Revisiting one of my posts from late last year, Finding Our Critical Voices on Instagram, I want to rekindle this idea of criticism, or critical writing, about watches. These thoughts are inspired by recent conversations on Are watches really art? Generally, that article was well received by watch enthusiasts, but one of its core ideas – the watch industry lacks the valuable criticism that art has – needs to be fleshed out.
Here is my case for why the watch community needs more critical writing.
First, we need to understand the predominant way of writing about watches. In terms of the topics covered by watch writing, there is a lot of diversity. We have deep dives in brands, articles on horological history, sit-down’s with collectors, interviews with executives, industry news, visits to the manufacturer, and of course, watch reviews. But across all the different types of watch content, the style of writing stays quite constant. The modus operandi is “descriptive writing.”
In this style of writing, an author strives to provide an as-objective-as-possible representation of the subject, whether it be a watch or manufacturer visit. The author’s voice and personality is often quiet, operating only in the background with particular word choice and rhythm.
You might be thinking, what’s wrong with objective writing? Isn’t objectivity a good thing?
Indeed, objective, descriptive writing is necessary. We’ll never be able to see every single watch in person. An accurate, detailed description is needed so that we all have the same point of reference. It also captures what images cannot – the story or historical context of the watch. Overall, descriptive writing is the bedrock on which the watch community is built.
But purely descriptive writing can only take us so far. Enter: evaluative writing.
Evaluative writing happens in small doses where the author’s voice pops up. In its most common form, evaluative writing is used to convey the author’s impressions – this formulates itself as an author’s thoughts on “wrist presence,” or if a timepiece “achieved its ambition”. I would say, this type of writing plays a significant structural role, since it’s often used as a technique to conclude and wrap up articles. Due to this, evaluative writing in the watch industry comes across as short and hasty – a quick, literary outro.
So what’s the big deal?
When descriptive and surface-level evaluative writing are the predominant forms, we miss out on how to analyze and think critically about watches, the watch industry, and horological history. We miss out on analytical depth.
This is what critical writing hopes to fix. Without critical writing, the only measure of watches is money. More than just negative quips and unfavorable opinions, criticism pushes both the writer and the reader to see beyond the material object. It’s a way of formulating arguments for or against something that are grounded in observations and research. If descriptive writing provides a sense of what the object is, critical writing strives to make a case for what the object means.
It ventures to see the bigger picture and ask even bigger questions. It dares to ask why and how.
Many collectors complain about the superficiality of the watch world – it’s all wrist-pics and emojis – and it often feels like Groundhog Day on Instagram. If it weren’t for the social in social media, many of us would’ve stopped coming for the media ages ago. But this isn’t just an “Instagram” problem – it’s a much bigger issue that pervades all watch content online.
How do we expect consumer and collector knowledge to grow when we struggle to find analytical content? Is the pinnacle of watch knowledge memorizing a bunch of reference numbers? I hope not.
On rare occasions, we do get glimpses of critical tones in evaluative writing. It would be unfair of me to say there is zero critical or analytical thought in watch publications. SJX adds candid input more often than many of his peers, but again, this usually consists of only a sentence or two and is buried in the body of the article. The elephant in the room is, of course, the dependency on advertising revenue for industry publications. Descriptive writing doesn’t bite the hand that feeds.
Critical writing on watches isn’t just about content diversity. It’s about equipping the community with tools to think more analytically about our passion.
Another day with the beast,
I couldn’t agree more. But I will.
The economics of mainstream watch journalism are fundamentally corrupt. Just as they were in the automotive and firearms verticals when I started The Truth About Cars and The Truth About Guns.
The publications in these fields were so deep in the pockets of the manufacturers they risked lint suffocation.
The Internet offered the chance to publish actual analytical content. Those of us motivated by something other than greed grabbed the chance with both hands.
I started both of those sites without regard to commercial considerations. They eventually achieved profitability because there was a hunger for something other than obsequious pap.
A year ago August I launched The Truth About Watches. It remains a relatively small website (50k uniques per month) and I couldn’t care less. Just like your website, TTAW taps into a profound need for honesty, integrity and passion.
The industry’s reaction to our analytical content is the same as it was for my previous websites – ranging from outright hostility (Eberhard) to unqualified support (MeisterSinger).
As one of your previous articles pointed out, haughty arrogance is pervasive amongst the big watch brands. But it will change. For one simple reason: it has to. Your website, mine and others are agents of change. Because we care.