The Long Read: In an increasingly digital world, people are still willing to spend huge amounts on analogue timepieces. The question is, why?
On 17 March 2016, the watch manufacturer Breitling opened a lavish new stall at Baselworld, the worlds biggest watch fair, to show off its latest marvels. 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 M2000 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 new and expensive way to tell the time.
And then there were the fish. Above the entrance to the temporary shop which, at 10 metres high, was really more of a pavilion was a huge tank holding 650 jellyfish. The tank really 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 added another 16.5 tonnes. Because it contained so many fish and so much water, the tanks sides were made from a 13cm-thick layer of methacrylate, a transparent material similar to plexiglass.
Precisely what the jellyfish had to do with selling watches was a mystery, and it would remain a mystery until they were removed from the tank when the pavillion closed. Perhaps they represented freedom; perhaps they were a reminder of the sort of thing you could see if you purchased a Breitling diving chronometer. But the strangest thing about the tank was that most people who saw it just glanced up and swiftly moved on. Considering where it was, it didnt seem unusual at all.
For eight days each year, Basel becomes the centre of the watch universe. The fairs organisers claimed 150,000 paying visitors and 1,800 brands spread over 141,000 square metres of exhibition space. Admission cost 60 Swiss francs a day (almost 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 spend many hours walking 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, too. Some booths were also selling jewellery including Chanel, Gucci and Chopard and some brands were selling watches covered in jewels:symphonies of the unnecessary, such as the Harry Winston Premier Moon Phase 36mm, with mother of pearl and 104 brilliant-cut diamonds.
The show was a celebration of our mastery of timekeeping, and of the refinement and years of training that go into making objects of beauty and accuracy. But it was also a celebration of excess and superfluousness, of watches that exist merely because they can, like animal acts at a circus. Many worked on the most intricate levels to perform functions almost beyond usefulness: there were watches with a calendar that lasts 1,000 years; there were watches showing the phase of the moon in a different time zone. And then there were items such as the Aeternitas Mega 4 from Franck Muller, assembled from 1,483 components. This would announce the hours and quarter-hours with the same chime sequence as Big Ben. At its launch, it was heralded by its makers as the most complex wristwatch ever made, and a grandiose work of art.In addition to its 36 complications a complication is essentially a nice gimmick was the ability to tell the time. Another complication was that it cost 2.2m.
And therein lies the mystery of the modern timepiece. These days, no one requires a Swiss watch to tell the time or a watch from any country. The time displayed 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, yet the industry has a visual presence in our lives like few others. The storefronts of the worlds big-money boulevards glow with the lustre of Rolex and Omega; newspapers and magazines appear to be kept in business largely by watch adverts; airports would be empty shells without them. The export value 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 28.1m Swiss watches valued at 21.5 billion Swiss francs.
We live in uncertain economic times, but watch prices at Baselworld show no signs of making a cut-price concession to the unstable yen or rouble, or even the recent competition from the Apple Watch. Indeed, the opposite seems to be true: the higher the asking price, the greater the appeal, for cheapness may suggest a reduction in quality.
So the Rolex Oyster Perpetual Day-Date 40 in platinum (The watch par excellence of influential people) is on sale for 41,700, while the platinum Patek Philippe Split-Seconds Chronograph with the alligator strap (For men who take accuracy seriously) 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 only contains so many squinting master craftsmen who can make them, and even they havent found a way 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 pay so much 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 mastery of an outmoded art? Far beyond the telling of time, watches tell us something about ourselves. And so the answers to these questions lie within our propensity for extreme fantasy, our consumption of dazzling marketing, our unbridled and shameless capacity for ostentation, and our renewed reverence for craftsmanship 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 prove overwhelming. When watchmaking began, we had no concept of packed calendars and unbreakable deadlines, much less of quality time or me time. Our days were not ruled by the clock. These days, having brought this ungovernable storm of rush upon ourselves, we may be grateful for anything not least a beautiful windable timepiece that reinstates at 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, stretching from the relatively modest Calatrava and Aquanaut models (beginning at around 5,000) to the ludicrous Grandmaster Chime Ref 6300 in white gold, fat as a fist, which costs in the region of 1.7m.
One enters the salon through a double-door airlock, ensuring that no one gets in who may not appreciate exquisite artistry, and no one leaves who has not settled their account. The showroom at 400 square metres, the largest single-brand watch emporium in the UK was not sufficiently large to host its own opening party in December 2014. The event was held in a glass pavilion in the courtyard of Somerset House, decorated for the night in a style that would not have looked out of place in the heyday of Versailles, albeit a Versailles lit by LED lights on fake cherry trees.
The London salon is the most modern of Pateks three flagship stores, 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 scent, and in all three, the piped music is as suave and alluring as 1950s Monaco. There are a few subtle differences, the companys PR chief tells me. In London you get biscuits with your coffee, whereas in Geneva you get chocolates.
In all three stores an imminent purchase is made more pleasurable, and more likely, with the arrival of champagne. The London outlet has a lower-ground area resembling a library, and a twinkling, softly lit celestial room where prospective buyers may examine watches with ultimate discretion. The entire showroom has purposely banished all facets of the digital world: there are no iPads or electronic tills, and the staff have undergone a course in calligraphy to enable the careful inking of customer receipts and guarantees.
My expertise is making people happy and to create an environment my customers enjoy, said Ed Butland, the stores director. We will show you any item suited to your needs and circumstance. Money is the last thing 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 movement porthole Nautilus that had just been serviced.
An iPhone has no soul, he said. With most electronic devices theres just a screen and a back, and nothing that connects you with whats actually going on to make it work, and nothings moving. Theres no human element and no human emotional connection. This partly explains the longstanding appeal 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 president. He had his own thoughts on why the watch endures.
We should never forget that its nearly the only jewellery we can have as a man, he said. 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 also a reward I think. Yes, you could give a quartz or digital watch to your son for his wedding, but I do not think those types of items today will last. They will change every year, like phones, so should I engrave a [digital] watch like this and say Happy Birthday from your dad, 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 hands 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 picturing him selling ties, or with a pot of fondue in front of him. He recalled a meeting he had recently in New York with industry leaders 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 earth, 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 giant 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 time, he suggested, it helps to take the long view.
Patek Philippe, which sold its first watch in the 1850s, has never been at the vulgar end of the market, and doesnt look for endorsements from star footballers and rappers the way other brands do. Jay Z, for example, who has 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 customer of the more subtle Patek brand. But he is: he has been spotted at basketball games wearing a 120,000 Grand Complications model in white gold. Perhaps he likes the elegance and (relative) restraint of it, a 21st-century billionaire hankering for an updated 19th-century masterpiece. Either way, he is certainly an avid consumer of the brands brilliant marketing.
Patek has run virtually the same advert for the last 20 years, 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 line is accompanied by images of models in various stages of self-satisfaction: a father seated at a piano with his son, a mother laughing with her daughter over lifes little luxuries. The photographs, taken by Herb Ritts, Ellen von Unwerth, Mary Ellen Mark and other artists whose work hangs in museums, are designed to stir a sense of responsibility and family obligation, of dynasty 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 saying, and you will belong.