In an increasingly digital world, people are still willing to spend huge amounts on analogue fake timepieces. The question is, why?
On 17 March 2016, the watch manufacturer Breitling opened a lavish new stall at Baselworld, the world’s biggest replica breitling transocean chronograph gmt watch fair, to show off its latest marvels. There was the Avenger Hurricane, a beefy black and yellow extravaganza in a special polymer case made specifically to survive all extremes of superhuman adventure (£6,500). There was the Superocean Chronograph M2000 Blacksteel, with full functionality at a depth of 2,000 metres (£3,850). And there were at least 60 other items, each out-glistening the other in an attempt to demonstrate a new and expensive way to tell the time.
And then there were the fish. Above the entrance to the temporary shop – which, at 10 metres high, was really more of a pavilion – was a huge tank holding 650 jellyfish. The tank – really more of an aquarium – was the size of a new London Routemaster bus sliced down the middle. Empty, it weighed 12 tonnes; its 16,113 litres of water added another 16.5 tonnes. Because it contained so many fish and so much water, the tank’s sides were made from a 13cm-thick layer of methacrylate, a transparent material similar to plexiglass.
Precisely what the jellyfish had to do with selling swiss self winding copy watch was a mystery, and it would remain a mystery until they were removed from the tank when the pavillion closed. Perhaps they represented freedom; perhaps they were a reminder of the sort of thing you could see if you purchased a Breitling diving chronometer. But the strangest thing about the tank was that most people who saw it just glanced up and swiftly moved on. Considering where it was, it didn’t seem unusual at all.
For eight days each year, Basel becomes the centre of the watch universe. The fair’s organisers claimed 150,000 paying visitors and 1,800 brands spread over 141,000 square metres of exhibition space. Admission cost 60 Swiss francs a day (almost £50), for which one could have bought a nice Timex. Near the Breitling pavilion was an obelisk for Omega, and a palace for Rolex. TAG Heuer adorned its booth with a TAG Heuer-sponsored Formula 1 racing car. One could spend many hours walking the plush carpets here, and encounter many very handsome men and women promoting Breguet, Hublot, and Longines, and very many handsome men and women buying their wares, too. Some booths were also selling jewellery – including Chanel, Gucci and Chopard – and some brands were selling watches covered in jewels: symphonies of the unnecessary, such as the Harry Winston Premier Moon Phase 36mm, with mother of pearl and 104 brilliant-cut diamonds.
The show was a celebration of our mastery of timekeeping, and of the refinement and years of training that go into making objects of beauty and accuracy. But it was also a celebration of excess and superfluousness, of watches that exist merely because they can, like animal acts at a circus. Many worked on the most intricate levels to perform functions almost beyond usefulness: there were stainless steel case watches with a calendar that lasts 1,000 years; there were watches showing the phase of the moon in a different time zone. And then there were items such as the Aeternitas Mega 4 from Franck Muller, assembled from 1,483 components. This would announce the hours and quarter-hours with the same chime sequence as Big Ben. At its launch, it was heralded by its makers as the most complex wristwatch ever made, and a grandiose work of art. In addition to its 36 “complications” – a complication is essentially a nice gimmick – was the ability to tell the time. Another complication was that it cost £2.2m.
And therein lies the mystery of the modern timepiece. These days, no one requires a Swiss watch to tell the time – or a watch from any country. The time displayed on our mobile phones and other digital devices will always be more accurate than the time displayed on even the most skilfully engineered mechanical men’s watch, yet the industry has a visual presence in our lives like few others. The storefronts of the world’s big-money boulevards glow with the lustre of Rolex and Omega; newspapers and magazines appear to be kept in business largely by watch adverts; airports would be empty shells without them. The export value of the Swiss watch trade fell by 3.3% last year, due primarily to a downfall in demand from the east Asia. But it is up 62.9% compared with six years ago. In 2015 the world bought 28.1m Swiss watches valued at 21.5 billion Swiss francs.
We live in uncertain economic times, but breitling transocean chronograph 38 top watch prices at Baselworld show no signs of making a cut-price concession to the unstable yen or rouble, or even the recent competition from the Apple Watch. Indeed, the opposite seems to be true: the higher the asking price, the greater the appeal, for cheapness may suggest a reduction in quality.