Does history help the watch industry, or hold it back?

“Fully imagined cultural futures were the luxury of another day, one in which ‘now’ was of some greater duration … We have no future because our present is too volatile. We have only risk management. The spinning of the given moment’s scenarios. Pattern recognition.”

– William Gibson

There is a tug of war in watchmaking between nostalgia and innovation, the past and the future. We see brands speak to and capitalize on the “good ol’ days” through modern re-issue after re-issue. For the watch community, nostalgia creates the whole spectrum of sentiments from mild disinterest to extreme disdain for modern watchmaking, aesthetics, and principles. Because of this, it feels like the industry wants to go back in time more than it wants to move into the future.

With no resolve in sight, there’s a growing elephant in the room: is history helping the industry or holding it back?

Before we dig into this question, it’s important to clarify that nostalgia and a reverence for horological tradition have and will always continue to play a positive role in watchmaking. Horological history is the foundation on which the present is built, and nostalgia will always permeate this domain to some degree. The question above isn’t about removing nostalgia or stigmatizing history and its impact on watchmaking today – such an endeavor would send the industry into an even greater existential crisis than the one, I believe, is already ongoing. The question more specifically, might be, how can the industry better work with, not against, the grain of popular nostalgia?

To resist this topic becoming quickly abstract, I want to root this discussion in a more concrete analysis of Audemars Piguet’s Code 11.59. In many ways, the 11.59 release is both a representation of the core tension between nostalgia and innovation, and also provides some lessons to escape such potential pitfalls in the future.

As many of us know, the launch of Code 11.59 caused quite a stir during SIHH 2019 – the break between the present and the future left heads titled and jaws slack. It was an aesthetic departure from the look and feel of AP that dominates its modern image/ethos – not a sports watch, no octagonal bezel, no integrated bracelet/strap. Though not in the mind of the average consumer today, AP’s oft-forgotten history of producing fine and innovative dress watches was a core part of its ethos all the way up until the early 1990’s. To many, it is a mind blowing realization that the Star Wheel ref. 25720 was developed at the same time as the Royal Oak Offshore “The Beast” ref. 25721 – one reference number and a whole world apart. Keep this in mind, we’ll return to this idea of forgotten history and its revival for AP in a moment.

Though my take might be controversial, I consider 11.59 to have been a necessary move for the brand toward diversification, one that resists the brand from fusing entirely with its most popular product, the Royal Oak. At the least, the move makes sense on paper.

So what went wrong? The answer is simple – expectation management. 11.59 was intended to be the next page in the history of AP, but it feels like both a transgression of the brand’s current ethos and a return to a forgotten past. I genuinely believe if the framing of Code 11.59 was a modern re-interpretation of the maison‘s rich history of innovative dress watches (like the Star Wheel mentioned above), it would’ve, at the least, triggered significantly less outrage. Framing it as a reinvigoration of the past, not a step into the future, might have eased the pain of 11.59’s launch.

From my vantage point, AP worked against the grain of nostalgia by ignoring the design elements and ethos the brand maintains in the eyes of so many seasoned collectors and everyday consumers. If at any fault, it’s that the rupture caused by 11.59 was too radical. There’s a lesson from this release: each brand will reap what they sow if they underestimate the power nostalgia holds over the watch community.

To return to the original question, I believe nostalgia neither helps the industry nor holds it back – it has equal potential to do both depending on circumstance. It can act like a form of checks and balances, as in the case of 11.59. Lady Justice, blind with the scale, nostalgia places the bar for successful, admirable modern watches very high. Undoubtedly, brands today have quite a juggling act to maintain, trying to keep their perceived ethos, future direction, and consumer/collector community aligned. If any modern watch brand wants to outrun nostalgia, each need to remember that framing and expectation management are going to ease the trials of transition. We’re all watching…

Another day with the beast,

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