Modern Horological Times And Practices Are Likely Much Worse Than You Think: A Reflection
As I link the small silver key back to its chain, I glance at my watch before sliding it gently into my right vest pocket. It has been there all night waiting for me, quietly beating away, looking forward to the morning winding of its mainspring’s coils.
It is at this moment in time I cannot help but think of how far watches have evolved. To me, mechanical watchmaking is the most extraordinary combination of engineering, art, and the highest levels of craftsmanship.
In the society we live in, a society of technology-driven mass production and digital revolution, a mechanical timepiece has become less of an item of function and more a collectible object serving to satisfy its owner from behind a pane of glass rather than as a faithful companion in a busy life.
What has happened to mechanical watchmaking and where is its place in our world now?
We live in a time when it has become easier to replace something than to repair it. If my mobile phone falls on the sidewalk, I purchase a new one rather than dismantle it to fix the damage. If I crash my bicycle in the street, I buy a new one because the cost is less expensive than the time and effort to have it repaired.
But what do we do with our watches as the resurgence of mechanical timekeepers grows around us? Is the craftsmanship within them still valued or is it slowly slipping away, gradually being retired to suit the needs of our electronically charged planet?
For centuries, watches have been built to tick forever with their only dependence being on routine service for cleaning, adjustments, and fresh oil. Of course, accidents happen and repairs are needed, but the mechanical movements of watches were initially designed to outlast the hands that made them.
Engraved on their metal plates and underneath their most vital components were serial numbers created to catalog the year of a watch’s birth and to safeguard the originality of all parts present when an appointment came due for service or repair. When the watchmaker’s work was completed, one could rest peacefully knowing that the exact watch was returned containing the components it was created with (or not).
This process instilled value in a timepiece that was not only recognized and apparent but also sentimental through knowing that a well-made mechanical watch would always function in the generations to supersede us.
Fast-forward to our new millennium in which computer-aided manufacturing has brought us the instant interchangeability of parts among a whole. Damaged components are discarded rather than repaired, their engraved numbers assuming new and unmistakable identities through quick laser etching (see Reduction In Wait Times For Watch Servicing Repair And The Disturbing Reality Of What It Means For You).
The artistry once attributed to such mechanical masterpieces has been largely abandoned and the originality of their components substituted by no more than a finger on the switch of an automated assembly line in most cases.
In our world now, a watch movement no longer needs to be built to survive but only built to be swapped out, in many cases without its owner’s knowledge. Modern mechanical watches are not like those of the past, which were made with care and could belong to the everyday man and woman.
They are expensive and reserve themselves only for those possessing the deepest pockets, which no longer serve to carry them.
Evolution of mechanical watchmaking
When I glance at my timepiece each morning, it is this evolution I think about. It is these modern watches that I fear.
I do not dispute that there are current manufacturers who still practice the traditional methods of watchmaking without abusing the benefits of our technological advances. However, many have misplaced the beauty of a mechanical movement in acceptance of false prestige and financial gain.
Why does a watch no longer need to be entirely crafted under one roof to rightfully declare its origin? Why have such inscriptions on a timepiece’s dial become the result of an international game of shifting percentages to legally qualify that claim?
A century ago, the watch industry respected a watchmaker’s work. And now, firmly entrenched in the revival of mechanical timepieces, how do we regain such dignity?
The questions I pose are not meant for the sake of casual debate, but for solemn reflection within our horological society. The mechanical watch has the potential to reclaim its purpose in our modern lives should we allow it to.
Fine watchmaking can beat strongly once again if we merely pause for a moment to recognize that the only obstacles standing in its path are the ones we have created.
Please let us know your thoughts in the comments below.
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