Watchmakers & The metaphor of the tree

Español 中文
December 2011

The most highly prized metaphor among watchmakers today is that of the tree. As you read through our pages, you will find it mentioned in several places, told to us by watchmakers themselves. For example, you will find this metaphor mentioned in the supplement that is devoted to Jaeger-LeCoultre on the occasion of the SIHH. Another allusion is found in an interview with Philippe Merk, CEO of Audemars Piguet, who talks about the “Royal Oak tree” that hides the Audemars Piguet forest. In the previous issue of Europa Star there was an article about Lange & Söhne, which talked about its Akademie in terms of “understanding the tree and its roots.”

Why is the metaphor of the tree being evoked so often? Perhaps it is because the tree, in the mind of watchmakers, has as much to do with the art of timekeeping as it does with the state of our societies. Among all living things, man is the best at dominating space while the tree clearly masters time, since there is no other organism that can live as long as a tree—up to 5,000 years for some species of pine trees in California. The tree is thus virtually immortal since it is capable of cloning itself indefinitely, as is demonstrated by a spruce tree in Sweden that is thought to have first germinated in 7158 BC, more than 9000 years ago. That watchmaking would therefore evoke the metaphor of the tree as the master of time is not really all that surprising. Yet, it is the revival of this metaphor that we wonder about.

The idea of the watch has long flirted with the notion of modernity, and the social importance of the timepiece has increased along with the imperatives of global commerce, regulation of transportation, and the coordination of world economies. Today, while “instantaneous time” has imposed itself at the heart of financial transactions, abolishing space and its frontiers, the tree, although incapable of moving but better at mastering the dimension of time, seems like a reassuring symbol. The world may crumble around us, crises may provoke storms across the world, hierarchies may be shaken up, but the tree remains standing like a comforting reference point.

It is thus tempting to look to the tree for inspiration. Its structure lends itself admirably to the metaphor of watch brands that, on this globalised planet, are looking to reaffirm their geographical base and their historical depth (the roots), as well as to reassure about their solidity (the trunk). They also demonstrate their savoir-faire through their branches and take pride in the fruits produced each season. The unchanging seasonal cycle of the tree—which blossoms every year and is always faithful to itself yet different—offers a very promising image.

A tree thus represents a heritage that is continuously accumulated. And while its growth may sometimes slow during particularly cold seasons, it never stops—something that many a watchmaking brand aspires to. Yet, it is also in the most intimate details that the tree evokes timekeeping. Don’t the rings of its trunk actually mark the cyclical passage of time, a bit like a natural clock?

That the metaphor of the tree is so popular today is not at all unexpected. The euro may explode; China’s expansion may slow down; the sea levels may rise. But the tree will continue its steadfast growth.

Source: Europa Star December - January 2012 Magazine Issue