De-escalating the handmade vs. industrial watchmaking conflict

There is a rift between “handmade” and “industrial” watchmaking. In many ways, it’s a reflection or an extension of the tension between nostalgia and progress in the watch community. But there’s always been something particular about the rivalry between handmade and industrial watchmaking that evaded me. It took me a while to figure it out, but I’ve realized it has to do with how the conflict is framed in moral terms.

For context, anxiety over technological innovation permeates the history of mankind like ether – it’s not particular to watchmaking per se. From early-industrial Luddites to the story of Frankenstein to silent meditation retreats, it’s commonplace to see expressions of uneasiness toward the progress of technology. Even early pioneers in the development of computers, like Vannevar Bush, voiced regret over the speed at which the technology was moving from mechanical to digital. That’s right, even the domain of computing, the pinnacle of modern innovation, was riddled with existential angst.

So, how does this existential angst manifest in the conflict between handmade and industrial watchmaking?

Watch purists take a moral, principled stand in favor of handmade watchmaking. This is the group that truly puts money where their mouth is and buys exclusively handmade watches. They lament the sorry state of modern industrialized watchmaking, often thought of as the byproduct of corporate greed and visionless conglomerates. While they come in few numbers, there are many, many sympathizers with the romantic rhetoric of this movement.

And this makes sense. The argument for the return of the glory days of watchmaking is captivating. Many independent watchmaking brands and artisans have benefitted commercially from these common tendencies in collectors and fanatics to glorify horology’s history. The image of the diligent artisan in a small workshop is a nostalgia-generating machine for watch collectors and fanatics. It’s broad appeal is in the numbers – independent watchmaking has grown substantially over the last decade.

Outside of watch purists, the mainstream establishment isn’t so much in opposition to handmade watchmaking as it is ambivalent. Handmade just doesn’t play the same heartstrings as it does for the purists. Generally, at least from other watch collectors I know, there is some appeal in artisanal independent watchmakers but there’s often difficulty in justifying the normally higher prices. “US$100,000 for a time-only? Is it really 10 times better, more beautiful, more exceptional than a Submariner?” It’s a real question, and it’s a real sentiment. Ultimately, to the establishment, “industrial” isn’t a bad word because it’s barely an afterthought.

Though I tend to sit closer to the purist camp (thus far, I’ve only put my money in independent brands and artisans), I think the moral conflict between handmade and industrial as misguided. It’s not really about hands or machines – or at least it shouldn’t be.

The choice should always be in service of the goals and artistic vision of the watchmaker. Whatever method – handmade or otherwise – will execute the ideas of the watchmaker in the most relevant way is the right answer.

Thinking in terms of the goals of the watchmaker enforces more specific criteria of judgement: “Could it have been possible by hand? Is it viable to do so? Does it contradict the ethos of the product?”

Richard Mille can and should not be considered lesser watchmaking because of its use of modern materials and CNC machining. The brand would not exist without industrial innovations from the late 20th and early 21st century. And the same applies to many other beloved brands, both on a large and small scale. Romain Gauthier, MB&F, Urwerk – all unimaginable, un-executable visions without modern horological innovation.

Inversely, the production of the high quality, impeccably finished, traditional timepieces is also difficult to imagine without the hand involved, as exemplified by Philippe Dufour, Daniel Roth, and Christian Klings. The use of modern CNC machinery would be, in this situation, a bit of a contradiction in terms of how each artisan envisions their product – traditional aesthetics through traditional methods. The handmade approach isn’t the morally right option – it’s the only option that makes sense to ensure the method and the goals align.

Ultimately, there is a division of labor in the development of horology – those that maintain the history and legacy of the craft with hands and those that push it to new limits with industrialization. In this sense, I think of handmade versus industrial as more of a symbiosis than a conflict.

Another day with the beast,

Leave a comment

Or join the discussion on Instagram