Watches worth watching

In the 20th century, the brand universe was small (e.g., Timex, Rolex [as pictured], Longines, Omega, Oy7040_bigBulova, Cartier) and the models were relatively few.

Welcome to the Cambrian era of time keepers. There are 110 models from 40 brands in the current Town and Country. Swatch, until recently, made 180 models. Casio appears to have more than 2000 models on How many distinct models in the universe of watches? I had the boys in the lab run the numbers. Their answer: really a lot.

There are a thousand points of price. The Volant (European Watch Company) costs $57,600. My Casio cost $10. (It is the tragically named "Casio Classical White Men’s Watch"!)Watches

There are many styles: modern (CVSTOS, Rado), sporty (Tagheur, Porsche, Nike), retro (vintage), groaning with gems (Meyer, as pictured), quietly expensive (Patek Philippe), fashion forward (Bill Blass, Issye Mikake) and atomic (Junghans).

There are watches covered in diamonds (Pierre Kunz). There are watches covered in bells and whistles. The Breitling Montbrillant Olympus ($15,850, pictured) is Watch_ivcapable of 461 distinctions (seconds, minutes, hours, months, seasons, moon phases, and much, much more). The Montbrillant can predict the weather in 42 countries. The downside, it looks like there’s a hedgehog strapped to your wrist.

It is not hard to see the things that drives this plenitude of watches. Growing wealth at the top, a willingness to "trade up" in the middle, these drive the luxury market. As for the rest, new technologies, off shore manufacture, and fierce competitition drives things nicely.

There is evidence of two things that suggest this universe is changing.  A couple of days ago the Wall Street Journal said that mechanical watches were once more on the rise.

There are a few dominant trends in men’s watches this season: larger faces, an increase in rectangular face styles and more leather straps. The biggest change, though, is in the number of mechanical watches taking the place of quartz…

Ah, the rational consumer.  Economic man rushes off to buy a watch that is more expensive and less reliable than his alternatives.  No doubt, we are prepared to suffer imprecision from our wrist watch because we are surrounded by quite reliable time keepers: the clocks in our tool bar, fridge, stove, TV, cable box, telephone, cars, PDAs and of course VCRs.  Everything that is the least bit electronic comes equipped with an accurate clock, (except at my house where the VCR blinks "12:00" for some reason.  We just cover it with tape.)  It may also be true that we like mechanical watches because they give off the princely implication that we do not need to be anywhere on time or at least that we are not slaves to precision.  (Hah!)

But the other thing that struck me was this new watch by Corum.  These are the people who used to make watches out of silver dollars, as I recall.    Corum_bubble_privateer_1 Their new watch is called the Corum Bubble Privateer.  This watch shows a skull and cross bones.  Someone had the bright idea of giving the skull a gingham topper and the watch a splash of color.  Surely, this is the gift to give the "hostile take over" enthusiast in your family. 

This really opens things up.   All those watches out there (and there are as we noted, how thousands of them), and almost none of them departs from the "function plus decoration/design" convention.  None does what the Privateer does rather dashingly, combine the representational, evocative, and the iconic into a design that suggests both a tribal totem and the beginnings of narrative.

Now that story lines and historical evocation is part of the game we may expect the market to flood new possibilities.  Surely,  we can find something else in the work of Robert Louis Stevenson.  How about something chivalric from Sir Walter Scott?  How about something from Twain that’s Huck Finn-ish?  The world of popular 19th century literature is just loaded with new watch ideas, now that Corum has blessed us with the Privateer. 

And so does the design vocabulary of the commercial world expand, along with the dramatic, playful possibilities thereof. 


Smith, Ray A.  2005. Watches  Shift Into Automatic: Ready to pay more for a less accurate timepiece? We look at the new mechanical models on the market.  Wall Street Journal.  November 12, 2005. 

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