There is nothing like buying, owning and enjoying watches for inducing consumerist fervour in men. Perhaps the love of cars comes close; but, in watches we find something that enables us to tell the world who we think we are. Of course some disagree with this sentiment, and in a special way disagreement with it is also telling the world who you think you are. For example, we all like to feel that we are an individual, unique entity; someone with taste and discretion; someone who makes good choices; dare I say: someone stylish? But, how can we express this in the world? How can we don a marker for all to see?
Well, of course, it is said with some justification that “clothes maketh the man” and I believe that a high quality watch is very much a part of that. It is jewellery for men and, for many men, it represents 100% of their interest in jewellery. Invariably it falls to this single purchase to settle the matter once and for all. However, watches are also a symbol. Not for nothing has the watch become the modern engagement gift given to a man. The lady gets a ring and the gentleman gains a watch. That watch prices can challenge even those of diamonds, for their stratospheric potential in bringing your bank manager out in hives and heaving fits, then this comparison is sometimes a financial one as well. The symbolism of a watch gifted is ripe and often used as the marker of some form of achievement or maturity. For example Army divers get given a CWC watch on completion of training (although I am told they mostly wear Citizens), Air Force fighter pilots are gifted a Gshock, and I saw many students gifted a watch by their parents on University graduation day. Movies follow this meme very closely. We all know Bond loves his watches, he’s a brutish gadget man of the highest degree, but note that he is always gifted his superwatch by Q. Similarly, Will Smith was gifted his Hamilton in Men in Black by his employer upon completion of selection. We also see lavish watch shots in movies such as the new Kingsmen, which even in the advert had a Bremont watch placement. No doubt the hero is given this watch at the moment he completes his internship and becomes one of the movie’s namesake secret agents. The watch is a select and special gift, limited in numbers, and marks the owner out.
Indeed, it’s when you see such symbolism in the products of Hollywood that you have to ask if you are being manipulated? A movie character wearing a brand of watch is a form of (fictional) celebrity endorsement and if the hero is not real, one might wake up and wonder if our perception of ourselves is real either and if we are thereby all being taken for a ride by the watch industry? Are prices and their price hiking a method of inducing fake scarcity? For example of this happening in other industries, take diamonds. Diamonds are not actually rare at all and a huge self-organising market carefully keeps the prices high. Watches are not rare either. There is a dazzling amount of choice to be had; more than can perhaps be found with any other consumer item. This directly leads to two basic attitudes when it comes to watches, what I call the Price and Quality points-of-view:
- Those who only need to tell the time and don’t care too much about how this is achieved. This view wants as to pay as little as possible for the product that does the job.
- Those who find the design, engineering and precision of watches to be fascinating. This view wants to have a product of as highest quality as possible.
Watch manufacturers use the relationship between these two to control watch prices.
To explain, any business starts as either a bespoke or a volume operation. As each cycle of the business comes around the board will often set the balance of the company’s finances (the rate at which money goes in and out) in such a way that the two values of Quality and Price go up. It has to happen slowly because if the Price hikes overnight, no matter the Quality of the product, sales will decrease as the customer will be able to buy what it perceives as the same Quality product for less elsewhere. This relationship works interdependently. However, the power of a brand (something that can be endorsed) is that it introduces Stickiness into this equation, which is simply the measurement of how likely the customer is to go elsewhere when Prices rise (or indeed Quality falls). Eventually, over a long enough period and with very careful management, the Price of the product will rise high above its normal relationship to the Quality. This happens mainly because the client actively enjoys the product so much that he defines himself through the relationship to it. He is “stuck”. The Price can then rise to almost any level because the Quality is perceived to be in relation. Combined with a “limited supply” the price will rise even faster and stay high (a la diamonds).
The upshot is that the high-end brands build their way to the top and stay there by inducing the customer to be a sticky and loyal brand advocate. For watch manufactures like Rolex and Patek Phillippe, this has now grown out of all relation to reality. Their stickiness is so high that they can effectively charge whatever they like for their product and people will still pay it as they have gained a legendary perceived reputation for quality. A perceived reputation mark you. With all that top-end profit they can, of course, actually make a quality product, but you have to ask yourself how much headroom there is in the price?
This all flashed through my mind when I looked at my Sales Director’s new Rolex Submariner (that and the feeling that he was a git). Surely nothing else he could have purchased, no suit (who knows a good suit these days?), no new shoes (Churches are ubiquitous), nothing else could have raised his personal style higher than a watch purchase.
“Bloody hell!” I said, “When did you get that?”
“Well,” he smiled, “when I found out how good a year we had”.
I told you, symbolism and the perception of quality. Neatly tied together in a bow by the marketing machine of Rolex and priced to be scarce.
I hate all that. I hate the feeling of manipulation that comes with the high marques. Indeed for me I am interested in only the point where quality and price are at the perfect balance. This I call the Golden Mean; the perfect point where you are going to get a higher quality product, but pay the smallest headroom for the intangibles; the terroir of the brand. I want all the value to be in the design and build of the watch, not in the gimmicks of putting it on James Bond’s wrist, nor in the marketing manipulation of my perceptions. Particularly by Hollywood, although sportsman endorsements are just as galling.
I want to do business with the Young Turks, these are the up and coming horologists who love what they do, who love the art in a watch and who are refreshingly small and thus cutting out the marketing dollar. It is a landscape with far more choice and the offer of a more personal relationship with the manufacturer not his marketing department. These are much more interesting foothills to be in and looking up, the peak of the mountain, with its small number of brands clutching perilously to the outcroppings at the top and clambering over each other for the flag, is not as far away as it appears. It’s all a trick of perception.
With this feeling of getting more of what you pay for, we turn to the review.