There’s a lot of “go big or go home” thinking in wristwatches now. And I think it’s an economically rational decision. Either get something expensive and fuck-you, or wear something that costs $30 and is basically disposable. The middle-market is a study in irrelevance.
You can see this by looking at TAG Heuer. As little at 20 years ago they were making monstrosities like this – gaudy frankenwatches, slick and wetly chromed like Giger meets Rob Liefeld, the sort of thing you’d expect to get for 10,000 skiball tickets at an LA galleria in 1993. Now they have gone back to their roots to make Autavias like this and this. Which are clean, classy, masculine – at once traditional and smart.
(And Brietling is right behind.)
I expect this reflects six trends: two macro, two micro, two phyto – relating to the global economy, the luxury-good economy, and the watch-world in particular, respectively.
Macro: there is more wealth in the world in general.
Macro: there is greater wealth inequality, and so those who have are more likely to have a lot.
Micro: if you want to wear a watch at all, it’s probably as a statement of value.
Micro: if you want a watch that isn’t a statement of value… you can just buy a Timex.
Phyto: we have much rejected the desparation for novelty that marked the 60s thru the 80s, and just, like, thank God
Phyto: we have much rejected the developing of new fashion trends at all, in favor of appropriating the fashion trends of previous generations.
At its most favorable, I would suggest that the first phyto trend represents an enlightened embrace of quality, and that quality – rather unsurprisingly – can often be found in techniques from the eras and epochs before mass production, when making was hard, repair was difficult, utility was the name of the game, and as a result, the development of quality was just a simple necessity.
It is unsurprising that the use of older techniques brings about an embrace of older designs and aesthetic sensibilities. On the one hand, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, that is fine. But on the other, it is facile to believe that technique and design are separable. The employ of a traditional production method is a great way to realize the wisdom of the traditional design associated with it.
A bit more cynically, I would posit that the second phyto trend represents something a bit more philosophically cumbersome. The backward-looking archaism of wearing a historical watch-style – which is basically synonymous with wearing a watch at all – is a reflection of the fact that, while we have the intelligence to realize that the little variations and trappings of kultur are unimportant, we lack the courage to escape them. A hipster is a person who takes on the aesthetics of others in order to avoid having one for themselves. “We do this ironically,” they say, “because we are all emperors, and yet for some reason, the emperor must wear clothes.”
I would say that aesthetics are contextual, and all too often, we lack context. The contextual basis for aesthetics applies both to production and use. In a globalized world, we can make (or buy) whatever we want, wherever we are. Likewise we usually don’t need specialized clothing or equipment (at least not of a personal nature, to be worn day-to-day).
In the modern world, much of what we wear and use is of sufficient quality that it could be used in most, if not all, common contexts. Jeans and a t-shirt are easily dismissed because they are easily accomplished. In reality, they are the apotheosis of millennia.
Compare to Budweiser. Ever notice how a (traditional) Budweiser can has those gold medal blazons on it? From when, in the 1890s, it was declared the Best Beer In The World. And at the time, it was – because the goal of brewing, for literally thousands of years, was to create a beer that was simple, easy-drinking, clean, stable, and reproducable from every batch to batch. Every medieval maker of ale and amber was dreaming of a pale pilsner. Budweiser was the success of a thousand lifetimes. Just as the dream of every beer-drinker was that it always be late spring, with no need to drink watered lager in the summer heat, nor stout in the winter cold. Now we have indoor heating and A/C (or, y’know, moving to Los Angeles). We can achieve harmony, stability, perfection – not just in production, but in use. Fuck off, Thomas Hobbes: life is communal, rich, pleasing, lazy, and long.
But it’s boring.
So we go backwards, to a time when it was not boring. We make historical beer-styles, stouts and switchels, and we pay five times as much for the privilege and talk about Bud with disdain. Because we miss the variety that came about through necessity. Because all dress is just playing dress-up. Because nothing is necessary anymore.
In the same way we strive for ancient weaves and complex designs because jeans and a t-shirt are easy and dull. They are perfectly acceptable in basically all situations ever (and don’t give me any ‘but Black Tie!’ nonsense – neo-Victorian dress protocols are the epitome of hipsterism; they are just cosplay for those with a lot of dough). I would argue that they have actually been improved upon a little – a Merino base layer, a Patagonia shell, some zipoff ripstop pants, and a pair of trailrunners, and you’re basically ready for anything in the fucking universe. But we’re talking incremental improvements, here – which is to say, diminishing returns. From cotton to wool is not apples to oranges; more like a 1665 to 216600. That is to say, more like Budweiser to Heineken.
Take the “dress watch.” It’s not just a simple, thin watch, because anyone can make that. It apes the earlier style inside and out. It is preposterous archaism – and they make tens of thousands of them a year, selling for at least ten thousand dollars a piece. Not because they’re better than a Daniel Wellington. They are inarguably worse than many a $300 Seiko. Because we have no needs, and so, have no culture. Because we have nothing to strive for today, so we join in the strivings of yesterday – columns on our McMansions, Calatravas on our wrists.
And outside of necessity, attempts to create newness are like controlling a machine through positive feedback. At best you get something kinda cool, like the Ploprof – that is certainly no more useful than a regular dive watch (like the original Rolex submariner, or a $300 Seiko Prospex)… and let’s not forget that this is a very low bar. But more often you get something really stupid, like a Richard Mille that costs more than a condo in Somerville. And I could post two dozen examples of modern “haut horologie” but honestly, I just ate breakfast, I don’t want to look at ’em.
Really the basic truth is that the mechanical wristwatch reached its apotheosis with the Rolex Oyster in the 1930s. Everything since then has been diminishing returns – if any. These days mechanical watch should almost always be a Rolex. The only reasons not to buy a Rolex are to prefer aesthetic differences, or to save money. Both rational justifications – but there is no third.
On the one hand, I can’t imagine that I would like to live in a world where everyone wore jeans and t-shirts like they were Mao Suits. On the other hand, creating difference without necessity is just very dull. The better thing to do is work on incremental improvements – making things better, and more durable, and cheaper. Concomitant is the goodness of working to see that more people can afford the necessities of life. But best, I would argue, is seeking NEW NECESSITIES – new challenges, new problematizations, new contexts. So that our creations are solutions, informed by need and use. So that the result is not simply faffing about; it is necessary; it is authentic.