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Are Non-Purist Brands Beginning to Express Purist Watchmaking Approaches? Part 2.

by Jonathan Ho on February 21, 2017

 

In the previous essay, we discussed how non-purist brands were beginning to express purist watchmaking approaches but to little fanfare or discussion simply because they didn’t have the right name or brand, in this article, we will try to dissect the psychological reasons behind this phenomena and study the few brands who have overcome the weight of their brand histories, so that we might better understand our instincts and develop a collecting mindset beyond powerful marketing budgets and campaigns.

The Psychology of Purist versus Non-Purist Attitudes

Let’s set the ground for discussion with some industry context: While it used to be easy for collectors to cast brands into segments like legitimate and non-legitimate watchmaking brands, it’s modern corporate reality that acquisitions of a deeply commercial (and profit-driven) nature are commonplace – to put another way, watchmaking of the 80s were big on independent brands and they outnumbered the groups.

By 1991, Baselworld was no longer the sole watch fair in Switzerland, the Rembrandt Group which ultimately spawned Richemont Group had taken Baume & Mercier, Cartier, Piaget, Gerald Genta and Daniel Roth to start SIHH or Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie in Palexpo, Geneva; meanwhile Swatch Group and LVMH (the world’s largest luxury conglomerate) had remained in Baselworld. The relative revenue strengths and weaknesses of each brand, combined with the growing retail power and muscle of the Groups to force retailers into providing their house brands better positioning or risk losing distributing rights would soon herald a business practice which would replace the heretofore democratic industry with multiple actors into a commercial oligopoly with a handful of big conglomerate holding companies.

Modern business entities have to contend with the contemporary problem that their heirs might not even want to continue the family watchmaking business. Acquisition has been a way of life since the late 80s, time to get used to the idea that purist history should not be the “be all and end all” of watchmaking legitimacy.

By and large, the question of legitimate versus non-legitimate or purist versus non-purist watchmaking brands becomes murky at best – Is Omega a legitimate manufacture if their production is based in ETA albeit in an exclusive department? Is former luxury leather crafter Montblanc a legitimate watchmaker now by virtue of owning Minerva manufacture? The nature of acquisitions means that most brands might not always follow the linear historical path which companies have often followed over the last 300 years. In the past, it was more likely to find your heirs following your footsteps into the family watchmaking business but if anything, Peter and Aletta Stas who founded the Frédérique Constant in 1988 soon discovered that their children had no interest in the family business, eventually selling the company off to Citizen Watch Co. Ltd. in 2015. Now that the context is set, let’s get into consumer psychology:

Sociologists like Thorstein Bunde Veblen posited that men ascribed value and importance to the origins and provenance of things because inherently, we are snobs who craved status and admiration.

Watch Collectors, Legitimate vs. “Non-legitimate” watch brands, and Why we like what we like

Hermann Göring was Hitler’s 2nd in command and like Hitler, he fancied himself an art collector with a soft spot for the works of Johannes Vermeer. Hitler had already owned 2 Vermeers and wanting to keep up with the Hitlers, Göring sought a Vermeer painting of his own from a Dutch art dealer, Henricus Antonius “Han” van Meegeren. Paying a princely sum equivalent to USD10 million today and it soon became his most beloved artwork.

By the end of the war, Göring was captured and tried at Nuremberg. As Allied investigators collated and tracked his art collection, they traced Göring’s Vermeer back to van Meegeren. With patriotic fervour at its height, the act of selling a Dutch masterpiece to a Nazi (and such a high ranking one at that) was considered treason. Dutch police arrested van Meegeren in Amsterdam and if he was found guilty, it was crime punishable by death.

van Meegeren in prison garb, painting “Jesus Among Doctors” in the style of Vermeer in front of court witnesses and reporters.

Faced with such a harsh penalty, van Meegeren confessed that he indeed, sold a painting to Göring only that it wasn’t a Dutch masterpiece like Göring thought, it was a forgery by his own hand; he was confessing to the lesser charge of forgery and to prove it, van Meegeren painted Jesus and the Doctors in the style of Vermeer in front of court witnesses and reporters.

Eventually, Allied interrogators delivered the news that the Vermeer was a forgery to the man they had officially called “an amicable psychopath” and on hearing the news that his favourite painting was a forgery, Göring was described by his biographer as “a man who had just seen the face of true evil”.

Sociologists like Thorstein Bunde Veblen posited that men ascribed value and importance to the origins and provenance of things because inherently, we are snobs who craved status and admiration. Recently, Paul Bloom, a Professor of psychology and cognitive science at Yale University, postulated a new theory on why origins and provenance matters – essentialism.

The value of an artwork is rooted in assumptions about the human performance underlying its creation. – Denis Dutton, Philosopher

Essentialism: the root of purist versus non-purist attitudes?

