The timepiece that tested the watch community’s limits

When I argued that horology’s loss of functional value was actually a good thing for the community, readers seemed to agree. Kind of. As one reader commented: “Though they lost their function in favour of electronic gizmos, the primary purpose of a watch is to be functional and thus watchmakers must always keep that in mind.” There’s no denying that horology’s value has morphed and become abstracted from everyday utility – it’s a want, not a need. But the idea that watches can be bought, worn, and appreciated for purely non-functional reasons still seems unsettling to the community.

There are limits to our horological comfort zone. And for me, nothing exposes this quite like the review of Beat Haldimann’s H9 on A Blog to Watch.

The “useless tragedy” of Beat Haldimann’s H9

Beat Haldimann is an independent watchmaker in Switzerland, widely considered one of the greatest craftsmen at the pinnacle of traditional horology. This makes the Haldimann H9 Reduction all the more fascinating because of one detail: this watch cannot tell time.

This is not a first for Haldimann. Where the H8 prominently features an exquisite tourbillon, the H9 goes a step further. The dial is completely obscured by a non-transparent black sapphire crystal; looking at the H9 feels like staring into the abyss. From the finishing to the movement, both watches embody all the features of impeccable watchmaking. The only thing that’s missing are hands.

So, how does this go over on A Blog to Watch? It reaches a level of blunt criticism in watch journalism I frankly didn’t even know existed:

“Any one who wears this watch has got to be like the title character in the Emperor’s New Clothes. Haldimann will have totally tricked them into thinking that this is some meaningful piece of art and a poetic testament to the ephemeral nature of time.”

The review goes on to label the timepiece a “cruel joke,” a “useless tragedy,” and “entirely futile.”

Clearly, the H9 struck a nerve. Despite acknowledging the watchmaker’s intentions to convey a message (“poetic testament”), the author does so only as a farce. It feels like someone despising Duchamp’s Fountain because it’s not a fountain… the point is left unexamined and ultimately lost. There is a complete unwillingness to engage this timepiece on any conceptual level. Instead, any attempt at art is quickly dismissed, and a bludgeoning over its lack of pragmatism ensues.

And that’s precisely why I find this review so fascinating: it almost feels like the divorce from practical function (time-telling) caused a circuit to short. It’s an explosive reaction, but in its explosiveness, it reveals something deeper.

Illusions of practicality

Why does the author refuse to engage with the watch? I believe it’s because it would require admitting that Haldimann’s H9 is a critique of mechanical watchmaking’s self-importance in the 21st century. Beyond questioning “how much watch do we need in order to be able to describe something as a watch?“, the H9 forces us to reckon with the spiritual crisis of utility, or the lack thereof.

To return to the question of horology’s value, there’s a an illusion that we, as a community of watch enthusiasts and collectors, all uphold. The illusion of practicality is a core aspect of how we justify the importance of timepieces in our community – if our interests don’t have functional value, how can we rationalize spending so much time and money on it?

The reviewer feels revulsion because the illusion of practicality is broken. We all tell each other watches don’t make functional sense. But when that narrative is fully realized in a watch (and a very well-made one no less), it is unnerving, like a secret has been exposed. It’s all laid bare in the H9, and the last thing watch collectors want to do is confront the nakedness of watches in the context of modernity.

I empathize with the discomfort. I felt it the first time I laid eyes on the timepiece, and I would be lying if I said I’d buy a watch without hands. It does feel ridiculous. But more ridiculous than buying another watch at the same price point? That’s difficult to answer.

But if we truly want to have more critical discussion in the community, then we will have to confront and examine the limits of our comfort zone.

Another day with the beast,

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