I am often asked why I have such a passion for watches, and it is a question that is extremely difficult to answer. I do not have a preference for any particular kind of watch and do not have the money to invest in high-end brands that cost a fortune to buy and a lesser fortune to run. My preference for accuracy obviously leads me towards more modern timepieces, but my fascination with mechanical watches remains strong and so I continue to struggle when the question is asked.
A watch is an object that is so familiar, so historic and so invisible to the majority of people that it is just there for most of us and completely unnecessary for a growing proportion of the latest generation. The thought of checking the time on my phone feels completely alien for a number of reasons; I have worn a watch for so long that I cannot imagine not having the time with me 24 hours a day. I also cannot imagine the process of turning my phone on to check the time as something that feels natural and convenient. And finally, I really do enjoy looking at a watch that I like and finding familiarity and personality in the simplest of objects.
It has become apparent recently that smart watch apps are sparse in number, lacking in quality and on some platforms offer very few benefits. There are a number of reasons for this and Apple in particular has come in for some criticism because developers are not releasing native apps that run on the Apple Watch, the number of apps being released is minimal and the majority have little use apart from the novelty factor which disappears within a few minutes. None of that is Apple’s fault unless you consider that the watch form is fatally flawed for running apps, and Apple did choose to make a smart watch after all.
Ultimately, we have a tiny screen which is attached to a wrist and minimal ability to interact with it in a natural way. It reminds me of the early Windows PDAs which were hard to navigate, annoying to use and which died a death very quickly once Apple came up with the iPhone. Computing and technology in 2015 is all about making things easier to use and offering lifestyle benefits to people which are currently difficult for smart watches to manage. Android Wear is a better proposition that the Apple Watch in my opinion, but they all remain glorified exercise trackers which try to do much more than they really should. Some also try to offer a sense of luxury (Apple Watch Edition, TAG Heuer Connected, LG Watch Urbane), but the reality is that you cannot make an object that for many is jewellery feel consistently luxurious when there is a glowing colour screen at the centre of the experience. It does not flow and feels akin to sitting in front of a 40″ TV with an ornate gold design. That would look silly and so do all of the ‘luxury’ smart watches on sale today.
I admit to not having had the best experience with smart watches to date and all have failed to be worn each day after a week of use. With some excitement, I picked up the Apple Watch and tested it, this is still a watch after all, but it failed to grab me and I only used 2 or 3 of the included apps each day. It feels unlikely to me that this situation will change, but I guess there is a possibility that someone will crack the code just as Apple did, and latterly Google, with the smartphone. Before the new crop of phones arrived, they were clunky, tricky to use and only revered by a small minority. It is conceivable that the watch form can be utilised to become ubiquitous and that one day quartz and mechanical watches will be seen as objects of the past, but we remain in the most unique of industries where smart tech sits alongside centuries old mechanics and minerals that have been designed to be super accurate. I can think of no other industry where such variety sells in big numbers and where such differences exist. No company makes a car with technology from 50 year’s ago and the same applies to phones, white goods and almost every other object that falls outside of the fashion or furnishing industries. The watch is unique in that it can be described with the same word yet be powered by completely different technologies and remain largely capable of doing the same thing as any other watch.
Imagine buying a classic car and using it every day for your daily commute. It would make much more sense to buy a cheaper new car which will be more reliable, less likely to break down and require less maintenance to keep it running. The problem is that a classic car is fun and offers a glimpse of what came before which is precisely why vintage mechanical watches are considered desirable by so many collectors. There is a difference, however, in that a vintage mechanical will still tell the time fairly accurately and has the potential to be something that will do the job perfectly for you every single day.
When we consider that the idea of a wrist watch was patented back in 1893 and that many of the components remain similar to this day, it highlights just how easy it is to own something special that includes all of the historical touches you could wish for to carry around with you. If you do not know how a mechanical watch works, take a look at the video below.
All of the above is happening in a tiny space on your wrist all of the time in a modern mechanical watch. No winding, no maintenance, at least not for a few years, and decent accuracy to a few seconds each day. To me that is an incredible achievement and is the reason why I like wearing a mechanical watch from time to time. My non-engineering brain struggles to cope with how someone came up with the idea for a mechanical timepiece and how it all works, but it is that lack of understanding which causes fascination. I do not struggle to understand how computers and phones work, but show me something that is just a collection of metal that somehow stays alive and I am hooked.
This brings me on to the notion of paying £1000’s for a high-end watch and why people would want to do that. As I write this I am wearing an Invicta Grand Diver watch with a tried and tested Seiko movement inside. It costs less than £100, but offers robust functionality, decent accuracy and is a huge hunk of metal that fits my larger than average wrists perfectly. So why would so many people want to pay upwards of £5,000 for an Omega, Rolex or any number or other manufacturers watches?
It is extremely hard to justify such expenditure and to explain what makes high-end mechanical watches so desirable, but there is a collection of different things that come together to explain their popularity. The parts used are often hand-made or created in house by the manufacturer. The putting together of the parts is rarely done by a robot and for many manufacturers you can be assured that a skilled human being has spent many hours with your watch to ensure that every part is in place and that it works exactly as it should. In a world where some watches offer exact accuracy, it must be strangely fulfilling to be able to buy a watch that has been put together by real person.