Bloom theorised that we were all essentialists in that our physical responses are not to the objects themselves but rather our beliefs on what these items represent (as opposed to what they really are). Studies show that wine is better enjoyed when it is perceived to have been poured from an expensive bottle. In fact, a Caltech MRI study where test subjects were fed wine through straws while receiving information on the wine’s history and provenance as they underwent brain scans; though the test subjects both drank the same wine, they were given different accounts of the wine’s origins – the pleasure and reward centers of the ones who thought the were drinking premium vino registered great responses in the MRI machines while the ones who thought they were drinking run-of-the-mill vino registered no great change in their pleasure centers.

Did this Minerva movement stop being a symbol of legitimate watchmaking because it’s now owned by Montblanc?

In psychological terms, the origins and provenance of any given item matters to us because these items have history which endows the object with value beyond its physical attributes. Denis Dutton, an American philosopher who coined a Darwinian theory of beauty offers that: “the value of an artwork is rooted in assumptions about the human performance underlying its creation”.

When one considers the superlative Vasco de Gamma, it’s almost too easy to tar the maison with some ill-considered perspective that the company is trying to bootstrap their way into the position of a major watchmaker. But the fact is that a maison largely built on a foundation of being the “Rolls Royce of pens” is in essence asking the consumer to consider that Montblanc watches are able to withstand the same scrutiny as their acetate products.

Montblanc and Bulgari Watchmaking: Studies in Questioning Your Own Assumptions

It’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment we began to take Montblanc watches seriously but we can pretty much agree that when former Jaeger-LeCoultre CEO Jerome Lambert took over the reigns at Montblanc, collectors held their collective breaths as to what Lambert might accomplish.

Montblanc Collection Villeret Tourbillon Cylindrique Geosphères Vasco da Gama. Insane but expressive of classic watchmaking codes.

Watchmaking Legitimacy: A Montblanc Study

In a previous interview, I had opined that Montblanc seemed hellbent on establishing horological bona fides, churning out complications designed to impress other watchmakers but Lambert explained that ultimately all for the consumers. When one considers the superlative Vasco de Gamma, it’s almost too easy to tar the maison with some ill-considered perspective that the company is trying to bootstrap their way into the position of a major watchmaker. But the fact is that a maison largely built on a foundation of being the “Rolls Royce of pens” is in essence asking the consumer to consider that Montblanc watches are able to withstand the same scrutiny as their acetate products.

Consider also, as a business, Richemont operates in four pillars (jewellery, specialist watchmaker, others, etc) of which Montblanc stands as a lone maison, a unique position considering each of its sister brands finds itself pigeonholed by corporate necessity, whereas the 109 year old manufactory stands apart as a triumvirate of artisan pen, leather and watchmaker. Lambert was free to shape Montblanc into a “maker of lifelong companions”.

Montblanc Heritage Chronometer – is this not executed in a manner consistent to Montblanc’s DNA yet in keeping with classical watchmaking’s best traditions?

One of his biggest challenges? Combining the working cultures two production facilities, one of them being the Minerva manufacture which Richemont had acquired and seconded to Montblanc. These two worlds operating independently before and Lambert had to get them to recognise the best of what each had to offer. In Villeret, Montblanc kept production and the execution of grand complications untouched while the teams collaborated on the development level.

Today, SIHH 2017 has shown that Montblanc not only functions together with one of the industry’s most beloved manufactures but also enjoys a shared culture made possible by men like Lambert and since last year, Davide Cerrato, their new head of watchmaking and a man largely credited with Tudor’s current success with its heritage collection. Looking at the new Timewalker series headlined by the vintage re-issue Rally Timer with Minerva movement, it’s not difficult to see the growth of Montblanc into the shoes it was intended to fill, that of a true watchmaker. Furthermore, the incremental steps taken with Montblanc’s heritage series is not just proof consistent with the brand’s classic gentleman’s DNA but also a huge signature of Lambert’s leadership which improved Jaeger-LeCoultre’s fortunes and cemented Lange’s position as a leading classical German watchmaker.

“Tubogas” bracelet watch in white gold and diamonds, ca 1960. Designed as a coiled band of white gold tubogas, set at the centre with a rounded rectangular dial within a diamond-set bezel. Designed as a coiled band of white gold tubogas, set at the centre with a rounded rectangular dial within a diamond-set bezel.

Watchmaking Legitimacy: A Bulgari case Study

In 2014, on the eve leading to its 130th anniversary, I spoke to Bulgari CEO Jean-Christophe Babin about the unenviable task of walking the tight rope, balancing over a century of heritage with the commercial needs of evolution and innovation. Babin, the former CEO of TAG Heuer and now, captain of one of LVMH Group’s most favoured children, has inherited a portfolio so rich in heritage and steeped in iconic artistic codes, he might very well have signed on to do the impossible – reinvent the wheel (albeit a bejewelled, invariably intricate wheel).

