Why Watchmaking Matters Now
If you’re like me, you’ve been spending some time during the current pandemic-driven lockdown monitoring online watch publications, including Quill & Pad, as well as checking out your favorite timepiece-related posters on Instagram, Facebook, and other platforms.
And if so, you’ve likely seen at least a few comments in response to those posts that go something like this: “How in the world can you possibly be focused on something like watches at such a terrible time?”
Well, I’m here to tell you.
Why timekeepers – and timekeeping – matter
“Time is what keeps everything from happening at once”
– Ray Cummings, The Time Professor, 1921 (often incorrectly attributed to Albert Einstein)
What time is it on Jupiter right now? Or in a distant galaxy? Well, it isn’t really, is it. The keeping of time is an arbitrary human convention; to be fair, it is based on our observation of natural phenomena such as the passage of days and seasons, but formal timekeeping is still an invention of our own making.
And what a remarkably robust and useful invention it has been! From ancient times to today, and in applications from planting crops to navigation on the high seas to financial trading and manufacturing process control, marking the passage of time has been a continuous and universal human activity.
If the biblical plagues in Egypt actually occurred, their estimated timing would have been between 1300 and 1100 BCE, by which time the Egyptians had been using sundials for centuries and obelisk “shadow clocks” for millennia. Roman water clocks marked the time during the Plague of Justinian in 541 AD, and early cathedral clocks in Beauvais, Cluny, Milan, and elsewhere chimed the hours as European civilization endured the Black Plague of the 1300s.
Events are temporary – time endures
“This too shall pass away”
– Medieval Persian fable retold by Edward Fitzgerald in Solomon’s Seal, 1852
The tradition of timekeeping both allows us to place historical events in context and – if we reflect on it – helps us to realize that our current difficulties will pass as well, giving us cause for optimism. And if we heed the moral of the tale in Solomon’s Seal, we realize as well that the good times that follow will in time “pass away” and yield to further challenges and respond to that realization with vigilance and preparation to soften the blows of future adversities.
For many of us, timekeeping is also to a substantial extent about being mindful of the passage of time; that while time continues on well past the realm of human comprehension, our time on earth comes to an end for each of us. All the more motivation to use the time we do have to engage with others and to focus on things that matter!
Why watchmaking – and watchmakers – matter now
“In a world dominated by soulless, mass-produced and disposable goods, objects that are made by artisanal hands retain a soul and warmth that connects us with our humanity, past and present”
– Moe Jaber (@thewindingstem), Instagram, April 4, 2020
For me, as for my friend Moe, quoted above, watches – and the people who make them – matter very much indeed.
Do you remember the moment when you fell in love with watches? Can you imagine that your fascination became so profound that you decided to spend your life designing or making them?
Happily, we live in a golden era in which a significant number of very talented people have chosen this path, giving us the opportunity to hold in our hands and wear on our wrists products that represent the deep-seated needs of their makers to express their visions.
And what lovely people they are! One of the great things about our hobby is that its superstars are relatively accessible to us enthusiasts; at shows ranging from Baselworld to WatchTime LA, at gatherings hosted by local retailers, and at collector groups from RedBar to informal local clubs, it’s possible to meet one’s horological heroes and hear their fascinating stories.
As Philippe Dufour says, “We don’t need George Clooney; the manufactures are full of George Clooneys!” During the current lockdown, we’ve seen a substantial increase in the number of podcasts and live broadcasts featuring horological creators, making them in some ways even more accessible to the broader community of enthusiasts than ever before.
I love Moe’s use of the words “soul and warmth” in his comment; for me it’s impossible to consider the shape of a bridge or the gleam of a bevel without being aware of the hand of its creator. And that cliché we’ve all used, the “ticking heart” of a watch, becomes less of a throwaway line in these times and more a reminder of our connection to the precious passage of time and to each other.
At the same time that watches help us to be mindful, they have the power to help us forget – or at least to divert ourselves from current troubles. Who hasn’t looked at his or her wrist to check the time, gotten lost in the look of the dial, and forgotten to find out what time it is?
