The combination of computer-aided design, high-precision machining on increasingly powerful multi-axis CNC machines, high-tech materials science and… the ever thicker wallets of the über rich is pushing high-end watchmaking ever higher and ever further.
Which watches stood out during the SIHH week? Without prompting, “observers” would cite the wrist planetarium developed by Van Cleef & Arpels, the Poker watch by Christophe Claret, the Perpetual Calendar with Equation of time by Greubel Forsey, the Dizzy Hands by Richard Mille, the TerraLuna by A. Lange & Söhne or the DB28 by De Bethune…
All extraordinary watches, it must be said, some of which are superb, but the cheapest one costs 100,000 Swiss francs (excluding tax). There seems to be no end to this upward spiral, at the risk of one day breaking the bank.
Journalists from around the world – most of whom cannot even dream of one day owning such a timepiece that costs the same as a house with a swimming pool – drool over these mechanical accomplishments worthy of being in a museum, some of which have admirable levels of complexity and sophistication. But they forget that the bread and butter of the watchmaking industry is not there.
There seems to be no end to this upward spiral, at the risk of one day breaking the bank.
These pieces enjoy media coverage that is not commensurate with their real importance to the world’s daily watch business. They are literally talking pieces, whose main objective is to attract media attention. Of course, they bear witness to a high level of horological research and development and they generate an interest that should theoretically rub off on the rest of the industry. But we must not forget that these über watches represent a mere handful of the 1.2 billion timepieces produced each year.
We can claim, justifiably, that they are the driving force behind all the others. But we can also claim that by focusing most of the media hype on them we create a disparity between this hyper-exclusive top of the range and everything else, which gets neglected. And this “everything else” includes many accomplished products that are worthy of greater interest.
Let’s take the example of the perpetual calendar.
Until now, it has been confined to the elite among timepieces and you had to spend at least several tens of thousands of Swiss francs or euros to acquire an example of the complication that is after all more useful than a chronograph, which nobody really uses in their daily life. Under the leadership of Jérôme Lambert, Montblanc has just launched a perpetual calendar for 10,000 euros (which is still a considerable sum). And what did we hear in the plush surroundings of the SIHH? “They are going to kill the perpetual calendar,” exclaimed some, concerned for their own geese that lay the golden eggs. But isn’t this the ultimate goal of any technological development: to manage to democratise it, to “share” it as Montblanc says?
They are the driving force behind all the others. But we must not forget that these über watches represent a mere handful of the 1.2 billion timepieces produced each year.
Isn’t this essential if high-end watchmaking wants to avoid living solely in its own bubble, as sumptuous as it may be, and avoid becoming disconnected from general opinion? Because, beyond the confines of the initiated, the most common refrain from “normal” people, the silent majority, from all those who only think about watches once or twice a year, was: “they are crazy, these prices are insane, sickening”. We may laugh and we may mock, but isn’t this a kind of warning? What if, one day, fed up with all this excess, the average consumer turned away… to buy a smartwatch for example?
Then it would be goodbye to the bread and butter.
Source: Europa Star February - March 2014 Magazine Issue