Handmade watchmaking isn’t about aesthetics, it’s about people

In the eyes of most of the watch community, there is nothing better than “handmade” watchmaking. It is often “handmade” timepieces that gather the most admiration, acting also as the catalyst for some of the watch community’s Luddite undertones. “I’m a Luddite on the issue of CNC” is an example of a statement that generally creates a tidal wave of empathy from fellow horology fanatics.

But if we take a closer look, the Luddism of the watch community today is quite different from the Luddite movement’s historical origins. I hope to shed some light on these differences in order to help us better think through our complicated relationship to industrialized technology in fine watchmaking.

Worker then, consumer now. Livelihood then, aesthetics now.

Edward Tenner, author of Why Things Bite Back, might provide the most concise, single-sentence description of the variance between historical Luddism and what one can call “Neo-Luddism” today. That is,

“The indignation of nineteenth century producers has yielded the irritation of late-twentieth century consumers.”

Early 19th century Luddism was a working class revolt, led by craftsman, demanding that their skills not be lost to industrial machinery. It was fundamentally about ensuring automated machinery didn’t come between a (crafts)man and his meal.

Fast forward to today’s watch community, our Neo-Luddism is predominately led by the consumer, demanding the application of handmade watchmaking techniques significantly more than the industry’s craftsman and brands (on average). Today’s Neo-Luddism in the watch community also has very little to do with the material working conditions of watchmakers. Rather, the value of handmade is in its aesthetics, or in a very Romantic idea, that the hand produces more “natural” watches. In this sense, our modern conception of Luddism is abstracted to the realm of the “quality of work.”

It’s in this variance between historical Luddism and the watch community’s Neo-Luddism, that the real purpose of Luddite movement is completely lost. English Steven Jones sheds light very directly on how far Neo-Luddism has strayed from the movement’s intentions in his phenomenal book, Against Technology: From Luddites to Neo-Luddites:

“Nostalgia plays a surprisingly limited role in [the historical Luddites’] campaign to put right wages and trade relations, though they do make confident appeals to centuries-old trade relations. The Luddites were not rebels against some nebulous “future” … but were resisting specific changes in their present historical moment. They were not fighting against an inevitable techno-industrial future — which is to say, our present. The Luddites’ desired way of life was not remote or Romantic to them, and it had nothing to do with wild or untouched nature.”

It’s for the very reason that the watch community’s Luddism has strayed so far from its origins that I want to call it back, to return to the basics. If we want to embrace the Luddite side of ourselves, let’s make sure we do it right.

It’s not about aesthetics, it’s about people

I must reiterate, the value of handmade is not that it produces more “beautiful” or “natural” timepieces. These Romantic abstractions take our attention off of the material conditions, the basic survival, of mostly local craftsmen experiencing an onslaught by technology and much bigger global corporations. It’s David vs. Goliath, and David has no slingshot.

Let me be clear, my pushback against the romanticization of handmade watchmaking is not uniquely my own assertion. The Time AEon Foundation speaks in very similar terms as the historical Luddites when their charter says:

“The [Foundation’s] aim is to develop and communicate [skilled craftsman’s] art from an ethical perspective, focussing on [human] solidarity and passing on to new generations the craftsmanship that lies at the heart of watchmaking excellence.”

One notices in the foundation’s charter that the value of handmade watchmaking is not defined by aesthetics. Time AEon knows better than to posit such preposterous, Romantic ideas. Rather, the entire charter is about the human craftsman. It’s about people with ethics sitting at the center of the foundation’s aim to create and support craftsmen, their survival and their livelihood.

Buying handmade watches has entirely to do with supporting craftsmen. Supporting local humans survive is the argument for handmade timepieces, not aesthetics.

Another day with the beast,

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