I asked, “You mentioned that Bulgari is “first and foremost a major jeweller” – do you feel that this reputation adds another barrier even when Bulgari is now home to the fully integrated Genta and Roth manufacture?”

Babin responded, “No, it’s perfectly compatible. High jewellery is a core of the company and it leads logically to ladies’ timepieces. Ladies buying or being gifted often have a husband or boyfriend who themselves, share a similar lifestyle and it makes sense for Bulgari to produce complementary watches where haute horlogerie matches with haute joallerie. It becomes a mutually shared pleasure.”

And indeed, when it comes to the purist versus non-purist, legitimate versus non-legitimate equation, collectors like myself often ignore the feminine aspect of watchmaking. To wit, the Bulgari Tubogas technique used in the creation of their women’s watches since the mid 1930s is the sort of watchmaking prowess that many collectors (including myself) have ignored simply because 1. we were not familiar with the watchmaking technique. 2. they were important only in the context of women’s watches. 3. Bulgari themselves were more than happy to be considered jewellers first and watchmakers second; harbouring no intention to be perceived as anything more.

Serpenti Tubogas BVLGARI BVLGARI bracelet-watch in two colour gold, 1980. So famous, they named it twice.

Bulgari Tubogas Technique: When the creation of women’s watches requires true watchmaking know-how (even if only from an integrated case/bracelet perspective)

Tubogas is a descriptive term given to variations of jewellery defined by the chain formed by interlocking gold strips wound tightly together like a hollow and flexible tubular “gas pipe”. Requiring no soldering, it was the kind of inventive genius predicated on necessity during World War II when vital components were directed for use in the manufacture of weapons of war rather than objets d’art. While Van Cleef & Arpels calls their version Passe Partout, the popularity of the style is associated with Bulgari when it permeated the brand so thoroughly that the Tubogas technique was found in everything from watches, bracelets, necklaces and rings.

Requiring specialist craft techniques, Bugari Tubogas jewellery involves wrapping two long gold strips with raised edges around a copper or wood core so that the edges interlock firmly but pliantly in one continuous form without any soldering. The core of copper or wood is that burned away or dissolved in acid, the result is remarkably flexible jewellery without unsightly joints and other “engineering blemishes”. By alternating all colours of gold and even embracing the use of grey steel, the chromatic range of Bulgari’s Tubogas collections enjoyed a myriad of variations suitable to all manner of tastes.

The Octo Finissimo Skeleton.

Rightly, this should really end the legitimate or not-legitimate watchmaking issue when it comes to Bulgari (at least on the female side of the equation where the brand’s eventual segue into men’s watches would not only seem natural but complimentary) but really, the end of the debate was only a recent 2015-2016 event with the advent of the Bulgari Octo Finissimo Ultra-thin tourbillon and the last remaining bastion of critics were silenced with the recent Bulgari Octo Finissimo Répétition Minute.

One can argue, to much futility I might add, that these creations were possible through its acquired assets in Daniel Roth and Gerald Genta, now integrated into the Bulgari manufacture, that the wealth of savoir faire on art of the striking watch was bought instead of earned. However, one would be hard placed to counter this argument, that the idea and conception of a minute repeater in such a style and manner was birthed in Bulgari and only executed in the traditions (and in respectful tribute) to the very talents and capabilities they acquired.

Bulgari Octo Finissimo Répétition Minute. Titanium case, pierced titanium dial. Limited edition 50 pieces.

Non-Purist Brands Are Expressing Purist Watchmaking Approaches and it’s about time for us to keep open minds

The original Royal Oak was predicted to be the death knell for Audemars Piguet because industry insiders and critics felt that the octagonal watch was too avant garde when compared to classic watches made in-line with classical watchmaking codes. Look at the industry today, it’s rife with geometric watch conceptions like the Nautilus, the Ingenieur and the Laureato.

Do you fault an F1 Driver for winning a race in a race-car he didn’t build? No, you can have the capabilities of Minerva and Genta-Roth manufactures but if you fail to understand their attributes, characteristics and history, you wouldn’t be able to fully utilise them in a manner which not only builds on their heritage but also enhances it.

This debate is best settled by two men wiser than I, Voltaire and John Milton:

First, Voltaire: “Illusion is the first of all pleasures.” Indeed, whatever value we ascribe to a timepiece today is really a shared illusion – just like the Rolex Daytona seemed inconsequential until Paul Newman made it his choice in a movie, the value isn’t intrinsic but assigned.

Second, John Milton, “The mind is its own place and in itself, can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.” Beauty (and I guess, value) is really in the eye of the beholder but really, if we are simply ruling out brands on the virtue of how they started historically, we are doing a disservice to the duty-of-care some of the better funded brands are doing – keeping heritage alive where otherwise manufactures like Minerva or Roth-Genta  might just disappear into the scrap heap of corporate history. People are poor analysts when it comes to pleasure, it’s time to keep our minds open lest we discourage the next big thing in watchmaking.

 

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