Travelators are wonderful things. They turn the longest, dullest airport concourses into meditations on human potential. There you are, merely strolling, yet effortlessly gliding past all the losers who opted for the floor. If only life was like a travelator, with its rigged ratio of energy to speed.
I had this thought slidewalking through Geneva airport recently. On either side of the travelator, the adverts are all for the same thing: watches. Diamond-studded ones for women, performance-enhancing ones for men (Mainly they’re for men).
Here, in the private banking capital of the world, the walls are trying to seduce the masters of the universe. The place is a blur of bezels. There are watches with so many dials within dials they’re almost psychedelic. Others are for endurance, with casings of thick titanium to protect against accidental scratching under tank tracks. They have names like Quantum Gravity and Grand Tourbillon Mysterieuses – a language of alpha-male mysticism. Wear one of these timepieces, the adverts say, and you’ll feel like you’re striding through life on, well, a travelator.
But everyone knows that no one needs a watch anymore. You know what the time is, all the time. It’s right there, on your computer or on your phone, and you spend most of the day staring at one or the other. We live in manic times, you may argue, and every second counts. But does Audemars Piguet’s £500,000 Jules Audemars Grande Complication tell the time any better than a £20 Casio from Asda? No. It’s not that the people who buy these watches simply can’t bear a skipped microsecond. What they’re saying is this: my time is more important than your time.
Fewer and fewer people under the age 40 appear to bother with watches anymore. Yet, while sales of luxury Swiss models have been hit by the recession, they are steadily going up. As the watch becomes technologically redundant, its cachet as a luxury item is rising. Like newspapers peddling ever-scarier headlines, it is having to work harder to justify its existence. And so watches are retracting into an arcane culture designed to exclude the uninitiated. They’ve become “chronometers”. They are loaded up with “complications” – horology-speak for anything not simply to do with telling the time. The more technobabble, the more expensive the watch. And there is no upper limit: you can spend millions for a Louis Moinet model containing a piece of meteorite from Mars.
There is an old cliché that Swiss architects and designers can only express themselves through details, that grand creative gestures are simply out of character. Watchmaking takes that to extremes. At the same time, however, there is an excessiveness to many of these watches that is uncharacteristic. Switzerland was a bastion of modernism.
Think of Le Corbusier and the designer Max Bill, or of the typeface Helvetica . This is a puritanical tradition. To dogmatic modernists, an object was supposed to express its function and no more. But the luxury watch takes functionality to its absurd limit. This is modernism Mach 2 – a world of instruments screaming ludicrous potential.
Breitling, for instance, makes chronometers for men who wish they were pilots or astronauts. Its Cosmonaute Navitimer measures time in fifths of a second and looks like a ruler seen through a kaleidoscope. Under the crystal of cambered sapphire it’s just a fog of numbers – a layer of technical precision that’s meant to be reassuring but I find as panic-inducing as a maths exam in a nightmare. No doubt some of their owners really are pilots, if only part-timers. But most are presumably stockbrokers in second-floor offices.
The research, precision and perhaps even genius that go into these instruments far exceeds our ability to use them. They’re the modern equivalent of medieval Qur’ans written with a horsehair and barely legible to the naked eye. “Professional” watches offer an illusion of proficiency, but everyone knows you choose the one that you think looks the best. This is function as decorative veneer.
There’s no denying, however, that watch culture can be extremely seductive. I admit I used to covet the Panerai Luminor, which I spotted one day floating in the black space of a glossy magazine ad. Then I saw one in a shop window and realised it was bigger than the clock around Flava Flav’s neck. You’d have to wear it on your thigh for it to look in proportion. Perhaps it was just a case of cultural elitism failing to translate. Think of Dan Ackroyd in Trading Places, trying to explain how valuable his Swiss watch is to a guy in a pawn shop, and always getting the same reply: “In Philadelphia,” the guy says, “it’s worth 50 bucks.”
Sales of luxury watches may still be going up, but in a sense they are analogue’s last gasp. They are engineering’s last shot at high culture – a multibillion pound argument that there is no poetry in the simple digital readout. More than that, they perpetuate the romantic notion that man is a species in exquisite control.