Still ticking: The preposterous existence of the indulgence watch business | Simon Garfield
The Long Read: In an increasingly digital world, beings are still willing to spend huge amounts on analogue timepieces. The wonder is, why?
On 17 March 2016, the watch make Breitling opened a lavish new stall at Baselworld, the worlds biggest watch fair, to show off its recent marvels. There was the Avenger Hurricane, a beefy 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 profundity of 2,000 metres( 3,850 ). And there were at least 60 other parts, each out-glistening the other in an attempt to demonstrate a new and costly road to tell the time.
And then there were the fish. Above the entry to the temporary store which, at 10 meters high, was really more of a pavilion was a huge cistern bracing 650 jellyfish. The cistern 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 liquid added another 16.5 tonnes. Because it contained so many fish and so much liquid, the cisterns slopes were made from a 13 cm-thick stratum of methacrylate, a transparent textile 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 cistern when the pavillion closed. Perhaps they represented freedom; perhaps they were a remember of the sort of event you could see if you purchased a Breitling diving chronometer. But the strangest event about the cistern was that most people who investigated it simply gazed up and hurriedly moved closer. Considering where it was, it didnt seem unique at all.
For eight days each year, Basel becomes the centre of the watch macrocosm. The fairs organisers claimed 150,000 guests and 1,800 labels spread over 141,000 square metres of exhibition cavity. Admission expenditure 60 Swiss francs a period( 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 waste many hours marching 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, very. Some booths is likewise 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 mom 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 seeing objects of allure and accuracy. But it was also a celebration of excess and superfluousness, of watches that exist simply because they can, like animal deeds at a circus. Numerous worked on “the worlds largest” intricate grades to act parts nearly beyond usefulness: there used to be watches with a calendar that lasts 1,000 times; there used to be watches presenting the phase of the moon in a different day zone. And then there were parts 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 open, it was presaged by its producers as the most complex wristwatch ever induced, and a grandiose work of art.In addition to its 36 complications a complication is virtually a neat ruse was the ability to tell the time. Another complication was that it overhead 2.2 m.
And therein lies the whodunit of the modern timepiece. These days , no one is in need of Swiss watch to tell the time or a watch from any country. The day exposed on our mobile phones and other digital designs will always be more accurate than the time exposed on even the most skilfully engineered mechanical watch, hitherto service industries has a visual proximity in “peoples lives” like few others. The storefronts of “the worlds” big-money freeways brighten with the lustre of Rolex and Omega; newspapers and periodicals appear to be kept in business primarily by watch adverts; airfields would be empty eggshells without them. The export importance 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 unsure financial durations, but watch tolls at Baselworld evidence no signeds of making a cut-price concession to the unstable yen or rouble, or even the most recent tournament from the Apple Watch. Surely, the opposite seems to be true: the higher the asking price, the greater the petition, for cheapness may suggest a reduction 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 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 worlds” simply contains so many squinting captain craftsmen who can induce them, and even they havent met 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 beings pay so much for the purposes of an piece whose principal part 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 prowes? Far beyond the inform of day, watches tell us something about ourselves. And so the answers to these questions lie within our propensity for extreme fantasy, our consumption of stupefying sell, our unbridled and impudent ability for ostentation, and our replaced fear for craftsmanship in a digital world.
And perhaps there is something else ticking away at us a feeling that the speeding up of our everyday lives may soon substantiate overwhelming. When watchmaking began, we had no conception of jam-packed calendars and unbreakable deadlines, much less of quality day or me day. Our days were not ruled by the clock. These days, having delivered this ungovernable blizzard of rush upon ourselves, we may be grateful for anything not least a beautiful windable timepiece that rehabilitates at the least an misconception 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 simulations( beginning at around 5,000) to the outlandish Grandmaster Chime Ref 6300 in white amber, flab as a fist, which expenditure in the region of 1.7 m.
One penetrates the parlour through a double-door airlock, guarantee that no one get in who may not appreciate beautiful artistry, and no one foliages who has not settled their detail. The showroom at 400 square metres, the most significant single-brand watch bazaar in the UK was not sufficiently large to host its own opening party in December 2014. The happen was held in a glass pavilion in the courtyard of Somerset House, embellished for the nighttime in a mode that would not have appeared out of place in the heyday of Versailles, albeit a Versailles lit by LED lights on phony cherry trees.
The London salon is the most modern of Pateks three flagship accumulations, but they all share a same retail psychology. The others, in Paris and at the companys home in Geneva, enclose the clientele in an identical citrus scent, 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 cookies with your coffee, whereas in Geneva you get chocolates.
In all three accumulations an imminent acquisition is realise more pleasurable, and most likely, with the arrival of champagne. The London outlet has a lower-ground domain resembling a library, and a glint, softly lit astronomical chamber where prospective customers may analyse watches with ultimate discretion. The entire showroom has intentionally dispelled all elements of the digital world: there are no iPads or electronic tills, and the staff have experienced a course in calligraphy to enable the careful inking of patron receipts and guarantees.
My expertise is seeing beings happy and to create a climate my customers enjoy, replied Ed Butland, the accumulations head. We will show you any piece suited to your needs and context. Money is the latest event we want to talk about. On the working 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 motion porthole Nautilus that had just been serviced.
An iPhone has no soul, he replied. With most electronic designs theres simply a screen and a back, and good-for-nothing that are linked you with whats actually going on to make it run, and nothings moving. Theres no human element and no human psychological connect. This partly illustrates the longstanding petition of a mechanical timepiece of any make.A few weeks before my tour of the showroom, I had called Patek Philippes headquarters in the Geneva suburb of Plan-les-Ouates, where I talked to Thierry Stern, the companys chairman. He had his own conceptions on why the watch endures.
We should never forget that its roughly the only jewellery we are in a position have as a husband, he replied. And its something neat! 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 also a reinforce I reckon. Yes, you are able hold a quartz or digital watch to your son for his wed, but I do not reckon those types of items today will last-place. They will change every year, like telephones, so should I impress a[ digital] watch like this and suppose 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 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 quite lacking in the hauteur one may expect from the heads of state of such a distinctive brand.He speaks softly and giggles easily one has no trouble drawing 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 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 clay, and its nice to have something mechanical when youve been working in the digital world 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 the impact of Brexit on sales; he had just approved the designs for the collection for 2028. When youre dealing with day, he intimated, 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 rude resolve of the market, and doesnt look for endorsements from stellar footballers and rappers the road other labels 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 album Watch the Throne) might not seem the most likely patron 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 amber. Perhaps he likes the grandeur and( relative) limited of it, a 21 st-century billionaire longing for an updated 19 th-century masterpiece. Either road, he is certainly an ardent buyer of the labels brilliant marketing.
Patek has ranged 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 path is accompanied by likeness of simulations in the different stages of self-satisfaction: a parent set at a piano with his son, a mom chuckling with her daughter over lifes little indulgences. The picture, taken a number of Herb Ritts, Ellen von Unwerth, Mary Ellen Mark and other masters whose run hangs in museums, are available to budge a sense of responsibility and family obligation, 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 announcing, and you will belong.