Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The Superfluousness of Watches

Vacheron Constantin's Tour de l'Ile

The wristwatch is actually a rather recent invention. Its predecessor was the once widely used pocket watch. However, due to the growth of consumerism and consumer demands, the original purpose of the wrist watch, as a time keeping equipment, which seems rather quaint in this day and age, is becoming obsolete. Why do you need to look at your wrist watch when your phone, which you look at more often than your watch tells you the time; or the ubiquitousness of the clock in most modern vehicles; or the digital clocks that dot the city; or the computer you are using tells it to you too; or from the television programs; or just from the movement of the people around you (it's lunch when the office is deserted)? If you are an urban dweller who is reading this article right now - you can go through an entire day without having to look at your watch.

But just as its functional purpose is in decline, its value as a fashion accessory or financial investment is on the rise. For the former, you need only go to any Swatch outlet to see a plethora of different designs on the watches aside from the materials used for the watches (steel, plastic, leather) and the designs of the watches itself (funny shaped face, terribly stylish face which is useless for telling the time, novel and therefore weird straps). They are cheap, attractive and plentiful. This outlet doesn't try to sell you a watch. Collect us all! they cry from their stylish display cases. That's right, these days you buy a collection of watches. These sort of watches are used then rather to mark your affiliation, to make a statement, to complement your clothes, or to waste your money - everything else really except tell the time. Some of the designs don't even pretend to tell you the time anymore. And do they really think that James Bond Collection of watches is going to be worth a damn 500 years from now? It's ironic to find these consumers try to inject a sense of posterity (and hence durability) in an environment of and with a product geared towards transience and disposability. And that's on the one end.

On the other end of the spectrum you have the luxury watches which are so expensive some people can work their entire lives and not even save up half the purchase price. One such watch for example would be the Vacheron Constantin's Tour de l'Ile which is touted (by the company of course) as the world's most complex watch every made, requiring 834 parts which took over 10,000 man-hours to create and features an 18-carat silvered gold dial with a hand-sewn alligator leather band and pink gold buckle. That goes for a measly US$1.6 million. I personally find such watches vulgar, ostentatious, no matter how elegantly stylish the watch and ultimately futile because all that effort goes to a watch that will be little used, little looked at, little shown and kept in a small little box in a very established and highly secured bank. I sometimes wonder how these watch makers feel to make something so durable and of such worth only for it to be kept in a box for the rest of its entire life, to make something so useless. Perhaps they are too well paid to care anymore.

But thankfully, not all watches are that pricey of course. Thankfully the people at places like Rolex, Patek Phillipe, Audemar Piguet and Jaegar Le Coultre understand that there are those amongst us (not me of course!) who have a few tens, if not hundreds, of thousand of dollars to spare and want similarly styled watches. And to sweeten the deal of course they gull their customers into thinking that these are things of value and will increase in value over time. Hence that is why these days, people talk about watches as an investment, when before, the people who collected watches did so out of passion or curiosity. That's what the heady days of the 80's followed by the 90's have done to us - our hobbies (including sports) are capitalized and exploited. These days, if you like something or doing something, you have to justify its economic value, or these days its health values. It's so tedious sometimes! What happened to the days we did something simply because we liked it and it felt good? So for all these highly expensive and useless (in the true sense of the word) objects, time too is not the issue - in fact, almost accidental, and sometimes almost absent from the watch itself. And that is just one of the unfathomable amount of ironies of humanity.

One thing I like about these highly expensive useless objects (HEUO) is how it tries to hold and improve its value its existence simply due to its limited in circulation and effluxion of time against the tide of disposal culture in our society, which probably has the most waste per person per kilogramme in the century of mankind, which prides itself on its cheapness and ready availability. But really, what value can it hold and how much can it improve? Nobody can say. Nobody dare say. When you think about it, why should these old ones grow in value when the company keeps producing new ones, better ones, improved ones? Simply because they are old and limited? Even though this was done deliberately?

And the hilarity of it all is that all these collectors are in kind of conspiracy with these watchmakers and it goes something like this: The watchmaker produces a timepiece for some ridiculous price spiels about how its mechanism uses this amount of parts, requiring so many thousands man hours to build and has this special feature and so because of all these useless crap which you will never use after you have shown it off to all your friends and moved on to your new objection of veneration. These community of collectors, speculators and just plan old watch lovers unconsciously conspire to agree that this timepiece shall grow in value as time passes. To back it up some of them actually play this game and the whole scheme is off and running, and soon after it becomes a culture, industry and source of profit.

But what are you buying really when you buy a watch in this day and age? It's not the watch, it's not the time, but other people's time. When you buy a highly expensive watch which is basically one of the most useless objects around, all you are buying the time of highly niche skilled group of people who have brought their entire life to bear on this endeavour. To me, all that's a whole lot of life, effort, money and time dedicated to a thin band of flesh on one's wrist, dontcha think?

1 comment:

art harun said...

I am sorry I have to diasagree with you on this. :)
I had been brought to respect my time and other people's time. Punctuality is a must in the eyes of my grandparents, who brought me up. I think in part, that was necessitated by circumstances. Later in life, I was in a boarding school and everything was, sort of, regimented. Time wise, especially.
As a result I became, well, for the lack of a better word, obsessed with time and being punctual.
My first watch, ever, was a small Oris. I don't know where it came from and how much it cost. But it was an Oris. Since then, I had never ever left home without a wrsit watch. It is not an accessory to me. It is not a neccessity too. A wrist watch to me, is an extension of myself. It is like my nose, or my fingers, that kind of thing! Really. I wear a wrist watch all the time and regardless of the occassion. I wear it while at work, reading, writing, jogging or working out at the gym. I even wear a watch when I am sleeping at night. And I look at it often too! I have to know the time at every turn of a phase in my everyday life. When the track change on the CD, I look at the time. When I wake up in the middle of the night, I look at the time. When I stop at the traffic light, I look at the time. When I leave the office, I look at the time. That sort of thing! I am bonkers when it comes to time!
While I wouldn't claim myself to be a collector, I do have more than 4 watches. I know. I could always look at the lap top, or my mobile or at the small clock on the dashboard to know the time. But firstly, these are not watches! And they are digital, which I, for some unknown and inexplicable reasons, dislike! Call me a nutcase, and I would not disagree! Furthermore, they are almost invariably inaccurate.
And so, I need my wrist watch. Like I need my nose, or fingers...