Timepiece Chronicle

In-depth, passionate and entertaining articles that explore the stories behind great watches

Mechanical Watchmaking is Obsolete

Mechanical Watchmaking is Obsolete

Mechanical watchmaking is obsolete and nothing will change that. We need to celebrate that.

Mechanical watchmaking is a redundant art that has served its purpose. We are in a wonderful resurgent renaissance of this art where Seiko can make a $500,000 tourbillon and MB&F can make adorable desk clock robots but we shouldn't fool ourselves. This mechanical watch bubble we are in hides us from the outside world whilst reflecting and magnifying everything inside of it.  99% of the general public don't care about mechanical watches. They'll know some of the famous brands like Omega and Rolex but ask them who Patek Philippe is and you'll probably get a quizzical look back. "Patek Philippe....is he the new Chelsea midfielder?"

I spoke last time about the change after the quartz crisis, where watch companies became watch brands. The problem mechanical watchmakers had was that their craft became expensive and obsolete for practical use. In 1956 Rolex released the Milgauss Ref. 6541, a professional watch made for engineers and scientists working in highly magnetic environments. In 1971 they released the Explorer II Ref. 1655, a professional watch made for spelunkers who needed to a full 24 hour cycle whilst in the depths of the planet.

These were specialist watches for specialist uses. Whilst us watch journalists love to wax poetical about how functional our tool watches are, any $300 digital watch from REI will knock them into a cocked hat. For the most part watch brands have insulated themselves against the onslaught of technology by raising themselves out of the game. They define luxury as not quartz just as they are beginning to define luxury as not smart tech.  

There are brands that have tipped their toes into the Smartwatch water to see how they like the temperature. IWC has plans to release the IWC Connect, a smart module strap that allows a modicum of input and notifications from connected devices, however after announcing this over a year ago there has been little word about it since. The benefit a smart strap has over a smartwatch is that ultimately a strap can be replaced relatively easily whilst an entire smartwatch cannot.

"The last thing you want is your IWC perpetual calendar to include a piece of technology that will become obsolete in a couple of years. You want your IWC to still be up-to-date when you pass it along to your kids and grandkids 50 years from today, or 100 years from today. That's the whole point" said Edouard D'Arbaumont, President of IWC Watches USA. "We don't think anybody is buying our watches to tell time. It's all about the DNA, the history of the product". Those are the words of someone who understands where mechanical watchmaking is today where no amount of wishful thinking will take us back to 1971 when mechanical watches were at their height of professional service. If the IWC Connect is a colossal failure it won't matter because the mechanical watch it is fitted to survives.

Whilst Patek Philippe, IWC, Rolex, Jaeger-LeCoultre and countless other companies experimented with quartz watches when needed I doubt we'll be seeing a 'Smart Patek' anytime soon. Quartz clocks had existed since the 1930's so having watchmakers shrink the technology to wrist size wasn't an impossible task. If miniaturizing quartz technology into wristwatches was akin putting a man on the moon then asking watchmakers to work independently on Smart tech is akin to traveling to a new solar system. No Swiss brand has the capacity to develop a Smart watch on their own and would need to sacrifice their identity as a "Swiss Made" luxury watch to do so.

TAG Heuer Connected Watch. Image courtesy of TAG Heuer.

TAG Heuer Connected Watch. Image courtesy of TAG Heuer.

TAG Heuer were forced to partner with Intel and Google to develop the Connected Watch, a device that will be nothing more than a historical footnote in the history of watchmaking. Jean-Claude Biver's belief that this device is somehow connected to eternity is utterly delusional. He is trying to beat Android, Apple, Fitbit, Garmin and all the other tech manufactures at their own game by offering a product that is more expensive, less powerful and does fewer things. Perhaps he's hoping his competitors will be blinded by confusion.

I could be wrong. Mr. Biver says that TAG Heuer is making another 80,000 watches to keep up with demand and that every month this year has been TAG Heuer's strongest ever month in history. The Federation of Swiss Watch Industry statistics report that show that exports both mechanical and quartz watches are have been decreasing over the past five months. The 500-3000 CHF price range, right where the Connected Watch sits, is still declining but less so than those watches below 500 and above 3000 CHF. Perhaps Mr. Biver is right and that in three years we'll see an influx of young consumers fresh from their Connected Watch ready to purchase a mechanical watch. I'm skeptical.

I do expect that over the next few years several of the lower tier brands will vanish from the marketplace as smart wearables push them out. Luxury mechanical watchmaking will see some impact but overall the brands that charge more for the history and artistry of a mechanical watch will remain afloat. 

A Swiss Made mechanical watch is the idea of deliberate outdated permanence in an impermanent world.  

A mechanical watch doesn't have to worry about the latest apps or integrating with your existing tech. It's a ruin, a relic, it's a horse drawn carriage riding through Central Park. People don't ride in them because they're efficient, people ride in them because they love the feeling, the story and the history.  We need to support useless watches that only tell the time. We don't have to worry about keeping up to date with the ever quickening pace of technology. We need slow down and celebrate this redundancy by make pointless, beautiful works of mechanical art.  Anything less than that is a betrayal of 200 years of history.

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