For years, watch manufacturers have been trying to out do themselves when it comes to technical innovation. It’s not enough to have a watch that tells the time; you also have to provide multiple time zones, the tidal schedules, the phases of the moon, the barometric pressure, and whatever else a company’s engineers can dream up to stick inside a watch case.
Then you end up with something like the Patek Philippe Grand Complication, which is lovely, but so hard to make that there’s only one, and it wouldn’t matter, anyway, because if there were more than one, you still couldn’t afford it.
Watch fans love these kinds of timepieces, though they don’t necessarily want to wear them or carry them around. They want to own them, and talk about them, and they’re great for a company’s public relations department.
At the end of the day, however, watch companies are in the business of selling watches, and ideally, selling a lot of them. Elaborate timepieces with other-worldly complications are great for publicity, but you couldn’t sell a thousand of them if you wanted to.
People want watches they can wear every day. They want watches that are practical for use at work, or at the store, or on a night out on the town.
They don’t want watches that have to spend time in the shop every six months for elaborate (and expensive!) maintenance.
That’s why few people were truly surprised at this year’s Baselworld convention in Switzerland to see that the sort of watch that a lot of major manufacturers were showing off had a feature that has seemingly disappeared in recent years.
Three hands only.
The industry seems to have scaled back a bit in the last year or two, partly due to a slump in the sales of high end watches and partly due to a perceived glut in the market. In times of turmoil, it’s best to go back to what you know best, and that’s your basic, time-only watch with hands for the hour, the minute and the second.
Such watches will never go out of style; they evoke the basic necessity of a timepiece – they tell the time. They don’t tell other stories, or draw attention to themselves for additional faces, hands, buttons, lights, wheels, tourbillons or any other gadget.
They just tell the time.
That said, they’re not necessarily simple watches. Movements are constantly being refined and there’s a new trend in recent years to make watches as thin as possible. People are looking for simple looks with oversized faces and thin cases.
Companies are complying and the result at Baselworld was a showing of tasteful and attractive, yet simple-looking timepieces that will look good today and will likely look terrific and continue to run well thirty or forty years from now.
Such watches may resemble the sorts of timepieces your grandfather bought back in the day, but rest assured they’re more accurate, built quite a bit better, and are far less likely to give you trouble of any kind than those timepieces of a generation or two ago.
Simple is back.