The jewellery aspect should not be forgotten. Some watches such as Rolex, Hublot and Panerai offer a distinctive style that makes them obvious to others as to what they are. There is of course an element of showing off when it comes to brands like Rolex, which are affordable to quite a few people, but I do believe that the higher up the chain you go, the more likely the individual has purchased the watch for their own enjoyment. 99% of people would have no idea what a Patek Philippe is or what one looks like and so the wearer is obviously not attempting to impress others, unless they roam in the kind of circles where people will truly understand what it is.
History also plays a huge role in a high-end watch purchase. Whether it be an Omega which bears similarities to those that travelled to space or simply a brand that the majority consider to be an example of exceptional quality and class. Indeed, for many of these watches it could be argued that marketing, brand and the intangible feeling you get when owning a product from one of the most revered companies in the world makes up the majority of the price. It is no different than buying diamonds or a Ferrari, you are buying something that is more than the product itself and the resale value usually makes up for the initial investment, and in the case of many watches profits will likely come in the long run.
If you buy a high-end mechanical watch, you end up with an object containing more than 100 parts which magically tells the time very accurately every day and which is finished to a level of detail which is astonishing on so many levels. To convince some of the value is impossible, but for some of us it is what it is, and it remains an amazing invention which is still going strong today.
The first quartz watch was released to the public in 1969 by Seiko and it truly changed the watch industry, but maybe not as much as some expected it to at the time. When we look back 46 years later, mechanical watches still dominate the high-end, quartz dominates the low-end and there are some outliers which are started to gain market share. It is most surprising that the piezoelectric properties of quartz were discovered back in 1880 and that it took nearly a century for it to become commonly used this way.
As time progressed the price of quartz watches plummeted and today we see jewellery stores dominated by cheaper watches which are accurate to a handful of seconds a month. The ticking of the second hand is seen by many as the hallmark of a quartz watch, but it does not have to tick. This is mainly done to preserve battery life more than anything with some watches, from the likes of Bulova, sweeping even more smoothly than mechanicals. You all know what a quartz watch is and what it does, and for the vast majority it is the perfect way to keep time; cheap, accurate and often still liveried with expensive materials and expert design. You can buy very expensive quartz watches from the likes of TAG Heuer, but I remain of the view that this is akin to buying a classic car and putting a mass market modern petrol engine in the front. Personally, I would either go all the way to a mechanical or stick with a modern watch that tries not to hide the fact it is a mass market product.
There has aways been alternative watch mechanisms available and in particular the Accutron movement from Bulova. This just happens to be my favourite watch brand and I love the electric mechanism that was introduced in the 1960’s and which survives to this day in the Accutron II range. They are super accurate, to 20 seconds per year, and sweep in a completely smooth motion (to the human eye) which potentially makes them the best of both worlds for anyone who wants class married with style and history.
Other options include the use of satellite technology to ensure complete accuracy and these watches are hard to ignore. I own a Citizen Perpetual Chrono A.T which is powered by light, which takes the time from satellites every morning at 2AM and which always knows the correct date. It requires no manual intervention at all apart from pressing one button to check that the last time-signal check was valid and that there is enough power available. To me, this watch is a perfect example of modernity and never pretends to be something it is not. The fact that it is made by Citizen is another advantage because the company has proved over many years that it is capable of producing superb and consistent quality watches in all price ranges.
The future of watches may be more important that you think because it is possible that it is an industry that will remain largely untouched by the progress we see in mobile technology. The mobile phone was consumed by small computers to the point that voice calling is for many a rarely undertaken activity. Tablets have consumed parts of the PC market that could not have been foreseen and PCs themselves, and the internet, consumed libraries, typewriters, board games and so many other products from the pre-PC era. Each has come to symbolise modern life and each has grown over time to become essential for millions and millions of people.
The main problem with the smart watch is that it has not reached a point where the majority feel it is essential. It is incapable of offering the functionality we use so naturally on a phone or tablet in such a small space and so it drops back to being a novelty where the user tends to prefer using the functionality on the phone that is with them anyway. The other problem is that a traditional watch could in some ways be seen as not essential, and especially so today. If the younger generation does not wear watches en mass then the smart watch will appear to be something new and potentially inconvenient and even uncomfortable. Add the fact that it is not as useful as promised and we can see why the market is failing to live up to the hype.
It was easy for the smart phone to become successful because it built upon the mobile phone which had already become essential. It was easy for the tablet to become successful because it took away the barriers that made PC use a pain in the backside, mainly thanks to Windows and Microsoft, and it was easy for the PC to become successful in the first place because the internet changed the world. Smart Watches, however, are battling against 100 of years of history, a deep love of the object for millions of people and the plain fact that they are really not very useful at this time.
I may be biased because I am one of those people who gains great enjoyment from wearing and looking at a well-made watch on my wrist, but not one of my watches is expensive. One day maybe I will be able to purchase a high-end watch with all of the history and craftsmanship that I appreciate, but until that time I will remain fascinated by the processes that are gone through to make them.
A lifeless computer on my wrist still feels like a distant possibility.