A couple of weeks ago, I flew to San Francisco for one night to attend an event at the Legion of Honor sponsored by the prestige Swiss watch brand Breguet. Starting next September, visitors to the museum—one of three institutions that form the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco—will be invited to view “Breguet: Art and Innovation in Watchmaking,” a four-month-long exhibition dedicated to the history of the firm founded in 1775 by Abraham-Louis Breguet, often regarded as the father of modern horology.
Courtesy Fine Art Museums of San Francisco
The exhibition will feature the largest collection of antique Breguet timepieces ever to be shown in the Americas. As something of a teaser, the company had arranged for three historic Breguet timepieces to be flown out for the gala dinner celebrating the museum’s announcement, all on loan from the Breguet museum in Paris: a handsome carriage clock sold to Caroline Murat, Queen of Naples, in 1812; a gorgeous gold pocket watch with a hidden miniature portrait of a young woman on ivory, sold in 1822; and an 1827 pocket watch brimming with complications including an equation of time, perpetual calendar, and repeater.
Earlier that evening, I’d gotten a chance to study the timepieces up close when our group of watch journalists stopped at the Tourbillon boutique, located in the heart of San Francisco’s luxury shopping district, to hear three senior executives from the Swatch Group explain how the watches and clocks in the exhibit had come together.
Of the three pieces on view, the pocket watch with the miniature portrait was especially eye-catching. I fantasized about stringing it on a thick gold chain and wearing it as an oversize pendant.
Two weeks prior to this night, Apple had debuted its much-buzzed-about Apple Watch, and I couldn’t help but wonder if, 200 years from now, people would be admiring the intricacy of that device with the same reverence we were giving the historic Breguet timepieces.
Technology, almost by definition, quickly becomes obsolete. Two centuries from now, the first (or second or third) iteration of the Apple Watch may indeed appear inside a museum exhibition dedicated to the tools of of 21st-century living—but will it be anything more than a plastic anachronism? Will anyone be able to fix it?
I sincerely doubt it—which is why I’m not abandoning good old-fashioned analog technology anytime soon. Consider the three timepieces that were on display in San Francisco: Breguet made them all at the beginning of the 19th century. Ten, 100, or 500 years from now, a determined watchmaker could get them up and running. While the pieces themselves are old, there’s nothing obsolete about what makes them tick. In theory, they could count down the hours and minutes (among other things) in perpetuity.
But that’s hardly the only reason to believe in the future of mechanical watchmaking. As several people have made clear to me, the point of wearing a fine mechanical timepiece from Breguet or any number of Swiss brands is to have something that communicates your aesthetic, your personality, and your point of view. When five million people are wearing the Apple Watch strapped to their wrists, the person with the distinctive timepiece will stand out even more.
Plus, there’s no denying the enduring appeal of fine craftsmanship combined with precious materials. That they are vestiges of a long-past era of innovation does not seem to bother people. On the contrary. Last week, for example, I spoke to Randy Brandoff, founder of Eleven James, an annual membership club for fine timepieces. He made an interesting point about why, despite the hype about the Apple Watch and its smart cohorts, the investment bankers and venture capitalists who subscribe to his service are still interested in age-old relics of traditional Swiss timekeeping.
“I was told there’s something very interesting to these folks who were rapidly evolving and witnessing a changing landscape on a daily basis,” Brandoff said. “They have a real appreciation for the opposite. For someone on the cutting edge of technology to put something on their wrist that hasn’t evolved in 100 years because it’s already perfect, there’s an appreciation for it.”
Finally, let’s not forget the lessons of the 1970s quartz crisis. That’s when scores of Swiss watchmakers went out of business because the world had shifted to cheaper and more accurate battery-powered technology pioneered by the Japanese. For a while, things seemed very bleak for the Swiss. Then, Nicolas Hayek came along with the predecessor of today’s Swatch Group and revived the art of mechanical watchmaking. The products of his industry suddenly became synonymous with luxury and collectibility. There’s no reason to doubt the Apple Watch won’t have the same effect.