Having the gift of time during the current isolation has allowed me to pull out some old favorite pieces and “forget” at greater length as I slowly wind them, consider the shapes of their cases, or peer into the depths of their movements using macro photography.
If we are going to ask, “why watchmaking” we might as well ask “why music?” or “why literature?” As we cope with challenging times, the inspiration of creators and the visible thread of artistic and craft traditions from the past, through the present, and into the future helps to sustain our spirits.
And while all arts and crafts build on their historical foundations, watchmaking is perhaps one of the artistic pursuits that draws most directly on, and sustains most fundamentally, its legacy.
A few modest suggestions
Each of us is coping with the current challenges to health, livelihood, and even family in our own way; I won’t pretend to know your unique situation or attempt to prescribe actions, but perhaps you’ll permit me a few musings on things to do based on my own situation.
Wear your watches: even if most of your pieces are locked away somewhere, I’m guessing that a few watches remain close at hand. I’m enjoying the opportunity to pull some neglected treasures out and consider them at length.
Like the Timex Marlin re-edition I’m wearing as I write this, most aren’t very valuable. But each reminds me of the people and times associated with its origins (and in the case of the Timex, that the first-generation Marlin, given to me more than 50 years ago by my late father, was my very first watch).
Clean your watches: yeah, they may look clean, but as a macro photographer I can tell you that any watch that is worn can use a thorough wiping with a suitable cloth. And those metal bracelets could all use a bit of loving care with warm water and a soft brush.
Support your local repair shop: if your usual watch maintenance place is a larger establishment, or your pieces need to go back to the manufacturer, this may not be an option. But my local watchmaker can work alone, and I’m making a point of getting around to some of the routine servicing of some watches and the rehabbing of a couple of older pieces that I’ve been putting off for a while now.
Share without boasting: I know that I love seeing photos and short videos of others’ pieces online, and while it’s all too easy to get into “look at me” mode, I do think that tasteful celebration of our shared enthusiasm is a positive thing and can be done without making light of the challenges that many are facing.
Connect: I’ve been deeply touched by the number of friends who have reached out to me privately over the past several weeks with kind wishes, including several people I’ve corresponded with over the years but whom I’ve never even met in person. Ours is a wonderful community and texting, chatting, and even video lunches with watch pals are great ways to keep spirits up while staying current on our shared interest.
Appreciate: take a bit of time to think about the people who designed and made some of your favorite watches. And if the spirit moves you, drop one or two of them a note as well, even if that’s through an online post to the site of someone you haven’t met.
And look – really look – at each watch you wear; for me that’s often through the tool of photography, but it’s just as good (and perhaps even better?) done sitting on the sofa with a nice glass of wine.
Learn: keep reading about watches and watchmaking and seek out varying opinions on the new timepieces that are still being introduced. And as you appreciate one of your own watches, give a thought or two to what you love about it and what it says about what you do – and don’t – love about various facets of the watch offerings out there.
Think about your next watch: as my pal Larry says, the greatest watch in the world is the one that is incoming! Maybe, just maybe, we can all use the current pause button in the march of events to ponder whether the temptation to view watches as a financial play or to buy a watch just because “everyone else” likes it actually makes sense.
I’ll be happier, and I think you might be as well, if you start thinking about a watch that you really, really love just on its own merits and then make a plan about how you will make it yours.
If you can, buy: Rolex won’t go broke even if the shutdown lasts for quite a while, but many makers, especially small ones, are at substantial risk. Is it immoral in troubled times to buy items that are considered luxury goods?
When it comes to watchmaking, I’m happy to argue the opposite: that sustaining the embedded knowledge of the craft and supporting the artists who create the ticking treasures we love at a time when they need us the most is a noble pursuit.
I’m eager to hear your own thoughts on this topic in the comments section below. In the meantime, I wish each of you and your family a safe and healthy passage to happier times.