Smartwatches, watches and the significance of wrist luxury
Will smartwatches replace the traditional watches?
Every now and then I get asked this same old BEEP.
It is on a par with “why spending so much in a Rolex when the primary function of a watch is to keep time and my Timex does it”.
Basically, both assertions seem perfectly logical, but are instead based on a false premise.
The premise is that watches — and I say, traditional watches — are just an expression of a function, while they are not.
This might sound strange, but even a small historical research would show it otherwise. Through the years, watches have always represented an object of distinction, which had primarily a social function as a status symbol.
I examine in much more detail this evolution in my book, The Watch Manual (link in bio) but I would like to show you the reason why I am stating this counterintuitive assertion.
Let’s have a look at the photo on top. It shows a formal portrait of a gentleman, of around 1750. What do you notice?
A watch placed on the table. Back then, nobles wanted to appear in portraits with their most prized possessions and objects. The portrait had the same social function of the watch: it determined status.
Now, let’s have a look at one of the typical watches of the 1700s.
This is a repeater pocket watch. This means it chimes, as well as it shows the hours.
The dial, in contrast, is almost plain. But look at the case and the movement.
Watches were a way to display wealth and power. As horology progressed, the effort to reach this “status object” became easier, as the object was more and more affordable.
The first watches were jewelry, pure and simple. Then they started to “democratize”. Gold became silver, and silver became argentan — an alloy known as “white copper” which looked like silver but wasn’t — and then steel and after that base metal with a chrome plating. Form slowly ceded to function, as the watch became more accessible to everyone for its basic function: telling time. But even if this is true, high-end and luxury watches still exist, and they continue to function in the same way as before: demonstrating that you have something that is above and beyond its function.
That is, a luxury item.
Exactly for the same reason why everyone wants to drive a Rolls Royce more than a Honda.
So, watches are just a medium to express something about you. And they do it through a useful function — keeping time.
Incidentally, smartwatches have a similar function: they express something about you and your character. Especially the fact that you are up-to-date and connected.
Watches, and smartwatches, make a statement. And they do it through a function.
When you strap something like this to your wrist, you make much more than wearing something that tells you the time.
In practice, people continues to wonder if there is still a need for mechanical watches. The answer is that there isn’t, but there is no real need for a Rolls Royce as well — and there still is a market for both a Rolls and a Tesla.