vin­tage vs In­no­va­tion

Does an in­dus­try ob­sessed with the past have a place in the future?

Esquire (Singapore) - - Contents -

The clash of old and new.

I used to be 100 per­cent sold on the premise that lux­ury me­chan­i­cal watches will al­ways be around. Now I’m not so sure be­cause some things are not adding up right. See, this is 2018. We’re way past the point where peo­ple need to be told the dif­fer­ences between au­to­matic and man­ual-wind­ing, what is a chronograph, or why wear a me­chan­i­cal watch at all when time is lit­er­ally ev­ery­where around us.

Yes, there’d been some good years, some crazy years, then there were some lean years, and fi­nally the great cri­sis that saw pock­ets of the in­dus­try dis­ap­pear­ing for good. These days, per­haps for fear of walk­ing into their own traps or get­ting blind­sided by world events—God only knows how un­sta­ble the global econ­omy is right now—or see­ing re­cent his­tory re­peat it­self, lux­ury watch brands seem to have will­ingly given up their mojo. What is this? The prover­bial seven years of famine, haute hor­logerie edi­tion?

Look at what’s been pre­sented at the last five Basel and Geneva watch fairs. Seven out of ev­ery 10 nov­el­ties are some kind of throw­back to a his­toric mile­stone of the brand or a mod­ern in­ter­pre­ta­tion of some his­toric time­piece or other. Vin­tage-in­spired is the lat­est buzz­word in the way that grande com­pli­ca­tion, in-house man­u­fac­tured, crafts­man­ship and be­spoke had once been. The dif­fer­ence, how­ever, is that ideals such as grande com­pli­ca­tion, in-house man­u­fac­tured, crafts­man­ship and be­spoke were ex­actly that—ideals. They were about mak­ing bet­ter watches.

But vin­tage-in­spired isn’t. It refers merely to a style of aes­thet­ics rooted in the past; it has noth­ing to do with qual­ity or per­for­mance. If any­thing it’s a re­gres­sion; al­though thank­fully, brands do make it a point to up­grade their vin­tage-in­spired pieces with mod­ern ma­te­ri­als and tech­niques. Watch crys­tals, for in­stance, are of­ten made of sap­phire crys­tal in­stead of Plex­i­glas, cases are made wa­ter­proof, and move­ments are usu­ally con­tem­po­rary cal­i­bres with bet­ter pre­ci­sion—which begs the ques­tion: what is the point, then, of vin­tage-in­spired watches that are not his­tor­i­cally ac­cu­rate?

Still, vin­tage-in­spired sells. Peo­ple just keep buy­ing them. And that’s why brands keep mak­ing them. En­cour­aged by the world­wide vin­tage fash­ion redux as well as the grow­ing promi­nence of lux­ury watch auc­tions, neo-vin­tage time­pieces have never been more pop­u­lar than now. Brands at ev­ery level of the mar­ket are pur­su­ing consumers with this same strat­egy. Those with cen­turies of his­tory have lots to mine—and they don’t hold back. Those with­out much his­tory to speak of find ways to bridge them­selves with a land­mark event; the Sec­ond World War is a pop­u­lar one.

The ap­peal is real of course, there’s lit­tle doubt about that. Vin­tage is beau­ti­ful. You only need to scroll through the online sales cat­a­logue of lux­ury watch auc­tions to start get­ting hooked. It only be­comes a prob­lem when brands get so caught up in the vin­tage on­slaught that they ne­glect other im­por­tant ar­eas of watch­mak­ing, such as R&D. Once the back­bone of the me­chan­i­cal watch in­dus­try, re­search and de­vel­op­ment today feels like a van­ity project more than any­thing else. In­deed, the watch­mak­ing in­dus­try was built on science and tech­nol­ogy. Not so much any­more.

Man­u­fac­tures have fi­nite amounts of time, money, man­power and pro­duc­tion ca­pac­ity. The more a man­u­fac­ture de­votes it­self to pro­duc­ing neo-vin­tage watches, the less likely it is to push on­ward with new tech­ni­cal in­no­va­tion. Tech­ni­cally in­no­va­tive watches are not only more com­plex to pro­duce; they are also more ex­pen­sive and hence more dif­fi­cult to sell. Neo-vin­tage watches on the other hand are com­par­a­tively in­ex­pen­sive to pro­duce and have a wide and long-last­ing ap­peal. If you’re the CEO of a watch brand, what would you do?

Yet there isn’t a com­plete dearth of R&D and in­no­va­tion. A few brands con­tinue to fight the good fight. Very briefly, sparks of tech­ni­cal cre­ativ­ity emerged from the likes of Zenith with its Zenith os­cil­la­tor de­liv­ered in the rev­o­lu­tion­ary Defy Lab; Aude­mars Piguet has made R&D a core com­pe­tency as it un­veiled the new RD#2 ul­tra­thin per­pet­ual cal­en­dar; Pi­aget too presses on with mind-blow­ing ul­tra­thin con­cepts; Hublot pushes out a stun­ning all-red ce­ramic Big Bang; Rolex con­sis­tently in­tro­duces im­prove­ments to its watches; Patek Philippe has its Ad­vanced Re­search pieces; Bul­gari pulls no punches in pro­duc­ing ul­tra­thin grande com­pli­ca­tions; Pan­erai worked on novel and use­ful tech­ni­cal ad­vance­ments like BMG Tech and po­larised crys­tal. These are all fan­tas­tic cre­ations but even col­lec­tively they’re just a blip on the five-bil­lion-dol­lar lux­ury watch­mak­ing in­dus­try.

Why is the past so se­duc­tive to the mod­ern watch afi­cionado? Is the rise of vin­tage-in­spired time­pieces killing in­no­va­tion? There are many ways to look at it. Even lead­ing chief ex­ec­u­tives are di­vided on the is­sue. We speak to seven of the most prom­i­nent CEOs in the in­dus­try to mine their thoughts.

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