n the midst of a dark time, when our ultra-connected world was grappling with an equally connected virus, in December 2020 a glimmer of hope emerged for watchmaking: UNESCO added the “craftsmanship of mechanical watchmaking and art mechanics” to its representative list of the intangible cultural heritage of humanity. That recognition marks a tipping point for horology, whose universal impact and true value have finally been acknowledged.
In fact, the transformation of watchmaking into a genuine culture, beyond a mere industry or trade, has been under way for several decades – particularly since the revival of mechanical engineering in the 1990s. The transition has been further accelerated by the effects of the pandemic crisis, which, despite seeing the number of traditionally produced watches decline even further, has also witnessed an increase in the appeal of those timepieces that have a significant heritage.
Perhaps nothing demonstrates this more than the success of watch auctions, even those held online in the midst of the crisis. On this subject, read our interview with Aline Sylla-Walbaum, head of Christie’s luxury division, who has done an admirable job to prepare the company for this new age of digital auctions.
The survival of the watch industry now depends above all on its ability to retain a strong social and cultural relevance.
Another unmistakable sign of the cultural transformation of watchmaking is the commercial success of independent master watchmakers – a success that is inversely proportional to the number of pieces they produce each year. What they all have in common is that they work with their own hands. In other words, they fully embrace the cultural origins of an art that begins with a skilled touch.
But recognition by UNESCO is only a starting point. The survival of the industry now depends above all on its ability to retain a strong social and cultural relevance. Action must follow. It is about preserving a living heritage that will always be threatened by economic crises, but not immobilising it in aspic. This art feeds on transmission, sharing and innovation. In the digital age, there is still so much we can do to harness the energy of what is a now a recognised horological culture. So let’s get to work!