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.
You may also enjoy:
Getting Through The Great Lockdown Of 2020: A Collector’s Guide To Solitude
Why We Will Keep Writing About Watches You Can’t Afford, And Why You (Hopefully) Will Continue To Read This Under The COVID-19 Cloud
3 New Watches For 2020 From Cartier, Montblanc, And Roger Dubuis
5 New Watches For Women We Would Have Seen At Watches & Wonders (SIHH) 2020 By Cartier, Piaget, Vacheron Constantin, Hermès, And MB&F
5 New Watches By Independent Watchmakers We Would Have Seen At Watches & Wonders (SIHH) Or Baselworld 2020 By Urwerk, HYT, H. Moser & Cie, And Arnold & Son
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Well written well said
Thanks, Russ! Glad you enjoyed it, and I appreciate your comment.
at least two items on this list could apply to all of us . thank you and enjoy your Ming ….i’ve got the copper , monolith coming post coronacost
I continue to enjoy my Ming quite a bit — that copper version is a stunner, and I hope you receive it soon!
at least two items on this list could apply to all of us . thank you and enjoy your Ming …
Thank you for your thoughts and article. Fundamentally, I’m in agreement. How can I not agree, since in my own small way, I too collect these elegant pieces of craftsmanship and engineering which can evolve into the artistic. My problem is with those that exploit the craft to its detriment, such as Jean Christophe Babin, who cares little for human life and is willing to put human life in jeopardy to satisfy his arrogance and avarice in the name of watchmaking. He pontificates about putting on his watch show without any thought as to the danger he puts people in during this time of worldwide pandemic. His and others like him that hold power positions in the watch industry, don’t have a real appreciation of the craft. Their only appreciation is of their own arrogance, although I’m sure they would label it as something else. All while people’s lives gang in the balance.
Hi R.H. — and thank you for commenting!
I find it tough to respond to your thoughts on Mr. Babin as I don’t know him personally and don’t know what’s going on in his mind — so I can’t comment on his motivations.
At a minimum, the idea to stage an April watch event in Geneva on the heels of the WWG cancellation was ill-considered, and the immediate attempt to re-schedule for August also struck the wrong note to my ear.
My hope is that we can all work through this difficult era together and then have a real reason to celebrate being together as enthusiasts when the time is right.
At its core, that’s what we do with our appreciation of fine timepieces: celebrate watchmaking. Lovely sentiment, Gary, and I am eager to get back to that. But only when the time is right
Love the article – the quote form your friend that the best watch is the incoming is absolute Gold !
I agreed with you on so many levels and been re enjoying my Tudor GMT post service.
I play a game, see how many watches I can wear for different activities –
my Gshock in the garden
Seiko Samurai for cooking
Tudor GMT for walking and enjoying my cuppa
Speedy for work time
Hi Shaheen —
A great game, and excellent watches to match to your activities! Best wishes as you work through the current situation — and fingers crossed that you will have another “incoming” sometime soon!
That’s just a salesman talking, new stuff creates interest , so all he is saying is stale inventory ain’t gonna pay the rent, my take anyway.
Gary, Very Well Done. Having read many of your articles, this is one of your very best – even by your high standards. Because it goes beyond, and literally touches the heart and soul, at least for me.
Apart from “Support your local repair shop” (as not an option for me right now); I have been doing all the others on your list since my country went under 21-Day Lockdown since March 25. And it will most likely get extended by another 2 weeks, so gives me more time to follow through on those points. And not only mine, but also my wife’s watches.
This hobby and passion feels good. More than the watches themselves, its the friendships and connections I have made which make it so meaningful.
Take care. Be safe.
Many thanks for your very kind comments, and for your passion for our shared hobby and the watch community! It is all about the people, to be sure — never more than now.
