The wristwatch occupies a unique place in the world of things. It both typifies what we think of as a luxury good – at its most expensive it’s an object available only to an elite few – while measuring the one thing that each of us is bound by and would probably like to have a little more of. In our connected age, with digital distractions closer at hand than ever before, the idea of time as a luxury in itself is something we can all relate to. And while the mobile phone’s ubiquity has turned the thought of even wearing a watch into an alien concept for a generation, Apple looks set to shake up this highly traditional industry for good. For the watch, these are changing times.
Launching into the middle of all this is The Hour, a new quarterly title dedicated to the world of watches but which hangs much of its editorial on the theme of time. “It’s about trying to place an interest in watches in a much broader picture,” says editor-in-chief, Josh Sims. Alongside articles on watch brand Omega’s links with NASA and the use of decorative techniques in timepiece design, the debut issue also includes features on ice, Muzak and an interview with media theorist (and cover star) Douglas Rushkoff – all of which bring forth a different take on the notion of time and how we perceive it. Designed and art directed by Bibliothèque, The Hour also doesn’t look like any other watch magazine. It doesn’t have a watch, or even a watch-wearer (Rushkoff doesn’t wear one), on its cover. Inside, its contents and design reflect a new way of looking at these intriguing devices.
“The relationship you have with a watch is largely visual,” says Sims. “It’s something that sits on you, it’s part of your identity, your expression; you engage with it by looking at it, not examining its movement [its workings]. So as far as the magazine is concerned, I just wanted to acknowledge that there was a watch fan who wasn’t obsessive, who probably had several watches but who was interested in them in the same way they might be interested in clothes or cars.” As Sims suggests, most established watch magazines (big sellers include WatchTime in the US and Revolution from Singapore) tend to focus on the micro-mechanics within a particular watch, rather than its aesthetic appeal as a designed product.
In a way, this comes as little surprise. The intricate work inside a mechanical watch and its various ‘complications’ (the number of things it can do) are what most high-end companies celebrate – and these aspects form a considerable part of what makes a particular watch a ‘luxury’ object. Alongside more quantifiable elements, such as hand-finishing and detailing, the use of high value materials and a limited production run, abstract qualities are also vital to its positioning – this is where the value placed on a watch’s unique movement system comes into the equation.
“It’s precisely what many watch manufacturers are interested in,” says Sims. “If you speak to people at watch companies … they tend to conclude that movements are the be-all and end-all. [But] it’s rather like selling cars and just talking about the engine the whole time.”
Tradition weighs heavily on the high-end watch industry. Take Patek Philippe, possibly the world’s most coveted luxury watch brand. Opening next month at the Saatchi Gallery in London is a 12-room exhibition dedicated to the company’s own ‘haute horlogerie’. The show, which rounds off the brand’s 175th anniversary celebrations, will feature a ‘Grand Complications’ room and watchmakers working live in the gallery space. All this history, not to mention dedication to craft, is a fitting tribute to a name synonymous with the idea of the watch as heirloom. “You never actually own a Patek Philippe. You merely look after it for the next generation,” runs the famous ad copy alongside an image of a young son, his father and his £60,000 watch (a 5170G). The level of ‘looking after’ is clearly something only a very small number of people need to worry about, yet the influence of this way of thinking about the watch-as-object pervades the industry and its accepted codes.
While a Patek is an extreme example – and exists within a tier of products which will always command an inaccessible price – a wider shift is taking place in the watch industry, thanks to a number of independent design-led companies who are challenging the establishment and, yes, the advent of the smartwatch. “My feeling is that most of the ‘proper’ watchmaking companies are much more concerned about this than they are letting on,” says Sims. These brands, he says, are conscious of the fact that their consumer base is getting older and that they aren’t necessarily attracting a younger market. “The days of getting a watch on your 18th birthday, inheriting your father’s or mother’s watch are probably over,” he adds.
“It certainly sounds a bit quaint when I say it.” These companies are also “conscious of the need to appeal to a generation who don’t normally wear a watch,” says Sims, “who are smartphone savvy, who are possibly not as appreciative or awed by the idea of things being mechanical, as opposed to things being just useful or digital, which work for their lives and their lifestyle.”
Without the added value of heritage or provenance, newer watch brands are pushing innovation and design to the fore. Sims cites Ressence in Antwerp and Urwerk in Geneva and Zurich as two such examples. “In the last ten years there’s been a real boom in independent watchmakers fast becoming quite well established brands,” he says. “But they’re smaller, they’re not owned by the big luxury goods companies. They’re more able to do more radical things.” Companies like Schofield in England and Urwerk, co-founded by product designer Martin Frei, are using inventive materials and displays in more creative ways. “These companies are appealing precisely because big collectors, who have a lot of money, are bored with traditional timepieces,” says Sims. “They’ve got half a dozen Pateks, all the Rolexes they can ever wear and are after something genuinely new. The smaller companies are providing it.”
In particular, Sims suggests that more traditional watchmakers are also alert to Apple’s positioning of its Watch as a lifestyle accessory, rather than a gadget. “They don’t see it as technology, but as self-expression, and all the other things that you buy fashionable products for,” he says. “It’ll be particularly interesting to see how people who wear mechanical watches will respond to it: whether you’ll get them wearing two on one wrist or one on each wrist, whether the mechanical watch will become even more about an expression of rarefied craft and movement, and whether the mid-market – the Omegas the Tag-Heuers – will suffer most as Apple-type products nudge their way in. The smartwatch, when it gets more sophisticated, could be a real game-changer.”
These changes are, of course, reflected in the look and feel of The Hour. For one – “we avoided using the word luxury,” says Bibliothèque’s Tim Beard of the project, the first magazine to be produced by the studio. “Luxury’s been moved to the side in place of intelligence. This was about having an intelligent approach to watches, having a concept – ‘about time’ – and talking to intelligent people.” In this sense, form also very much follows function. “A lot of the watch magazines are very big, ungainly formats, for something that’s so small on your wrist,” Beard says. “There’s this perception that ‘luxury’ has to be big, heavy and glossy,” adds the studio’s Jonathan Jeffrey. “Says who?”
For Sims, watches are also part of fashion in the broadest sense. As accessories they are expressions of personal identity and, he says, move in and out of trends – and it’s in this area that their appeal has perhaps been ignored. “It’s surprising how few watch companies are conscious of their watches as being ‘design’ pieces first and foremost and examples of amazing craftsmanship and mechanical knowhow secondarily,” he says. While smartwatches might connect us to the wider world via alerts and apps, it’s our fundamental connection to time – and to those objects that simply tell us where we are in it – that makes the traditional watch such an appealing object.
“You have quite an intimate relationship with a mechanical watch that I don’t think you’ll ever have with a smartwatch,” says Sims. “There’s something very human about the relationship, in that you’ve got to wind it, you’ve got to keep it alive, it ticks, it slows down and speeds up. You’ve got to care for it.” If you can set aside the time, The Hour is certainly for those who do.