Watches have always represented objects of social signifiance, from their very start
Whatever you do, a smart-anything that you buy today will be obsolete in a couple years, and will be tossed in the bin, replaced by the new, improved version. A watch will never become obsolete, because it already is, so you will not toss it in the bin – unless it is a smartwatch, that is.
This means that whoever buys a watch, does not buy it for its function as a timekeeper. Watches have always represented objects of social signifiance, from their very start.
The first, horrendously imprecise, watches were styled to be worn attached to a chain hanged on the neck of the wearer, so other people could see that they owned a watch.
Through the 1600s and 1700s, the official portraits of gentlemen and ladies showed them toying with their watch or clock. Would you have posed for your official portrait showing something that was not precious to you?
Of course not.
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The first popular watches
One of the biggest revolutions of the modern times was the Roskopf watch – also known as The Proletarian Watch, named so by its maker, Georg Friedrich Roskopf. Finally, the luxury of owning a watch – and the social status of owning one – was open to everyone.
This watch was the ultimate social leveler. And showed to the commoners that they too could own something that was previously reserved for the upper class.
So, you really think that watch companies would really cry wolf for the emergence of next-to-be-obsolete smart devices? The stats of the industry tell us that the emergence of the smartwatches have influenced the watch industry in the lower and middle end, eroding some space and contribuing to the polarizing of the watch business. As of today, the world of watches is divided between low-end and high-end. The middle end, where smartwatches dwell, is becoming more and more like a battlefield, where continuing competitors enter, and few remain.
A watch is not a commodity
And for what? The watch market has recovered the COVID crisis, and has now reached the stats it had in 2019. The Swiss industry – which is composed by high-end manufacturers – is selling less units, but the total turnout has leveled up with the score of 2019. This means that the manufactured watches are more costly ones: check this graph showing the best watch markets for Swiss exports.
And this is precisely the point. A watch is more and more everything but a commodity, but lots of people just keep on ignoring this simple fact.
It is not the concept of time that fascinates watch lovers, but the concept of measuring it with a stylish obsolete mechanical tool that looks awesome on their wrists and derives from a tradition that spans 500 years.
I do not exclude that some people are fascinated by the concept of time. But the main modern explanation of wearing a luxury waych (which, to remind to my readers, is NOT the same as saying a precious watch) is the pleasure that you get by wearing it.
But it wasn’t always like this. The conquest of time – and the possibility of checking it – was a social issue. From the beginnings of horology, only the rich had access to the measurement of time. The social importance of a man was testimonied by his watch. If you had a watch, you were considered a gentleman. A watch back then was a status symbol, and only the affluent could afford to buy one.
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Watches as art masterpieces
You can see the precious craftsmanship in this watch by Caron, a French watchmaker who was the master of the famous Lépine, around 1750. Watches back then were truly art masterpieces.
The majority of people could not afford to buy a watch, as it was too expensive, so they depended from public clocks or the clocks installed in their places of work.
You can see a macro above with a detail of the pin pallet escapement. You can see one of the two pins used in this escapement.
It was so simple and revolutionary that the whole of Swiss industry boycotted Roskopf and his watch, refusing to work for him. He finally found some companies in France which agreed to produce a fist batch of watches for him.
He deposited and trademarked his watch, and started to manufacture it – and sold an incredible amount of watches. Finally common people could achieve their dream of buying a watch.
The first precious watches
These first Roskopf watches were not as precise as the traditional ones, but they had the merit of being affordable and good-looking. The watch face was often decorated, and the manufacturers used alloys for the cases which looked like silver (of the most common was called Argentan, or German Silver), so people started to wear their watches and “increase” in social status.
The switch to having multiple timepieces came later, when watches started to migrate to the wrist and became truly industrialized, so it has become more a commodity than a status symbol.
However, a fine watch of today retains the characteristics of exclusivity that make timepieces so relevant – and carries all the weight of this technological evolution that has rendered the possibility of checking the time so widespread that it has become difficult to understand how important it really is.
I am explaining in more detail the evolution of watches and watchmaking in my book, The Watch Manual – so if you are interested in getting to know more about this topic, please take a look.
Please, download an extract of 8 chapters free