When I buy a classic watch, I feel I’m investing in something solid and reliable; an object that will sail through the decades without looking a day older; one I will pass on to the next generation, so the saying goes. I need to have a son, right? In the meantime, surprise, surprise! Classic watches are not what they used to be. It may be the same brand and the same collection, but it’s no longer the timepiece my father wore. Tempora mutantur and so do classic watches. They are transformed, sometimes as quickly as the most avant-garde designs. Don’t say you didn’t notice: when something is simplicity itself, even the slightest modification hits you in the eye.
In "manufacture" mode
The first thing to have changed is size. The 38-mm classic men’s watch is a thing of the past. We’ve handed that over to women, in exchange for a trusty 41 mm or more. In fact diameters of 44 mm, 47 mm even, have become common parlance. Dials have followed the same trend and abandoned the discreet charm of the 1960s. Hands, numerals and markers are bigger, more accentuated, three-dimensional even. As for the traditional steel case, it has given way to new materials and sophisticated alloys more precious than gold. In a similar vein, good old Plexiglas has gone out the window, replaced by flat or convex sapphire crystal.
The difference is even more noticeable where movements are concerned. Once upon a time, every brand had its own calibre. Then standardisation became all the rage, and Swiss watchmakers started using more or less the same movements, delivered to them as blanks. Now we’ve come full circle, with a number of firms developing their own base calibres… including some that would never have considered such a move before. We’re talking authentic luxury here; luxury that has a price, especially for the customer.
All our own work
And so it would be pretty much impossible not to see the difference between then and now. Escalating prices are there to remind us, anyway. Which brings us to another question: brands claim these hefty price tags are fully justified by the presence of an in-house movement, which costs more to produce. Hence my classic watch costs me twice, if not more, the price my father paid for his classic watch from the same brand. What do I get in return? A timepiece fitted with a calibre not unlike the good old ETA movements, and possibly less reliable as it has yet to be “run in”. Imagine a car dealer who tries to sell you a Fiat for the price of a Ferrari. “Why so expensive?” you rightly enquire. Answer: “Because of the engine, sir. I made it myself!”.
Only a masochist would pull out his credit card. And that’s not all. The advent of smartwatches could well give brands a new pretext to up the price of run-of-the-mill models by adding on some non-horological feature such as electronic payment or a communicator. Which gives you a quartz watch with an embedded chip that allows you to hop on the ski-lift or lock your car doors. Essential? We think not. It’s like the car dealer, yes, him again, telling us the car we’re about to buy makes fantastic pancakes.
Not quite James Bond
What do we need to know about this type of product? Are we getting a watch with a chip or a chip inside a watch? And what about design? It’s tempting to imagine smartwatches as the latest sci-fi gadget, boldly going where no watch has gone before. In reality, the majority take the form of what amounts to a classic round watch… like putting a rotary dial on a smartphone screen. Complexity hidden behind the innocent image of a truly classic object. Like James Bond’s watch, in fact, except a smartwatch is nothing more than an extension of your mobile phone, and no help whatsoever when it comes to bumping off villains or unzipping a lady’s dress.
Ask designers, and they will explain the reason they reinvent the dials, bezels and calibres of classic watches is to keep pace with changing tastes. Truth is, they’re experts in camouflage. When times are good, their job is to pass off the relics of yesteryear as the latest creations; when times are hard, they give new watches an old-school makeover. When we buy a classic watch, do we have any other choice than to buy a timepiece that maybe isn’t a classic any more, assuming it is still a watch?
* Alexey Tarkhanov is an architect, journalist and art critic based in Paris, where he is the correspondent for Russian daily Kommersant. He is a regular contributor to Vogue, GQ, Condé Nast Traveller, Robb Report and Forbes.