Once upon a time, the watch industry based its competitiveness on technological prowess. Innovations in accuracy, reliability, shock resistance, water resistance, etc. elevated brands to the top of the sales charts. Those days are gone. While enthusiasts may dwell on small details, when you take the ten thousand foot view modern mechanical watches are pretty much of a muchness. What matters now? New watch heritage! Luke Benedictus at timeandtidewatches.com nails it . . .
Heritage has become a very big deal in watchmaking. This is partly because laying claim to a long history gives a brand a reassuring sense of provenance and authenticity. This deepens the value perception while adding an extra sprinkle of prestige. As a handy bonus, heritage also gives a brand a narrative to tap into that can be retold in exhaustive detail by the marketing team.
There’s a lot to unpack there. Start with this . . .
A brand is psychological shorthand. Readers of this site and its pimping peers know what a watch’s power reserve means, what makes Seiko’s Spring Drive the bomb and why the Rolex Milgauss’ magnetic resistance can’t hold a candle to any modern OMEGA. Most watch buyers don’t know, don’t care and don’t care to know.
For the majority of the gen pop, watch branding is a simple “this equals that” equation. Panerai = Italian. Rolex = status. Seiko = affordable reliability. G-SHOCK = tough. OMEGA = Swiss quality.
As a general rule of thumb, the tighter the watch brand, the less confusing the unique selling point, the more powerful the brand. That’s because watch buyers seek safety and recoil from overchoice (a.k.a., analysis paralysis).
Not to belabor the point (much), watch heritage is all about reassurance. The average buyer’s horological aspirations are always tempered by their desire not to make a mistake. In other words, buyer’s remorse is the shadow hanging over the entire watch industry. Indeed every consumer industry. Especially at the mid- to high-end.
Heritage is the ultimate expression of safety. Ipso facto. A watch brand with a long heritage has been making timepieces a long time. They must know what they’re doing! They must be good! Otherwise they wouldn’t still be selling watches, right? Never mind whether or not the heritage is “real.” Yes, there is that . . .
You can round down to zero the percentage of buyers who know that a watchmaker claiming an illustrious heritage switched owners, management, manufacturing and even countries (e.g., BALL) or was resurrected from the dead in a bid to [re]claim someone else’s heritage (e.g., DOXA). And yet, the number of watchmakers claiming a “noble” heritage is legion.
There’s another level of faux heritage below products produced by watchmakers touting their corporate link to a distant [not to say dubious] past, when quartz was something rockhounds collected and a “smart watch” referred to a timepiece that looked stylish. We’re talking about modern recreations of “historic” timepieces.
As you know, these horological reboots are all the rage – from the $169 Timex Marlin to the $53,100 Audemars Piguet [Re]master01 Selfwinding Chronograph. The success of these retro watches is often down to the watch’s heritage rather than the makers’. Enthusiasts may beg to differ, but the OMEGA Moonwatch is the watch worn on the moon first, an OMEGA second.
“Nostalgia remains the dominant source of inspiration for new watches,” Mr. Benedictus opines, acknowledging the inescapable fact that what’s old is new. And why not? Talk about branding! Not only are watchmakers who somehow survived the quartz crisis (now facing the smart watch crisis) selling their heritage, their selling their heritage. If you know what I mean.
Bonus! A faux old new watch like the $2150 Longines Heritage Military (above) is right-sized for modern tastes. It doesn’t rust, break, lose time or die underwater. In fact, the LHM comes complete with a manufacturer’s warranty. What better way to buy “real” heritage?
You can buy a thoroughly modern watch from a maker who spends zero time or energy marketing their past. You couldn’t pay me to wear a Carnegie deli-thick watch by Richard Mille (the maestro’s RM069 Erotic Tourbillon above), but at least the Swiss tackometer maker looks forwards, rather than backwards at their past (est. 1999).
Oh wait. Tourbillon, invented in 1795. Anyway, how much heritage does a watchmaker need, given that the Internet is busy rendering everything older than five years hopelessly outdated? A fact that Mr. Benedictus kinda sorta misses.
Montblanc, for example, have some great watches, but they’re a relative newcomer having only started making them in 1997. From the outside at least, Montblanc’s decision to acquire the Minerva watch factory that was established in 1858, seemed like a calculated move to get a veneer of historical legitimacy.
Hello? DVD’s hit the streets in 1997, as did the Toyota Prius. The New York Times (a newspaper) printed its first color photo that same year. I reckon a watchmaker born in 1997 could make a credible heritage play – just as a watch design dating to ’97 could legitimately be called nostalgic. After all, an automobile manufactured in 2001 now qualifies as “vintage.”
I’m not saying it’s wrong to buy a watch based on the manufacturer’s heritage (not that the market gives a tinker’s damn what I think). But I am saying that the heritage play is indicative of the mechanical watch industry’s unacknowledged and yes as-yet-unrealized death throes.
When a watch brand is all about heritage, well, let’s just say there are only so many people who will buy a restomod Corvette. At any price. More to the point, at some point, everyone who wants one will have one. In short, Apple Watch si, Tissot no.