Wednesday, April 22, 2009
Tick tock bye-bye watch
Preparing to make a speech to staff at a media company, I trawled through some old magazines I’d once edited and came across a full-page ad from 20 years ago starring the coolest new accessory from those times, the Swatch watch. The guy in the ad was delirious with glee over the prospect of having on his wrist something so sexy, so slender, so very ‘now’.
I’d forgotten about the Swatch. Did a Google. Discovered the brand is very alive and kicking. But it got me thinking about the wristwatch. Years ago in a British museum I was delighted to spot, in a glass case, an example of an early watch from the late 1800s. A fat, clunky thing it was, with a leather strap rendered fragile by use and age.
They became so ubiquitous that a good watch became the gift of choice in the 20th century – the pretty one for a girl’s 21st birthday, the ideal anniversary gift (with a few dinky diamonds), the gold-plated one on retirement. That was a weird idea, actually, given that it’s the very time when clock-watching loses importance.
The Swiss originally cornered the market for watches, along with cuckoo clocks and anything else that ticked. But then something bad happened, at least from the Swiss point of view. The Japanese got inventive. Once they’d got over just copying Swiss cleverness, they began to make watches that were just as good, and cheaper, than timepieces put together in Europe.
Yikes, said the Swiss. What to do? And so they invented the Swatch. Cheap, thin, bright, smart and colourful, they were an instant success in a brand-hungry world.
But now something else bad is happening. People are going off them altogether. Timepiece sales have dropped off every year since 2001. I asked my audience yesterday how many of them go watch-less. Close to half the room raised their hands.
Instead, they rely on cell phones, PDAs, in-car digital displays, the computers they sit in front of all day and the clocks that still adorn public buildings around town. It’s the cell phone that’s really done the damage of course. Everyone has one available at all times.
And yet what a funny turnaround that is. Apparently the first flush of enthusiasm for wrist watches came in the women’s fashion accessory market. A hundred years ago men carried pocket watches. Ladies’ gowns didn’t have handy pockets, so a dainty wristwatch was a boon for them.
World War 1 changed that. Blokes about to let loose the artillery or urge the troops out of the trench didn’t have time to be digging into pockets to find out if the moment had come. A flicking glance at the wrist was so much easier.
And now here we, hurtling into the digital future and, at the same time, returning to the past and fumbling in pockets and bags to find a time display not attached to our persons. These must be worrying times at Rolex. And at Swatch.
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