Times change, but the watch keeps ticking on

A survey tells us that time is running out for wristwatches, and yet they can be pieces of art that say much about their owners

Nick Foulkes
Saturday 29 September 2012 19:53 BST
The Vacheron Constantin Ultra Slim: Discretion from a company that has made watches in Geneva since 1955
The Vacheron Constantin Ultra Slim: Discretion from a company that has made watches in Geneva since 1955

As a watch lover it is hard to shine a positive light on the news from Mintel that 25 per cent of Britons no longer use a wristwatch, favouring instead to tell the time on their mobile phones, tablets, iPads, iPods and what have you. More alarming still is that it is up from 18 per cent last year and, of the under-35s, 40 per cent have given up on the watch in favour of screen time.

But then another part of me is prompted to answer that I understand that bears defecate in woods and that the Pope, whether he knows it or not, finds himself heading a religious organisation called the Roman Catholic church.

Today the time blinks out at us from innumerable domestic appliances – the dashboards of our cars, the panels of our digital radios, cookers, computers, keypads for alarm systems, and the little screens with which we reacquaint ourselves, now that summer is over, to set the timers on our central heating. Were I being morbid, these omnipresent timing devices thrusting the hour of the day upon us whether we want it or not are modern memento mori. At least with a watch we can decide whether to consult it or not. With a watch, time is discretionary and in a way it gives us the illusion that we control time: by winding a watch we give it life. I admit, however, these are hardly the most compelling arguments for the supremacy of the mechanical wristwatch.

I adore mechanical wristwatches. I have been fascinated by them since childhood, and this is not the first time that the imminent extinction of the wristwatch has been prophesied. Growing up, the sort of watches I liked, powered by ticking clockwork rather than silent soulless batteries, were widely held to be an endangered species. During the 1970s the traditional hegemony of mechanical watches was under threat from cheap, accurate, electronic watches churned out by the tens of millions in the Far East, and watchmaking in Switzerland entered what appeared to be an irreversible decline. If my friends bothered to notice my fondness for these antiquated little machines, it was to recognise it as a silly affectation and I must admit I sort of agreed with them. But I persevered anyway.

However, even the most ludicrously optimistic watch buff could not have predicted what would happen during the 1990s and the early 21st century as fine watchmaking enjoyed not so much a Renaissance as a Lazaran revival. A dying industry was suddenly running marathons. And all it needed was to be viewed from a different angle: liberated from the shackles of being in the business of delivering information, the watch was free to become a source of pleasure, a marvel of human ingenuity, and a store of artisanal value – to assume what I believe to be its rightful position as an important cultural object, a wearable functional distillation of centuries of European culture and history.

Viewed in this way it is a little like saying that the invention of photography killed off painting. Granted, we may no longer carry portrait miniatures of our loved ones around with us, preferring photos on our phones.

But just as one buys art for reasons other than having a pictorial representation of a landscape or person, so nobody will be spending the £560,000 (give or take, depending on currency fluctuations) that it takes to buy a Patek Philippe minute repeater just to tell the time. Patek Philippe is regarded as the cobalt blue-chip brand and a minute repeater is a watch that chimes out the hours, quarters and minutes like a miniature clock tower as well as using hour and minute hands.

So what if members of the Facebook generation are using their iPhones to tell the time? Mintel Schmintel. I doubt that the top end of the timepiece market has ever been in better fettle. In the space of about 25 years the mechanical wristwatch has gone from being the marginal taste of a few eccentrics to being one of the central totems in the male pantheon of status, conferring goods right up there along with the other trophies of material success – expensive art, a well-furnished house and so forth.

Status conferral gets a bad press these days but ever since the first caveman slung a necklace of bones and stones around his or his wife's neck it has been a fact of human existence. But if status conferral puts you off, think instead of a watch as a piece of personal semaphore, communicating who it is that you are, who you think you are, or who you would like others to think you are.

Of course, as Mintel points out, 25 per cent of the population, including David Cameron, do not wear watches. But even then there are ways of not wearing a watch and it might just be that, by your not wearing a watch, or for that matter making the conscious decision to wear an ostentatiously inexpensive one, others might receive the message that you consider yourself above such frivolous distractions as taking pleasure in a nice watch – that you operate on an altogether more lofty plane. Certainly lofty thinking and high watchmaking are not incompatible. Just look at Voltaire; during the 1760s the author of Candide set up his own watch company, the Manufacture Royale des Montres de Ferney.

Crisis notwithstanding, or maybe because other forms of investment seem so perilous, the performance of watches at auction is buoyant.

"When I started in Christie's in summer 2003, a good watch auction would realise about $5m, with 80 to 100 bidders from 10 to 15 countries," says the head of its watch department, Aurel Bacs. "Today a good watch auction is between $20m to $30m with around 1,000 bidders coming from over 40 countries." Bacs will take a bid from Borneo, Brazil or wherever else the appreciation of fine watchmaking thrives.

Last year he sold a steel Rolex split-second chronograph from 1942 for a shade over £650,000, this year a very special Patek Philippe from 1950, went for two-and-a-half times that. And although the Patek was a gold watch, at this level wristwatches are not about footballer bling: for a start the Patek was only 37mm across, and altogether a little too understated to be much help when it comes to attracting a WAG across a crowded nightclub.

Recently Bacs also sold a Breguet pocket watch from 1814 for the equivalent of £2.85m, lending weight to the theory that what we are seeing is the reassertion of the timepiece as a valued, precious and historically significant object.

As far back as the Dark Ages, the trophy timepiece was a symbol of civilisation. At the beginning of the sixth century when Theodoric king of the Ostrogoths wanted to give Gondebaud King of Burgundy a nice present, he had Boethuius knock up a brace of clocks – one that told the time using the sun and a water clock for use at night.

It is all a question of how we view time – whether it is a commodity or a luxury, a subjective experience or an external force upon which we have no influence.

I suppose that while each of our experiences of time will be different, it will be a mixture of various proportions of all of these. But time is also a matter of personal taste, and I would prefer to experience it through the circular motion of two hands around the dial of a wristwatch rather than the blinking pixels of a screen.

Foulkes's favourites

1. The Swatch

Showed the world that Swiss watches could be fun, fashionable and affordable

2. The Rolex GMT

Created for the pilots of Pan Am, this was the first jet-set watch, a beacon of Catch Me If You Can chic.

3. The Cartier Tank

Looking as good now as it did almost 100 years ago, this is the classic straight-sided watch, a masterpiece of French savoir faire

4. The Vacheron Constantin Ultra Slim

Discretion from a company that has made watches in Geneva since 1955

5. Breitling Navitimer

Long before Steve Jobs, this was the app-watch par excellence: with its circular slide rule it was able to do everything from calculating the rate of fuel consumption of an aircraft to converting nautical miles into statute miles

'Gentlemen and Blackguards: Gambling Mania and the Plot to Steal the Derby of 1844', by Nick Foulkes is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson

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