Watchmakers set to battle it out to be the toast of Christmas time
As I have observed on this page in years past, a sure sign of the approach of Christmas is a massive increase in advertising for luxury goods. Jewellery, expensive clothes and country houses vie with exotic cars and watches. As if by magic, Porsche becomes the most profitable motor manufacturer in the world, and Ferrari the only non-ailing branch of the Fiat empire.
But fabulously expensive timepieces are the real technological snowdrops, and they live in a world of their own. Posh cars may still have to be taxed and insured like ordinary cars, and expensive houses may still leak water when it rains, but costly watches lead a charmed life. Even the freakish ones that are certified capable of enduring desert heat, arctic cold and the pressure of the ocean seldom take a journey longer than the one from the wall safe to the box at the opera and back again.
Yet, despite this exclusivity, their economic performance exceeds that of any other technobauble by a huge margin. Why this should be, I do not know. But I do know that it is not because of a global scarcity of watches. You can find perfectly usable Chinese watches in the goody-bags your children bring home from birthday parties, but these are not luxury goods. They don't have magic powers.
Not like the Seiko 'Sportura kinetic chronograph', for example, which is described in advertisements as being 'powered by the movement of your own body, no batteries to change'. This wristwatch comes with its own propaganda message that, it must be admitted, loses something in the translation from the original Japanese: 'It's not your clothes. It's not your handwriting. It's not your TV shows. It's your watch that tells most about who you are.' Or it used to be. Now, as a result of the inscrutability of popular attitudes to the charismatic power of costly watches - which are, after all, the nearest to a piece of genuine nanotechnology that most of us will ever come to - luxury watchmakers today are living lives of quiet desperation when it comes to promoting their product.
For years there was only one kind of luxury watch advertisement. You would find it in the bottom right-hand corner of the front page of every broadsheet newspaper in the country. But now that broadsheets are fast disappearing, something different is needed and the watchmasters are all looking for it. Except for Patek Philippe ads, which also show a picture of the small child who would inherit your watch when you die, watchmakers are torn between boasting about their space-age chronometric technology and trying to glue it to their earlier boastings about ancient traditions of craftsmanship. They are doing this either by larding their advertisements with background images of jet-fighters and pilots (Breitling), or by depicting a watch with four or six dials. Others less imaginatively lay as much emphasis on the leather strap as the watch itself (A Lange & Söhne) or throw technology to the winds and come up with an antique face and a barefaced claim of extraordinary longevity.
Well placed at the time of writing were Omega (in business for 150 years) and Ulysse Nardin (156 years), but both topped by the unsinkable Breguet, which claims to have been in the luxury watchmaking game since 1775 - before the Declaration of Independence, let alone the French Revolution.
Meanwhile, alone in their palatial underground workshops, the luxury watchmakers of Switzerland churn out the same seductive images of chunky manacle-type watches programmed to tell the time with split-second accuracy until the year 2200, when their batteries finally run out.