Watch For It
What ensues when luxury watchmakers take the Mickey out of them themselves
Family-run H. Moser & Cie, a tiny independent watchmaker from the northern Swiss town of Schaffhausen, started out as a 19th century purveyor of pocket watches and clock movements to the Russian tsars. In more recent times, it has cultivated quite a following among the horological cognoscenti for its understated, almost stoic, mechanical wristwatches that are beautifully handcrafted in precious metals such as gold or platinum.
Last May, it released an elegant, two-hand timepiece in a white gold, rounded rectangular case, topped by a glossy black dial. In other words, perfectly on point with the Moser aesthetic. But here comes the twist: The watch is fashioned to mimic an Apple Watch frozen in standby mode.
“In response to the cold electronics of connected watches, H. Moser & Cie. presents the soul of mechanical watchmaking,” the company declared in its press communique for the smartwatch parody it named Swiss Alp Watch Zzzz. “With a minimum power reserve of four days, fully rechargeable by hand, it couldn’t be further from the world of the smartwatch.”
Demand went off the charts. Eighteen pieces of the US$26,900 watch, produced in a limited run of 20, were sold to customers at a trade show even before the product had time to hit the shelves, according to a report by industry observer MarketWatch.com. Half were snapped up by Asians delighted at the poke at their smartphone-obsessed selves.
“I like them because they are light-hearted and good for a particular consumer who takes things less seriously,” says Su Jia Xian, a Singaporean collector and founder of online horological journal Watches By SJX. “Especially when it is a proper watch with a bit of humour, like the Moser.”
Indeed, the market for tickers that appeal to fun-seekers appears to be burgeoning. Over at RJ-Romain Jerome, craftsmen at its Geneva atelier have been busy churning out quirky creation after quirky creation, anointing the relatively young 13-year-old brand with a reputation for such timepieces. These may boast parts made of rusty steel salvaged from the Titanic, hardened lava from Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano, or moon dust, or dials that pay colourful tribute to pop culture icons such as Space Invaders, Super Mario Bros and Pac-Man.
Its latest additions are an homage to one of Japan’s most famous video games: Pokémon. Last year, it released the US$20,000 RJ X Pokémon (limited to 20 examples), which was followed this year by the even more audacious US$258,000 Tourbillon Pokémon. Offered as a unique piece, the latter is fitted with a tourbillon, a device invented in 1795 to counteract gravity, whose effect reduces a timepiece’s accuracy.
Here To Stay
Call it a response to the growing young-rich demographic populated by successful internet entrepreneurs, 20-something bankers and their ilk, who desire not only deeply personal objects, but also authenticity and craftsmanship. (Upmarket British carmaker Rolls-Royce perhaps described them best in a recent sales pitch as “elusive and defiant, the risk-takers and disruptors who break the rules and laugh in the face of convention”.)
It’s tempting to dismiss these creations as a fad, but that would be wrong. Throughout history, the wealthy have always yearned to be amused. Witness the automatons of yore, robots developed in tandem with the mechanical clock. Pierre Jaquet-Droz, a Swiss-born watchmaker from the late 18th century who still has a watch brand under his name, made the most elaborate ones. The Writer, for example, is a doll that can write any text custom-coded on a wheel using a goose feather that it inks periodically. Special details include a flick of the wrist to prevent ink from spilling and eyes that follow the text as it is written.
So how far can watchmakers push the boundaries of playfulness? They are, after all, custodians of a storied, historical craft. It seems the market is open to breaking all borders, save one: Price. As Su says, what people will stomach “relates more to price than the watch itself. Beyond a certain price, it becomes hard to swallow the silliness”.