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The Uncomfortable Truth

The industry’s inevitable migration online


By Nick Foulkes

02 Oct, 2020

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When Apple became a two trillion-dollar company this summer, eclipsing Saudi Aramco, the New York Times adduced epigrammatically that ‘technology has clearly become the oil of the 21st century’. According to the NYT Apple and a handful of tech giants were responsible for dragging the markets to new Everests, saying that the ‘boom in tech stocks also has helped the benchmark S&P 500 index reach new highs after steep declines earlier in the year. Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook and Google’s parent company, Alphabet account for nearly 23% of the S&P 500’s entire value.’


It is a sobering statistic. Five companies accounting for a quarter of the value of one of the world’s leading indices; an amazing concentration of colossal wealth derived from a field that barely existed a generation ago.

If nothing else the pandemic has been good for those who hold tech stocks and those of us who love watches cannot grumble too much as it is thanks largely, if not solely, to the internet and social media that we have been able to feed our interest in, find out about and buy watches over recent months.

The traditional watch industry is often criticised (sometimes unfairly in my opinion) for its reluctance to engage with modern technology. I must admit that at heart I am a tech-dinosaur and I have my concerns about too much technology in the industry. Gimmicky social media campaigns and mass-influencer-led stunts are, I think I am safe in saying, no replacement for proper watchmaking.

As the situation has, if not exactly improved, then at least become more familiar human resourcefulness has found ways of mitigating the risks, with hybrid events, that include a degree of virtual and actual participation. I spoke at length to Aurel Bacs about the trouble he took to make his saleroom COVID-safe, and the impressive results that ensued have demonstrated that there is still very much an appetite for buying watches, and that the replication of the excitement and emotion is possible.

Exhibition hall 2019

But since mechanical watches have been liberated from their ostensible function of giving the hour of the day (the time is a commodity available everywhere from the phone to the dashboard); they have become repositories of craftsmanship, artistry, history and emotion that happen to tell the time as well. In other words, no longer mere basic functional devices they are cultural objects that tell us about our humanity and sense of community.

The culture of watches requires human interaction; which is why the set piece events that bring the various parts of the industry together, whether auctions, trade fairs or conclaves and convocations such as Dubai Watch Week are so important. But when such physical gatherings cannot take place other foci are necessary and this is why Watches & Wonders, the quondam SIHH, is to be lauded for its swiftly pulled together online event that brought the industry together while it was in isolation. Without such online platforms and the miracle of social media (I have lost count of the Instagram lives that I have watched or participated in during the lockdown) things would have been far bleaker.

“But since mechanical watches have been liberated from their ostensible function of giving the hour of the day (the time is a commodity available everywhere from the phone to the dashboard); they have become repositories of craftsmanship, artistry, history and emotion”


From a brand perspective perhaps the most masterful launch during lockdown has been the Tudor Black Bay 58 Blue. Of course it helps having a social media cynosure like David Beckham as a brand ambassador but what was really impressive was the watch’s simultaneous appearance across the virtual world. The logistical challenge of delivering what seemed like thousands of watches onto the wrists of ‘influencers’ ( I use the term broadly, as mine was among the wrists targeted) around the world at a time of global crisis takes the flawless organisation of a Rolex-owned company. Having had the watch on my wrist for some time, I was loath to return it , and it seems that my feelings were shared by many around the world: it was a rare thrill to be able to experience a new watch on the day of launch in the metal and to share that experience with others.

I am the first to say that zoom calls, IGTV posts, and electronic press kits are poor substitute for handling a ‘living’ watch in the actual presence of the person who made it…but while the current situation persists I remain grateful for them.

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