It’s not controversial to say that the mechanical watchmaking industry, specifically in Switzerland, has a complicated relationship to watchmaking in Asia. After all, it wasn’t too long ago that the Quartz Crisis, led by watch manufacturers in China, Hong Kong, and Japan, threatened the Swiss watch industry with a mass extinction event. Ultimately, this crisis forced the Swiss to occupy and grow the segment of the market least impacted: luxury.
Since then, the dichotomy – Swiss luxury watches vs. cheap Asian watches – has dominated the mentality of everything from journalism and the watch community, to the average consumer and the industry at large. And herein lies the endeavor of this article: to situate some troubling tendencies in our perception of non-European watchmaking. To do this, we must turn to Edward Saïd’s Orientalism.
What is Orientalism and how does it work?
As defined by Edward Saïd in his influential book, “Orientalism” is defined by an exaggeration of difference and clichéd modes of analyzing non-Western culture. Orientalist analyses of culture invariably produce a binary: on one side, the West, defined by rationality, democracy, law and order, and on the other, the Orient, defined by primitivism, despotism, social instability, and irrationality.
Saïd argues that there’s nothing intrinsically natural or organic about this binary opposition between the West and the Orient. Rather, this generally accepted truth is the outcome of hundreds of years of politically-driven intellectual pursuits, culminating in the general superiority complex of the West and the general inferiority complex of the Orient.
But Orientalism doesn’t only manifest itself within the superiority-inferiority binary. It also carries with it the ability to elevate the Orient above the West through mystifications. Examples of these mystifications include the idea that Oriental cultures possess secrets to spiritual enlightenment (think the West’s nonstop curiosity of Eastern religion) and extraordinary sexual abilities (think of the secrets of Kama Sutra).
What does this have to do with watchmaking? Let’s roll our sleeves up and take a look.
Orientalist mystifications in the watch world
In Saïd’s Orientalism, the cultural representations of the Orient were originally propagated by political intellectualism – academics working in the service of their nations. In the watch community, Orientalist ideas circulate through journalism, comments on social media, and are even re-affirmed by the ardent supporters of non-Swiss watchmaking. Like a Freudian slip, Orientalist enunciations feel almost like a mistake, but reveal an inner, true dimension to how our dispositions are toward non-Swiss watchmakers and brands.
I should note that there is no monolithic “European” or “Western” watchmaking identity. Within European watchmaking, there is, what I would consider, an internal hierarchy – Switzerland is #1, with Germany, France, England all grappling for their position below. For the purposes of this article, I want to focus mostly on the superiority complex, and projected superiority to Swiss watchmaking as the Swiss are top dog in the mind of most watch collectors and enthusiasts. Generally though, I believe much of what applies to the Swiss, equally applies to German, English, French watchmaking and its perceived superiority over non-European watchmaking.
Orientalist mindset in journalists and consumers
The most recent, high-profile example of the Orientalist mindset can be seen with Hodinkee’s Travel Clock blunder. In their “apology letter“, they justify the $5,900 price tag with this:
Is there automated manufacturing in Asia? Sure. But the idea that many esteemed Swiss brands are 100% handmade is laughable, at best. They certainly are not – especially at the price point of the Travel Clock. The hiccup is not mass production and automation. The hiccup here is Asia. And there’s similar sleights to find elsewhere.
Going further back to 2013, there’s a soft Orientalist tone affirmed when journalists assume readers would be in disbelief that Seiko is over 100 years old:
Even though the review is quite positive of Seiko, there is a back-handed undertone at play. It insinuates that a non-Swiss brand with a long heritage is outlandish or absurd.
After Grand Seiko began exporting to international markets, we also saw a flurry of “I never thought I would like a Seiko” online comments from consumers and collectors. Only now, after a decade, do we see the shock and awe of a Japanese rival to Swiss watchmaking finally begin to dissipate.
On the flip side, we also see the most ardent supporters of Grand Seiko fall into the Exotic, heralding the Japanese design and watchmaking sensibilities as mystically gifted. This is the same mysticism that I tried to dispel in my article, Why are independent watchmakers so popular in Japan? The idea that independent watchmakers are so popular in Japan because the Japanese are inherently better at recognizing and evaluating fine craftsmanship is, in my opinion, an Orientalist mysticism.
Orientalist mindset in watchmakers
To provide an example of how entrenched Orientalism is in the watch industry, we need to only look as far as the rising star of independent watchmaking, Rexhep Rexhepi. His words speak to the superiority-inferiority, insider-outsider binary that Orientalist conceptions of the world produce. In The Hour Glass short film, Who is Rexhep Rexhepi, he says:
Why would a watchmaker feel apprehensive about putting their own name on a timepiece they crafted with their own two hands? The fact that Rexhep brings up his own cultural heritage as a reason for the complication is all we need to know that Orientalism is deep at work here. The Orientalist mindset doesn’t just affect consumer perception of watchmakers, it affects the watchmakers’ perception of themselves too.
I’m sure this article will come across as an indictment against the community, journalism, the Swiss watchmaking industry, and to a certain extent, it is. But it’s important to remember that the Orientalist disposition is not malicious in intent (although, I’m sure it financially benefits the Swiss industry).
As Saïd points out, it is often so engrained we have no sense it is problematic at all.
Of course, there is no shortage of truly low-quality watches coming from Asia or elsewhere. In the case of watchmaking, Orientalism is more about Japan being forever stuck in a position inferior to Swiss watchmaking, regardless of its products. It’s the idea that the Swiss have an “essence” that makes them the best at the craft, something that non-Swiss could never have or learn.
As far as the recognition that Orientalist cultural tendencies exist in the watch industry, I’m optimistic that they will be stomped out by astute members of our community. We already saw outrage in response to Hodinkee’s “automated manufacturing in Asia” comment, and I suspect that such an outcry is shaping the way journalism communicates about so-called “Asian watchmaking.”
Another day with the beast,