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Is Commercialism by another name, Democratisation?

by Jonathan Ho on February 27, 2017

Increasingly, watch fairs like SIHH and Baselworld are headlined by the complications of the grandest and most expensive forms. They’re beautiful, head-turning and as a result, outclass most of the other watches a brand might release. A common joke (warning: it’s fairly gauche) amongst men is the fear of going to bed with a beautifully made up woman and then waking up next to a monster when her make-up is running or off. The key takeaway lesson here being that externalities (or the additions of certain key features) do not account for other truer, more attractive qualities like earnestness, thus demonstrating the core characteristics of a person. In this case, should brands begin to consider their entry level offerings (however commercial), a reflection of their higher calling to the purpose of horology?

The most beautiful makeup of a person is passion, but cosmetics are easier to buy. – Yves Saint Laurent

When it comes to the watch industry, the confluence of technology through precision CNC machines machines, computer-aided design and high tech composite materials through advanced material sciences; combined with the growing wealth of high net worth individuals is encouraging many brands to pursue the highest tiers of watchmaking and attempt the most serious of complications, often in very mind blowing and pocket unfriendly ways. When that happens, the other watches which aren’t quite as attractive in terms of public relations value often gets ignored or are given secondary considerations.

Thus, we posit, stripped of all the head-turning complications and faced with the “true face” of a brand, the one which the widest group of consumers get to see, hold and even own, the real test of character and commitment to horological excellence is really embodied in the entry level tier of the collection; By the transitive properties of the brand’s watchmaking philosophy filtered down to the production of commercial, entry-level offerings, is Commercialism by another name, Democratisation? And if not already, should it be?

The Earth is actually made from white gold, and featuring

While some expressions of watchmaking like Jacob & Co.’s Astronomia are extraordinary and even superlative, the purchase of one usually involves the cost-value consideration where beginning from CHF200,000, is it better spent on a city apartment, sub-urban mansion or a piece of wrist ornamentation; and save recent watch fairs, there seems to be no letting up on the horological insanity.

For industry observers and reporters, these watches exist out of range of most working class mortals and while indeed, these complex mechanical achievements gather media coverage worth its due, often the bread and butter (alternate names: entry-level or commercial) of the watchmaking industry are often ignored. Aside from the obvious commercialism of the entry level tier, many brands are forgetting the one element that will keep perpetuating the firm’s existence – watches that regular consumers can afford. In that sense, it’s the entry-level watch which serves as a brand’s financial bulwark rather than the sophisticated grand complication, so why are they NOT giving the same amount of care to the introductory models of their brands?

These complicated mechanical icons represent a smidge of the 1.2 billion watches produced and while they are designed to be literal talking points, the rarity of actually holding one or owning one renders the discussion a purely academic exercise. While it’s true that inordinate amounts of financing usually go into pursuing these unique complications, the horological research and development rarely, if ever, filter down to the rest of the brand’s collections – which is a sort of an anathema because in other industries, technology being the prime example, innovations tend to get filtered down to the wider consumer range.

The watch media is also complicit in this “bubble”; by virtue of technical sophistication, we concentrate a lot of reporting on these hyper-exclusive, highest of the high watches while everything else falls into neglect or perfunctory mentions. We also posit, that it’s precisely for the lack of reporting on watches which matter to the wider market, we are noticing new definitions and perceptions of what it means to be a true luxury timepiece, shaped by tumblr blogs, Kickstarter and Alibaba sourced re-branded quartz watches.

 

Is Commercialism by another name, Democratisation?

For the longest time, entry-level offerings or affordable offerings tended to be marred by the sometimes misplaced perception that it’s a sign of a brand “selling out” or going commercial. The biggest example of such a misunderstanding occurred not too long ago with the Montblanc Perpetual Calendar priced at a never-before-heard of price of €10,000. Industry elites started to talk of how Montblanc’s horological spark was going to kill the perpetual calendar. Yet, years on, high end perpetual calendar sales are not only doing fine but encouraging other affordable luxury brands like Baume & Mercier and Frederique Constant to attempt their own perpetual calendars, further filtering the most functional of complications (as opposed to a tourbillon and arguably a chronograph) to the (relative) masses.

