The Superfluous is Very Necessary: Reinventing the Watch Fair

Nick Foulkes concludes 2020 by looking beyond watches.

A year ago, I was preparing for my first Dubai Watch Week and as I wrote upon my return from the UAE, I found myself wondering why I had left it so long. As is often the case my friend of over 30 years, Jean Claude Biver, put it best when he said “Dubai is teaching us how to do a fair; what should be the atmosphere of a fair. Spending time together is more important than selling watches. When I come here people are smiling with their eyes. This means the soul is happy. I wish every fair would give us this smile, so thank you Seddiqi.”

I came away so emotionally invigorated by the event that I agreed to write a series of columns for DWW of which this is the last and as good a place as any to reflect on what has been, to understate things dramatically a turbulent year.

English historian_ author_ and journalist Nick Foulkes (1).jpg
English historian_ author_ and journalist Nick Foulkes (1).jpg

English historian, author, and journalist Nick Foulkes with Director General of Dubai Watch Week, Hind Seddiqi

English historian, author, and journalist Nick Foulkes with Director General of Dubai Watch Week, Hind Seddiqi

What impressed me about DWW was the disinterested enthusiasm I encountered for the culture of horology, whether expressed by the most famous names (a year on I still miss the Rolex installation and vividly recall the stunning watches on show there) or by the small volume independent makers who supported the event. Yes, watchmaking is a commercial activity but as I often say it is also (I would argue primarily) a cultural one; and it is to nourish the cultural aspect of watchmaking that DWW was founded, with the self -assigned mission to ‘unite and grow the global watch community for the preservation and transmission of horological knowledge.’

“We do not ‘need’ such items as a Patek Philippe perpetual calendar chronograph or a Rolex Submariner, our continued existence is not contingent upon them”

The opportunity to exchange of ideas and share the passion for objects that are repositories of culture, creativity, ingenuity and emotion was one that I am truly glad that I seized, particularly given the restrictions imposed by the pandemic have curtailed my horological travels.

A live discussion during Dubai Watch Week (1).jpg
A live discussion during Dubai Watch Week (1).jpg

A live discussion during Dubai Watch Week

A live discussion during Dubai Watch Week

I continue to write books and articles about watches and watchmaking. I am lucky to have built a good library of horological volumes to which I can refer or which I simply enjoy. I have the panoply of communications options from Zoom and Instagram Live to good old emails and telephone calls. But I desperately miss going to watch factories, handling timepieces in the presence of those who made them and enriching my insights into this precious branch of human creativity.

I would hate to sound too idealistic, nevertheless I do feel that if knowledge, enthusiasm and passion are present then the commercial side of things will fall into place; even if they are not entirely sure why, people tend to respond positively to authenticity and eschew artificiality.

A convention at Dubai Watch Week (1).jpg
A convention at Dubai Watch Week (1).jpg

A convention at Dubai Watch Week

A convention at Dubai Watch Week

I believe that this is a lesson that this strange and terrible time is teaching us. Even though the world as we knew it at the time of Dubai Watch Week 2019 has changed, some of it permanently, the appetite for watchmaking has remained. Proper watchmakers with constant values, knowledge of history, pride in what they do and respect for their customers find a ready market for their goods, because they stand for something. Their watches encapsulate in their wheels, springs and pinions a complex cocktail of emotions that we cannot always express. We do not ‘need’ such items as a Patek Philippe perpetual calendar chronograph or a Rolex Submariner, our continued existence is not contingent upon them; but it is their very discretionary nature that makes such objects indispensable in defining who we are as human beings.

At the moment there is an exhibition devoted to the culture of luxury goods taking place at the Museum of Decorative arts in Paris, alas, I have only seen the catalogue but what comes across is the strength of the emotional bond that human beings form with inanimate objects into which other human beings have poured care, knowledge, culture and creativity.

Voltaire put it succinctly and eloquently with the typically epigrammatic observation “The Superfluous is very necessary.” Voltaire of course lived near Geneva, was active in the watch industry, and was fond of using, the clock as a metaphor in his philosophical discussions. I can’t help thinking that he would have enjoyed Dubai Watch Week. And, like me, I imagine he would have been impatient for its return.

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