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Baubles of the Meritocracy

I have a modest collection of comparatively modest mechanical timepieces, having been fascinated by them since childhood, when, at that early age, my interest in them prompted me to reflect upon the goods of craftsmanship, the wastefulness of the disposability/planned obsolescence culture, and the impermanence of material things generally. Yes, I did think about this stuff in elementary school. Yes, I was a weird kid, something impressed upon me by my peers, and ratified by the adults in my world, who occasionally remarked that I was growing up before my time. Hence, my interest in this story about a $300,000 watch that doesn't tell time, and therefore isn't really a watch.

What’s most impressive about the Day&Night is its complexity, given its absolute uselessness. The watch features two tourbillons — devices that overcome the ill effects of earth’s gravity on a watch’s accuracy — connected by a differential mechanism. Instead of hands, the watch has a “contemplative tourbillon operation whereby the ‘Day’ tourbillon operates for 12 hours to symbolize working life, while the ‘Night’ tourbillon takes over afterward to represent an individual’s private time.”

Mechanical watchmaking underwent a crisis during the Seventies, along with much else in Western culture, owing to the combination of economic weakness and the onslaught of inexpensive quartz timepieces from Japan. The renaissance of the industry began in the mid-Eighties, when rising affluence among the nouveau riches prompted them to seek out objects of distinction; as strange as it might sound to the ears of those for whom this is all rubbish, what better way - among others - to distinguish oneself than to wear a watch that isn't disposable? Among men, at least, these things can be of comparable importance to the cut of a suit, the choice of a tie, etc. As the economic developments of the past generation have concentrated increasing percentages of national incomes in the hands of the elites of the New Economy, watchmakers have devoted increasing efforts to creating technically and aesthetically fascinating baubles, that the 'discerning' tastes of such customers might be stimulated and satisfied. In such an environment, the creation of a non-watch watch was almost inevitable, and Romain Jerome was first to market with such a trifle, which sold out in less than 48 hours. Apparently, the company's chief executive knows his clientele:

The company’s chief executive, Yvan Arpa, cited statistical studies to explain how the watch better reflects the time-philosophy of today’s wealthy.

“When you ask people what is the ultimate luxury, 80 percent answer ‘time’. Then when you look at other studies, 67 percent don’t look at their watch to tell what time it is,” he told Reuters.

He added that anyone can buy a watch that tells time — only a truly discerning customer can buy one that doesn’t.

Insert every trope concerning decadence, shark-jumping, excessive wealth, and so forth, that comes to mind. The owners of these mechanisms aren't suckers - they know exactly what they're buying and why; what this episode conveys is that, in a sense, such mundane considerations as telling time are for the little people. The "time-philosophy" of today's wealthy - presumably the Davos set - really does have a sociology, namely, that such people do not tell time, but like the sun, set times and seasons for others. Romain Jerome's creation should not be mocked, though the impulse is well-nigh irresistible, but praised, for existing at all - as the symbol of these latter-day Sun Kings.

Comments (7)

If you are interested in the craftsmanship involved in watch-making, you really should read Elizabeth Goudge's novel _The Dean's Watch_. As I have said before, she isn't a great novelist, but she is a good novelist, and this is one of (in my opinion) her two best novels. One of the main characters is a 19th century watchmaker. I think you might like the book.

I'll have to look into that. I probably would enjoy it.

I love old cuckcoo clocks, especially from Switzerland. A lot can be said about one's "time-philosophy". Could the fact that the Emergency Departments of children's hospitals are always full at certain times and always empty at other times tell us anything? I think so.

One of the best pieces of advice I ever heard from the pulpit was from Fr. Pat Reardon: no one, priest or parishioner, should wear a watch to Liturgy. That is the one place where time definitely should not matter.

That is wise counsel, though I've not quite been able to observe it myself; having worn watches for nearly 30 years (I'm 34), I feel, when not wearing one, as though I've inadvertently left the house sans pants. I can, however, count on two hands the number of times I've glanced at a watch during Liturgy, in nine years' worth of Divine Services.

Now, electronic alarm watches and cell phones - let me just say that the Archpriest of our parish has stopped the Liturgy more than once to rebuke parishoners for leaving the accursed things on.

"I can, however, count on two hands the number of times I've glanced at a watch during Liturgy, in nine years' worth of Divine Services."

True enough for me as well. I don't wear a watch anymore, but during services I almost never find myself thinking about the time. Back when I did wear one, I'd leave it in the car during services.

I can't take that advice about leaving a watch off, because I'm the organist. :-) I have to start the prelude at such-and-such a time just before the service.

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