The TAG Heuer Carrera Heuer-02T. One of the more modestly priced Swiss-made tourbillon watches around.

Then in 2015, TAG Heuer announced the Tourbillon Chronograph Heuer-02. It’s not just a tourbillon but a TOURBILLON CHRONOGRAPH for CHF 14,900. Are they insane? (well, there is a method to Jean-Claude Biver’s madness) Again, industry insiders and heavy weights opined that TAG Heuer was going to ruin the industry but what we have witnessed is previous mid-tier collectors finally hunkering down and putting money down on a combination of complication that was previously unattainable. More importantly, it made the idea of a 5-figure TAG Heuer finally palatable to a wider audience of watch connoisseurs.

Thus, it is in these instances that we finally witness the purest purpose of technological development – democratising and sharing previously unattainable complications and materials into the hands of the people who support the industry through commercial, wallet friendly watches. Commercialism by another name is indeed democratisation and watch idiot savants might do well to temper expectations of what watchmakers are really there to do, serve the larger market and earn enough operating margins to finance the next big revolution in mechanical watchmaking.

Some brands which REALLY democratise watchmaking

  1. Nomos – whether you’re buying the most affordable model or the most expensive one, Nomos is remarkable on what they have accomplished and the quality levels they achieve with what little they have. More importantly, every watch from the cheapest to the most expensive model is competently produced. Granted, higher end models have more lavish finishing but that’s really icing on the cake.

Nomos Zürich Weltzeit nachtblau. Photo by owner.

The in-house escapement, christened the Nomos Swing is part of the Deutsche Uhrenwerke project.

2. Tudor – From ceramic cases to now in-house movements, Tudor is offering great value for money when it comes to watches with Tudor manufacture movements. There’s a bit of a premium but it’s much lower than what other watchmakers will charge. In a way, Tudor movements with 70 hours power reserve are really the easiest way to gain appreciation for what a manufacture movement should really be. Even if you ignore in-house movements, a name-brand titanium diver at those specs or a ceramic chronograph at those prices are veritable bargains when compared to their peers.

3. A. Lange & Sohne – Surprise surprise. You might not be able to afford one without difficulty and you certainly cannot say that Lange makes commercial pieces but the Saxony manufacture makes our list as a champion for democratising horology primarily because from the most affordable Lange to the superlative Richard Lange Terraluna, all their watches are finished to the same lavish levels. At the last Lange Akademie, their Head of Fine Watchmaking even testified to the fact that their entry level watches take about the same time (relatively speaking) to decorate as their most complicated ones and even though production would be better served focusing on the high end models, it’s just not in the company’s DNA to let any of their watches leave the factory not up to Lange’s standards. In other word, the guy who gets the cheapest Lange, gets to enjoy levels of finishing and decoration as the guy who could own the most expensive Lange in the world – that says a lot.

The latest Richard Lange “Pour le Mérite” is the newest in the series with a limited 218-watch edition.

The Lange Zeitwerk Striking Time. Photo by Frank Chuo.

4. Montblanc – What started as CEO Jerome Lambert’s vision to shake up the industry has now filtered down into a heritage series of watches at prices which make one question the weight of value assigned to an attribute like provenance. More importantly, backed by Minerva manufacture, Montblanc watches have become a force to be reckoned with and a brand which invokes much needed debate amongst collectors on what it means to be a real watchmaker. From relatively affordable perpetual calendar watches to highly practical world time watches, Montblanc is cutting a trailblazing path at the moment.

The Montblanc 1858 Dual Time, with a two-tone case in bronze and stainless steel.

 

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