When watches lost functional value, the watch community was born

“Watches don’t have functional value anymore.” It’s a simple, seemingly self-evident, and common narrative in the watch community. It’s also a bit of a lamentation with strong nostalgic tones to a time when watches had greater “everyday importance”. I don’t want to dive too deep into the meaning of the narrative. Rather, I want to posit an overlooked paradox of the “loss of functional value” narrative: the watch community, as a passionate and thriving group of hobbyists, would never be in this position today if watches did have functional value.

In other words, the death of functional value liberated the watch.

The makeup of “Everyday Life”

First, let’s probe this idea of “everyday life” and examine the antagonism between work and leisure in so-called “everyday life”. Both are fundamental to seeing how losing functional value leads to the passion we have for watches.

In modern industrial civilization, we’re generally accustomed to divide our everyday life into three broad domains: work, family, and leisure. Of course, these are not neatly separated segments; they all overlap to a high degree, i.e. we work for the family’s wellbeing and we find leisure in family strolls. Yet, each domain generally constitutes its own imperative – we’re socially conditioned to need some amount of work, family, and leisure.

These domains don’t just exist on the level of individuals, but across families, communities, and nations too. Our work lives, family lives, leisure lives all spill out in everyday life and influence on another, creating virtuous and vicious cycles.

So what’s this antagonism between leisure and work? And how does it bear any relation to the watch community? From everyday work and family life, leisure appears as a break, the rupture of joy, relaxation, and freedom in an otherwise necessity- and responsibility-driven world. It is purely “fun” and we expect leisure to recharge our batteries for the other domains of everyday life. But, as the French philosopher Henri Lefebvre points out in The Critique of Everyday Life (highly influential to my thinking in this article), work and leisure create a vicious cycle:

“We work to earn our leisure, and leisure has only one meaning: to get away from work.”

And this is where the watch community comes into play.

Finding joy in watches

When the watch community laments the loss of “functional value” in mechanical timepieces, it is really bemoaning how watches have been divorced from everyday necessity. It elevates the necessity and responsibility of work and family life, and pushes the domain of leisure to a disparaged position.

But from my perspective, it is only in the divorce from necessity and responsibility that watches can become the ultimate source of joy to the collector and enthusiast. In this regard, it makes a lot of sense when I hear collectors and enthusiasts jokingly (but not really) say, “I work for watches.” You can understand this as, “I work for leisure”… just like others who “work for vacations” or “work for my hobbies.”

And this is the point – the nostalgia or lamentation over the loss of functional value has no grounding in reality. If we were issued watches at work for use in our everyday labor, say to time the manufacturing of a plastic part or the baking of bread, we would not return home and gaze into its mechanical majesty. We would look to escape it, and find rejuvenation in things that have no association with work. In practice, the nostalgic watch collector and enthusiast would probably be appalled by the monotony of functional necessity and “value.”

The fact that timepieces have no functional role in our work and family lives is the condition for us to find joy in horology as leisure. So next time you hear the grievous “watches don’t have any functional value”, say hallelujah and keep enjoying, leisurely.

Another day with the beast,

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