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Slow Watchmaking

What will the watch industry look like after COVID-19?


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By Nick Foulkes

05 Apr, 2020

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At the moment there are more pressing questions and concerns but given the passions that this industry arouses, the reaction of brands big and small will be keenly scrutinised in coming months.

The speed and severity of the pandemic has taken everyone by surprise and responses have been uneven.

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Patek Philippe and Rolex took the lead in protecting workers and shut factories.

Yet only a fortnight earlier other brands appeared to believe that the crisis was not so serious, and had announced their intention to fill the void left by the cancellation of Watches and Wonders by staging an impromptu and somewhat loosely defined watch exhibition in the hotel rooms released by the virus-led decision to cancel the Geneva fair. Now that the scale of the pandemic has become clear, this event has been pushed back to August.

“It is far too early to say when or even whether things will get back to ‘normal’ let alone whether that will be a return to the status quo ante or some sort of ‘new normal”

The shocking speed with which the virus has torn around the world and the ease with which it has revealed the chimeric nature of the apparent sophistication and permanence of our way of life has been truly humbling.

It is far too early to say when or even whether things will get back to ‘normal’ let alone whether that will be a return to the status quo ante or some sort of ‘new normal.’

Conceptually at least, luxury has historically proved itself mightier than the rise and fall of civilizations, world wars, political upheaval and, of course, global pandemics. Whether it is a Pharaoh with a golden chariot, or a modern day princeling with a Richard Mille the emotional backstory is unchanged, it is only the totems that change.

What makes this particular crisis different is the speed with which it has closed our world down, abruptly stopping the omnichannel helter-skelter high-velocity multifariousness that has made many of us swap, often without knowing it, real life for a lifestyle comprising little more than reactions to external stimuli.

“Watches are traditionally seen as a store of value, not merely monetary value but emotional value too; important mile-markers on life’s journey, crystallisations of memory in mechanical form”

Life has gained speed and with it the growth of a culture of instant gratification. The watch industry has not been immune. Those who are familiar with horological history will know that speed is not something traditionally associated with watch making: a disciplined, quasi-monastic activity more in line with the rhythms of life before the second industrial revolution and the subsequent revolutions in terms of mass manufacturing, travel and instant global communication.

Watches are traditionally seen as a store of value, not merely monetary value but emotional value too; important mile-markers on life’s journey, crystallisations of memory in mechanical form. Watchmaking is as much a cultural, as commercial activity: it is the cultural aspects of watch making that give it its commercial value. But in recent years the balance between cultural and commercial has often been weighted in the latter direction: in the stampede to chase trends, jump on bandwagons and stimulate the thirst for novelty for is own sake some brands appear to have lost sight of the history that has shaped them.

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We as consumers (and I choose the term carefully) are guilty too, obsessed with shortcuts and life hacks and getting to the front of waitlists we forget what it is we are in search of: after all it is far easier to want something than truly understand it. And if we no longer understand what it is that we think we want, then it is no surprise that some brands resort to cynical business school techniques or opportunistic marketing ploys that either shave a little cost or add a little edge. The abruptness with which COVID-19 has struck throws that ‘value’ system into relief. And I would like to think that those brands behaving consistently and respectfully, which take the time to do things properly, will emerge even more highly valued than they already are.

Maybe things will be a little slower and maybe that is no bad thing, after all there has been a slow food movement so why not slow watchmaking? If nothing else, less hurry and haste will give us time to appreciate what we have and the effort that went into making it…rather than focussing on the next fix.

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