patek Philippe Split-Seconds Chronograph with the alligator leash( For men who take accuracy earnestly) 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” simply contains so many squinting original craftsmen who can represent them, and even they havent detected a course to extend the day beyond 24 hours.
But why do we continue to buy these over-engineered and redundant machines? Why do so many parties pay so much for 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 erect a 16,000 -litre saltwater shrine to its continued familiarity of an outmoded art? Far beyond the indicate of duration, watches tell us something about ourselves. And so the answers to these questions lie within our propensity for extreme fantasy, our uptake of amazing market, our unbridled and impudent ability for pomposity, and our replaced venerate for workmanship in a digital world.
And perhaps there is something else clicking away at us a feeling that the acceleration of our everyday lives may soon support overwhelming. When watchmaking began, we had no theory of packed calendars and unbreakable deadlines, much less of quality season or me duration. Our daytimes were not ruled by the clock. These epoches, having created 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, extending from the relatively modest Calatrava and Aquanaut modelings( beginning at around 5,000) to the ludicrous Grandmaster Chime Ref 6300 in grey gold, fatten as a fist, which expenditure in the region of 1.7 m.
One registers the shop through a double-door airlock, guarantee that no one goes in who may not appreciate beautiful creativity, and no one foliages who has not settled their history. The showroom at 400 square metres, the most significant single-brand watch outlet in the UK was not sufficiently large to host its own opening defendant in December 2014. The episode was held in a glass pavilion in the courtyard of Somerset House, decorated for the night in a form that would not have examined out of place in the heyday of Versailles, albeit a Versailles lit by LED sunlights on phony 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, envelop 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 gaps, 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 obtain is established more enjoyable, and more likely, with the arrival of champagne. The London outlet has a lower-ground area resembling a library, and a twinkle, softly lighted celestial room where prospective buyers may question watches with eventual discretion. The entire showroom has intentionally banished all elements of the digital world: there are no iPads or electronic tills, and the staff have undergone a route in calligraphy to enable the careful inking of patron receipts and guarantees.
My expertise is building parties glad and to create a climate my purchasers experience, told Ed Butland, the accumulations administrator. We will show you any piece are in accordance with your needs and circumstance. Money is the latest occasion we want to talk about. On the day I saw, 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 flow porthole Nautilus that has now been serviced.
An iPhone has no soul, he pronounced. With most electronic machines theres precisely a screen and a back, and nothing that connects you with whats actually going on to make it production, and goods-for-nothing moving. Theres no human element and no human emotional bond. This partly shows the longstanding plea of a mechanical timepiece of any make.A few weeks before my tour of the showroom, I had inspected Patek Philippes headquarters in the Geneva suburb of Plan-les-Ouates, where I talked to Thierry Stern, the companys chairman. He had his own estimates on why the watch endures.
We should never forget that its roughly the only jewellery we can have as a mortal, he did. And its something nice! We should never forget that. Its not only a watch, its a piece of art. If they[ our customers] want to keep it as something of value, fine. I would prefer to see them wearing it. Its too a reinforce I envision. Yes, you are able afford a quartz or digital watch to your son for his marry, but I do not recollect those types of items today will last. They will change each year, like phones, so should I engrave a[ digital] watch like this and announce Glad Birthday from your pa, 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 corporation has been in the sides 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 you are able to expect from the heads of state of such a distinctive brand.He speaks gently and chortles easily one has no trouble envisioning him selling ties, or with a pot of fondue in front of him. He recalled a fulfilling 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 brings us down to soil, and its nice to have something mechanical when youve been working in the digital world-wide 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 yield 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 the impact of Brexit on sales; he had just approved the designs for the accumulation for 2028. When youre dealing with season, he suggested, it helps to take the long view.
Patek Philippe, which sold its first watch in the 1850 s, has never been at the crass dissolve of the market, and doesnt look for endorsements from ace footballers and rappers the behavior 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 duet with Kanye West on their book Watch the Throne) might not seem the most likely purchaser of the more subtle Patek brand. But he is: he has been recognized at basketball games wearing a 120,000 Grand Complications model in white amber. Perhaps he likes the grandeur and( relative) self-restraint of it, a 21 st-century billionaire hanker for an updated 19 th-century masterpiece. Either route, he is certainly an avid shopper of the firebrands bright marketing.
Patek has loped 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 merely look after it for the next generation. The route are complying with epitomes of frameworks in various stages of self-satisfaction: a father seated at a piano with his son, a baby tittering with her daughter over lifes little luxuries. The photograph, taken by Herb Ritts, Ellen von Unwerth, Mary Ellen Mark and other creators whose production hangs in museums, are available to budge a sense of responsibility and family indebtednes, of empire and heritage. They may plead primarily to someone with new money aspiring to be someone with old money. Buy an expensive watch, they seem to be speaking, and you will belong.