Patternfall

I have always had a thing for pattern-welded steel. Regular steel is simple. Damascus steel is complex. Plain steel is boring. Damascus is interesting. Steel is common. Damascus is rarified.

In the same vein I’ve always been drawn to quartersawn oak over simple pine, or spalted maple over simple white. Following suit I have begun to see the appeal of textured leather such as crocodile (and abhor a patent shine). In watches I’ve grown to appreciate a cornes-de-vache over a simple straight lug, a guilloche dial over a simple monochrome. To say nothing of the joys of a decorated movement – this or this or this.

I often imagined replacing the things I use every day, the simple things made of simple materials, with these more beautiful materials. After all, day to day, I don’t use that much. I could replace my kitchen knives with damascus knives – I could do so at any nicer kitchen supply store. I could replace my kitchen shears with damascus scissors, even if I had to make them myself at the forge. One day I could trade in my $15 Ikea end tables for something Stickley, my $300 microbrand dive watch for something lovely, my old dress shoes for a pair that really shine. This wouldn’t be much different from the traditional American pasttime of “replace Stuff with Better Stuff” – just suffering the flavor of my particular aesthetic.

Then I was offered a counter-example, in the form of Dufour’s horns. And now I am quite close to rejecting this philosophy entirely.

Philippe Dufour is a watchmaker. The dials of his watches are elegant and simple. The movements are considered by many to be the absolute height of haut horologie. Each individual piece is made by hand. It is finished by hand, from the surface abraisions on the plates (Côtes de Genève) to the way that every single piece has beveled edges, hand-polished to a mirror shine. There is a reason it takes him months to make a single watch. There is a reason why one of these simple time-only watches fetch about a quarter of a million dollars at auction – we’re using the word reason rather loosely, but such is the world of horology.

The epitome of M. Dufour’s watchmaking – if not of watchmaking entire – are his horns. Not them in the center of the image, to left and right. They are a purely decorate flourish. They are shaped and finished entirely by hand. They are extremely difficult to produce – M. Dufour claims that no machine could adequately recreate them. As they are part of the watch movement, they are only appreciable through a crystal caseback (a decadence itself), and then only when the watch has been removed from the wrist to be ogled. They are small enough that one must look carefully for them – and to appreciate their true beauty requires a jeweler’s loupe of high magnification.

They are minute, delicate, and unnecessary. They are a decadence. They are silly. But it is easy to see why a watch collector, or simply a watch enthusiast, would arrive at them.

You could tell the time quite well with a $10 digital Casio. But you want something dressier so you get a $50 analog Timex. But you want something that doesn’t tick like a quartz hammer striking a quartz anvil, so you get a $300 automatic Seiko. But this is the watch that you’re going to wear every day, that people are going to see, that your kids and grandkids are going to think of as His Watch, so maybe you want to get something a little bit fancier. Plus the Seiko’s movement is not exactly gonna get you laid at Baselworld. So you spend $3000 on a Grand Seiko – a Peacock or Snowflake – with its finer finishing, higher accuracy, and decorated movement – and suddenly you’ve got something you can be proud of, both in horological and Veblen terms. Over the course of sixty or seventy years, three thousand dollars amortizes out pretty well – about a penny a day, and that doesn’t include resale value. So you think, if I double the amount I spend – $6000 – I’m still at about two cents per day. If I spend $13,000 I could get a perpetual calendar with killer insides. Another few grand and I could get it in gold. Then there’s the gold bracelet. Then there’s the handmade movement. Then there’s the tourbillon or squelette. If you were to spend $100,000 you could get a nice gold perpetual calendar chronograph by Patek Philippe. You’d have the wrist equivalent of a Rolls-Royce – all for about a thousand dollars a year. Not including resale value. Which, historically, has been well in excess of one hundred percent.

And what do you get for the really, really rich person who has everything? A $250,000 Simplicity.

Sure it has less functionality than the $10 Casio. Sure it probably tells time just as well as the $300 Seiko – and objectively less well than the $30 Timex. But there are over two thousand people in this world who are billionaires. It’s hard to expect them all to wear G-Shocks. The marginal improvements of a Dufour are still improvements. At each step from Casio to Dufour a buyer encounters diminishing returns – but they’re still returns. If you’ve got so much money that it doesn’t matter, why not get the best?

It is insane, but not unreasonable (a most American phrase!). One might say that it suggests a lack of imagination, that one cannot find any better use of one’s money. One might say it displays a lack of altruism – or a condemnation of the society which allows a person to be in the position to make such a purchase, whether or not they choose to do so. But it’s no stupider than a sports car – or a luxury car – or a bigger house, or a better apartment – or a bigger wedding – or a longer vacation. If you’re going to throw the money away, a watch is as good as anywhere. Some people prefer Ferraris, some Ferragamos, some Laurent Ferriers. De gustibus non est disputandem.

A better argument would be that the existence of those who have so much disposable income is problematic itself.

And yet, while a Dufour could only belong to the ultra-rich, the logic against its purchase applies just as strongly to a “mid-range luxury” timepiece in the window of a mall or jewelry store. For example: there were one million Rolex watches sold last year. Is there any real reason to buy a Rolex (average price: $8,000-20,000) as opposed to a Seiko Cocktail Time (about $300)? Does a Submariner do anything a Prospex ($399) cannot do? Does a Daytona outperform any one of the hundred Seiko chronographs? And Rolexes are not real luxury watches! They are not handmade – do not have decorated movements – are lacking many complications (no perpetual calendar!) – are not scarce by any stretch – are not, in this society of wealth and wealth inequality, really all that conspicuous in their consumption.

