A last word to start


February 2018

A last word to start

"Change, but in what direction?” This apparently simple question was put by French philosopher André Comte-Sponville at the most recent Forum de la Haute Horlogerie, which took place in Lausanne at the beginning of November 2017.


eminding his audience that change is not an end in itself, but merely a means – “to endure, you have to progress” – and that “anthropologically speaking, no one wants to change,” the French thinker asked the watchmakers present a question for which none of them had a ready answer. Where exactly are we going?

The times in which we’re living, defined by incredible acceleration and perpetual transformation, and their profound influence on geopolitics, the economy, ecology, technology, health, customs, behaviour, information... give watchmakers plenty to think about. And there’s one nagging question that they can’t escape: what will become of our art, and our industry? Is mechanical watchmaking doomed to go the same way as, for example, the music box – a splendid and ingenious object of pure nostalgia (notwithstanding the laudable efforts of Reuge, the last remaining music box maker, to refurbish its passé image)? Even the market for nostalgia is unstable – you don’t feel the same kind of nostalgia as your parents or your children. It’s a double bind. Does that mean that mechanical watchmaking, if it is to survive (and not merely survive, but thrive) will be forced to transform, to change, as André Comte-Sponville says? Yes, of course. But again, change in what direction?

Will watchmaking nd its salvation and its future in a headlong rush towards the aes- thetically and technically spectacular, at the risk of excluding all but a fringe of (very) rich enthusiasts, or becoming an elite status symbol?

Or does the future lie in the ethical expression of an outstanding product, designed around the needs of its end user – which would apply across every price range?

Here’s another question: What does the explosion of watch start-ups on Kickstarter and other crowdfunding platforms tell us about the future? What does this deluge of meteorites, almost all of them mechanical and with a strong vintage avour, mean? It would be deluded to merely roll one’s eyes and opine sagely that, smartwatch or not, this too shall pass. Chi lo sà! It may well be a generational thing, but it will nevertheless create lasting behaviours, change perspectives, and transform the meaning that objects have in our daily lives.

“Change, but in what direction?” In the absence of any neutral perspective or hindsight, in the absence of any signposts indicating the correct path to take, some are saying, why even bother trying to change? The watch industry has taught them that the hands keep turning, and that sooner or later they come back to where they were. Only, in the meantime, everything has changed, including you, even if you have stayed still. Whether you go in this direction or in that, or remain in the same place; whether you like it or not, you change. Time makes sure of that. The question is not, as the philosopher put it: where to? We might have a few ideas but, in the end, that’s something no one can ever know.