Why every brand is obsessed with its heritage, and how this often misused virtue can turn into a comedy.
Centuries of experience, some special know-how in traditional fine crafts, heritage that really matters, – almost every watch brand tends to present its novelties in this expressions. The audience reacts with polite smiles or sarcastic eye-rolling, and then both sides proceed to what really matters – seeing the looks and hearing the specs. Why should we get this ceremonial bla-bla, that seems to be written by the same tale-teller for the whole industry? Who says ‘ancient’ is a synonym to ‘top class’? And if the arcane watchmaking knowledge can be obtained only by working for decades under one banner, does it mean Switzerland has never seen skilled staff moving from one employer to another?
We all know, that in reality there were different-level timepieces produced in any era, not only those crazy decorated national treasures accompanying the royalty on their glamorous hunting grounds. And while there’s some obvious extra respect for being in business since before the French Revolution – hello, Vacheron Constantin – common sense tells us, that technical excellence depends only on the current guys’ proficiency. A watchmaker working outside a 300-year company doesn’t have to once again figure out how to put a screw to a plate. But hold on your ‘calm down, man, it’s just plain marketing’ verdict for a second. Let’s look beyond the obvious, and try noticing an interesting paradox.
Both parties are quite comfortable with such storytelling, despite these smoke and mirrors being virtually unnecessary for the actual sales. Enthusiasts can and will learn about the real brand’s background with a couple of google links. The so-called emotional buyers, who fall in love with a certain watch without any research on the subject, are interested in a piece rather than a brand, and are usually satisfied with just the Swiss made trademark. So who is to be enchanted by this tales of old and why the intention to tell them is so irresistible? The only logical answer would be – everybody.
As long as mechanical watchmaking serves mostly aesthetic, non-utilitarian purposes, the stories of amazing antique artisanship kept intact somewhere in the Jura mountains can be viewed as a part of consumers’ tradition rather than the awkward marketing technique. When you come to see opera, you pretty much get the same treatment (binoculars, evening dresses, the old-fashioned curtain) as ladies and gents of the eras long gone. And the majority of fine watches do have the same ‘time machine’ mentality. After all, such items were considered equally precious and sophisticated in any day and age. So in a way, brands don’t lie, they’re just trying to provide us with the most romantic experience possible without revealing some down-to-earth facts.
Trying too hard, however could lead to hilarious elephant-in-the-room situations. Take Jaquet Droz, who's stunningly decorated dress watches are literally in a class of its own. After several pages of text regarding the life and work of Jaquet Droz the man, the official webpage goes straight to 2000, when ‘Montres Jaquet Droz was acquired by the Swatch Group’. That’s like 200 years gap! Ironically, this revival wasn’t the first, for the brand has been active through the most part of the XX century. The thing is, it produced average-priced watches with nothing ‘artful’ about them. So the Swatch era sees itself more like a heir to the 1700s glory. A bit similar to rebooting Spiderman in the world superhero blockbusters, don’t you think?
Sometimes, however, such revivals result in totally honest, yet slightly straightforward approach of Ferdinand Berthoud brand. ‘Tradition’ goes here by its true name – inspiration. Chopard’s co-owner Karl-Friedrich Scheufele loved the works of the great French watchmaker, wanted to integrate his trademark aesthetics into wristwatches, bought the name, started production, and now not only sells an extra bunch of super hi-end pieces, but helps the industry to remember its historical heroes. Of course every rule has its exceptions and some renowned brands like Richard Mille, Hublot, Urwerk, MB&F manage to succeed without playing the heritage card at all. Their communication ideas simply take the opposite route involving all things modern and avant-garde. This is a story of never-before seen materials, bold colors, and aggressive designs. However the storytelling function works basically the same. And again, it’s more pleasing and satisfying to believe it. Seems like story-free watches do not exist in luxury segment, and sooner or later we’d have to embrace this fact. Try thinking of them like people: when a buddy tells you a story, is it more important that it’d be truthful than exciting?
Jul. 20, 2020