Sure a Dufour is absolutely indefensible. But so is a Rolex. And really, so is a Seiko. Really we should all wear Casios – and hiking boots and heavy jeans and shirts of rough homespun to last a lifetime. We should all bike everywhere, we should all live in small apartments, we should (as we currently envision it) never go out to eat. But of course this extreme isn’t really reasonable either. It is dull and it is ugly; it is brutalist in a world that can be beautiful; and, if this kind of puritanism were fully followed, it would leave an average person in the same position as a rich person – wondering I’ve got extra money – why shouldn’t I blow some money on something pretty?

I don’t want to live in a nation of Mao Suits any more than I want to live in a nation where people fail to condemn those who blow five grand on a Gucci tiger shirt. A middle ground is appropriate – and achievable.

But I am not here to pen a scree in favor of bougie moderation-is-the-key. I am not here to suggest that even the very rich refrain from purchasing the superior things in the world. I am here to suggest that some of those things are not actually superior. They should not be avoided because of absolute cost or diminishing returns; they should be avoided because they offer no returns at all.

Why are Dufour’s horns thought beautiful? It is not due to any innate attractiveness. It is because they are very hard to make. The resultant scarcity is why the watch is so expensive. But the reason it is very hard to make is not itself of any use, or interest, or beauty. It is expensive because it is hard to make. It is hard to make because people like things that are hard to make.

It is not M. Dufour’s fault. His horns are the inevitable result of accepting a correlation between cost and complexity. People accepted that a $3,000 watch was worth more than a $300 watch. They applied that logic to a $30,000 watch. A $300,000 watch was inevitable. The logic that gave us the Rolex, then the Royal Oak, then the Richard Mille, inevitably gave us the horns of Philippe Dufour.

Why should there be a limit? Why should horns that take days to manufacture, and a 10x jeweler’s loupe to view, be the end of it? Why not geometric complexities that take weeks to manufacture? Why not fill a watch with such minuscule glories that a microscrope is required for their appreciation?

With a small enough tool, a watch’s movement could contain a density of things comparable to the density of information found in a computer hard drive. Which seems very silly. Why would someone want to ape a hard drive for millions of dollars – why not just buy a thumb drive for five bucks and change? But we have already established that a Seiko is just a Casio which someone, for some strange reason, prefers to be mechanical instead of digital. A grand complication, with perpetual calendar and minute repeater and chronograph, is just a mechanical G-Shock. Given enough time, it is inevitable that someone will produce a mechanical smartwatch. With the development of techniques, with training, with time, such a marvel as Dufour’s horns could come to be seen as crass and coarse. I see no reason to believe that this will not occur.

…and that’s assuming you believe they haven’t already – the Vacheron Constantin Les Cabinotiers contains 23 complications. (The 52760 pocket watch contains 57 complications; but smartphones are still more powerful than smartwatches, so I guess we can give VC a break). In that same vein, a Patek Philippe 6300G could be yours today for a conveniently logarithmic price increase of $3,000,000.

As a species, I do not believe we should walk this path. This regardless of the opportunity cost of that money – one rich person buying a ten-million-dollar watch is not any greater injury to humanity than ten million ordinary people each buying a pint of beer. I believe that we should refrain from praising complexity for its own sake because complexity for its own sake is boring. Density is not by itself interesting, any more than an empty hard drive is more interesting than a full floppy disk. In assessing the cost of something, its difficulty to manufacture is a reasonable factor; in assessing whether something should be made, its difficulty of manufacture is not.

What happens if we continue to praise the addition of more and more detail to smaller and smaller things? What does the visitor from another planet do when they come to the Earth and find that we are watch geeks? “Here lies Humanity,” the headstone might say. “Oh, sure, they’re still alive. But they just spend all their time polishing their micro-rotors. If you walk up to one and poke it with a stick it will just keep on hand-polishing. May as well ignore them; they won’t harm you. They may as well already be dead.”

What happens, indeed, as we get wealthier? What happens as the average joe has more and more of a disposable income? Does he go from Seiko to Rolex? Does he go from Vulcain to Voutilainen? What happens if we actually achieve greater wealth equality – if the rising tide does raise all boats? Is this what average people are going to spend their money on? Is this how humanity rewards itself for its endeavors?

…once again, I would argue that this is exactly what is happening. Last year there were a million Rolexes sold. And three quarters of a million Omegas and Tag Heuers. And over two million of the other brands – of luxury Swiss watches alone. (250,000 Breitlings. The world is doomed.)

I believe that it is necessary to disassociate difficulty of manufacture from value. I believe that complexity without purpose is not aesthetically superior to simplicity. I believe that there is room for great variety in wristwatches, quite possibly justifying watches costing over a thousand dollars – but in general, a $300 Seiko or microbrand diver is not only sufficient for the cost, but that it is superior in the metal, and this regardless of price.

By the same turn, I cannot defend the use of materials which are more complicated simply because they are more complicated. I cannot defend the replacement of plain items with more baroque items; I cannot defend the purchase, or the manufacture, of more baroque items, regardless of cost. As a result of the ad absurdum example of Dufour’s horns, after much consideration, I must say: quartersawn oak is not superior to white maple; crocodile is not superior to cordovan; and damascus steel is not superior to VG-10.

This does not mean that I embrace minimalism. It is important to want things. I just have to find other things to want. This does not mean that I embrace simplicity. It just means I must look for other forms of complexity – those which allow utility – those which are justified.

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~ by davekov on 6 February 2018.

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