A different way to think about the history of watchmaking

The history and development of watchmaking is often framed in material terms. Each timepiece speaks to and fits within a broader context – roles at play include the aesthetic environment and influence, the learned handicraft of the watchmaker, technological norms at the time, the desire for optimization, as well as practical, functional requirements defined by the customer. In a craft defined by mechanics, there is symmetry in thinking about its history mechanically.

Of course, this way of thinking of history is valid and understandable. However, there are other ways of thinking about the history and development of watchmaking. After returning recently to René Girard, the French anthropologist and philosopher, I’ve been tinkering with ways to think of the history of horology in more immaterial terms. For this article, Girard’s concept of imitation and escalation sits at the center of trying to read horological history from a different angle. To Girard, imitation is a fundamental aspect of human behavior and informs the ebb and flow of individual and communal desires and goals. I’ll attempt to show below exactly what Girard means by this and why imitation and escalation are useful tools to make sense of a specific aspect of horology that I have long observed: there is a pendulum in watchmaking that swings between complexity and simplicity.

The independent watchmakers and brands are an easy entryway to showcase what I mean by this pendulum. Philippe Dufour, Kari Voutilainen, F.P. Journe, and more recently Rexhep Rexhepi all entered the market by pushing the limits of technical complexity and sophistication. A brief development curve of each is shown below:

  • Rexhepi launched AkriviA with the AK-01 Tourbillon Chronographe Monopoussoir leading all the way to the time-only Chronomètre Contemporain.
  • Journe launched his own brand in 1999 with the Tourbillon Souverain Souscription, a tourbillon with remontoire d’egalité, moving in 2005 to his first time-only, the Chronomètre Souverain.
  • Voutilainen launched the Masterpiece 6 in 2004, a decimal repeater, before his time-only Vingt-8 became the foundation for the watchmaker’s wider popularity.
  • Lastly, there’s no watchmaker that represents this pendulum better in terms of watch model names. Dufour launched with the Sonnerie and the time-only Simplicity.

Over and over, independents launch with high complications and move in the trajectory of time-only pieces. This polarity between complexity and simplicity does not only exist with independents.

In recent years, we have witnessed an escalating arms race in high complications and technical complexity with the watch industry’s biggest brands. At every SIHH (Watches & Wonders) and Baselworld, the big brands arrive to show gyrotourbillons, 35 day power reserves, double moon phase indicators. Even non-participating brands in the annual expos like Patek Philippe have set records recently with the Grand Master Chime, the most technically complex Patek yet. I predict the pendulum will swing back to simplicity at some point in the future.

So why do we see such stark patterns of complicating and simplifying forces at work? Why does it seem like there are frequent escalations and de-escalations in watchmaking complexity?

This is where we can adapt René Girard’s ideas of imitation and escalation. If Girard chimed here, he would likely say something akin to this: “watch brands imitate one another like humans do in social settings, they have had to find a means of dealing with contagious similarity, which could lead to the pure and simple disappearance of their company and identity. The mechanism that reintroduces difference into a situation in which everyone has come to resemble everyone else is either technical complexity or elegant simplicity.” The pendulum swings so each watchmaker or brand can attempt to find its own identity, to be as unique as each can be in a given moment in time.

Re-reading Girard has opened my eyes to a reality that might make some feel uncomfortable. That is, in the life of every brand and watchmaker, the most important question might be, “who do I imitate?” The answer to that question has both created stand-out legends in the craft and buried would-be legends in an undifferentiated mass of history.

Another day with the beast,

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