All the best, Gary
Agree with all that was written. I just wish there was something in between watch makers and watch repair. We live in a society where we through things away, especially old things. I get it’s “not worth it” or “no one knows how to do it”? It’s worth it to me and I don’t want to throw it away and I don’t want something else. This is just my comment. Thank you.
Hi Raymond — I’m not sure where you are, but my local watchmaker operates across the range from simple servicing to more difficult work (making balance staffs, etc.). They are out there — but may take some searching…
Thank you for sharing some of your lovely collection with us via pictures. Your friend Moe’s quote about artisanal hands spoke to me. As a very amateur jewelry maker I decided to try make some people happy by giving some of my rings away on a popular site. The response has been more rewarding to me than to the people who will receive the rings. This is the time to share if we are able. We are all swimming in the same sea. Make yourself happy by making others happy as you have by your example.
What lovely thoughts, Shirley, and what a wonderful example you have set through your generosity! I’m so pleased (but not at all surprised) that you found such fulfillment in your experience — I’ll try my best to follow in your footsteps.
Yep, the new Weiss Field Watch I bought for my wife will not let her know when she gets text messages nor even the date? But it’s handmade, in my home state, and I figure I might as will do something “useful” with that $1200 Uncle Sugar is giving us! Put it back into the the artisan community! Watchmaking is about soul, that’s why I don’t wear a watch that lets me know I’m late for a meeting.
Well done! Based on your comment I’ve just spent some time on Cameron Weiss’ website and I really like what he’s doing. Congratulations to your wife and commendations to you!
I am on day 20 of the 30 day run of wearing a different watch every day. Lots of time on my hands to really enjoy a different watch every day. Each day I digitally share my watch with our local gang. A big feeling of gratitude for Watch friends and the good fortune of being able afford such wonderful treasures.
Good show, Larry! I don’t have your discipline but it is good to take the time to enjoy each piece (and the variety of watches we have the good fortune to own, as you mention), isn’t it!
I’ll look forward to seeing you once we exit the other end of this tunnel!
All best wishes for good health,
Although I’m late to this discussion the topic is as relevant this year as last. I enjoyed reading your thoughts on relaxing and spending time with these incredible little machines. Even the simplest mechanical watch is a wonder. I especially liked your picture of and story behind the Timex Marlin. And yes, we do love admiring these little works of art!
I’d like to mention the topic of accuracy. There’s so much talk online now about accuracy, chronometric precision, COSC standards and acceptable deviations especially among the younger enthusiasts. If a watch is a certified chronometer then you have a right to expect that level of accuracy but otherwise it’s easy to get caught up in, “is my watch accurate enough? Years ago unless my watch was gaining or losing a significant amount of time I didn’t even notice the accuracy. If it gained a few minutes over a couple weeks I simply adjusted it and didn’t give it another thought. I know that when it comes to wristwatches and jewelry it’s all about the details but remember the devil’s in there too! Let’s never forget to just relax, admire and appreciate these little gems, their physical beauty and engineering genius. Best wishes for a healthy and cozy winter.
How much do we love our watches?
If you live in a region with a cold winter climate it’s important to get outside almost daily for mental and physical health and so we venture out. While we’re out there how many of us take the opportunity to gaze at the watch on our wrist in natural light? It’s a guilty pleasure and a testament to our love of wrist watches that we must see them in different lighting. At the jewelry store we’re enticed by showcase lighting (makes me want to buy them all) At home it’s incandescent or LED, bright or dim. Outside on a bright but cloudy day the beauty is something different altogether. Colors are true, metal has a special luster. Hands on the steering wheel, sleeve pushed up we have to remind ourselves to keep eyes on the road. I sometimes sit in my parked car examining, admiring. Are we crazy? Yes!
P.S. didn’t mean to minimize the importance of accuracy in the last post. I mean to say that each person should decide whether a consistent deviation is acceptable enough to live with until the watch is ready for routine maintenance. Especially in these Covid times when your timepiece could be tied up for months in the shop just to gain a few more seconds of accuracy. Be well…