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Tool Watches In The Age Of Functional Jewelry

Tool Watches In The Age Of Functional Jewelry Featured Articles

The humble wristwatch — especially of the mechanical variety — has, according to my logic, entered the age of functional jewelry. The operative notion here is that, rather than wristwatches being relied upon for their performance in utility, they are rather highly communicative objects we wear in order to project something about ourselves. It isn’t to say that watches cannot still be tools, but it isn’t why they are mostly being bought.

In reality, the switch from watches being products to satisfy a utility need in the market versus as functional jewelry happened some time ago — when only a few people were noticing. (And the memo was never delivered to the men and women who actually make most watches.) This aforementioned neglect of higher-ups to inform the rank and file watch industry workers that the result of their labor wasn’t really being appreciated for its functionality was the cause of great confusion. To this day, many people producing wrist watches are only vaguely familiar with why people buy the fruits of their labor.

Tool Watches In The Age Of Functional Jewelry Featured Articles

This latter point is remarkably amusing when you think about it. Any time someone produces something so intensely complicated as a watch and has such a loose grasp on why someone would want to buy it is pretty funny. I do not feel as though I am overstepping by suggesting that many people in Switzerland can’t accurately tell you why someone buys a luxury watch to begin with, and then why one might buy their watch versus some else’s product. I’d love to spend more time musing on this fact, but for now, just keep it in mind.

Tool Watches In The Age Of Functional Jewelry Featured Articles

When you produce a tool, you understand its role in the market because you can evaluate it from a price and performance perspective as compared with other similar tools on the market. Tools operate within measurable standards such as “operations per minute” or service life. It requires mastery of great tools to make good watches and, for that reason, great watches end up being good tools. What happens, then, when people like owning and carrying those tools around but they no longer need to use those tools or perhaps they end up getting other tools which make solo-purpose tools a bit redundant? Wrap your mind around this a for a moment and you’ll appreciate how this relates to the last 30 years in the wristwatch market.

Tool Watches In The Age Of Functional Jewelry Featured Articles

Being functional jewelry is what saved the traditional watch industry in the 1980s and 1990s and why the world continues to have “luxury watch fever.” Functional jewelry is what Rolex and Cartier mostly sell to men and what has allowed for there to be an industry for wearable men’s status items (for all but the most flamboyant and opulent of men who can get away with wearing non-functional jewelry).

What is “functional jewelry” exactly? “Functional” implies that the wearable item has some utility (no matter how trivial), as opposed to doing absolutely nothing aside from covering your skin. A shirt, for example, has the function of keeping you warm, but people don’t tend to choose clothing based exclusively on its ability to protect them from the elements. The function of most timepieces is telling you the time. Sure, plenty of watches do that, but the functional value of these items is in the information they conveniently display on your wrist.

Tool Watches In The Age Of Functional Jewelry Featured Articles

How do you define or measure jewelry value? Here is where things get deeply psychological and annoying for data-hungry marketers who mistakenly believe the value of everything can be easily measured. Even most dictionaries have an extremely poor definition of the term “jewelry,” more or less explaining it as “jeweled or ornamental pieces worn for personal adornment.” What exactly does that tell you about the function of jewelry? Very little.

Tool Watches In The Age Of Functional Jewelry Featured Articles

Some men shun wearing jewelry because the concept is seen as feminine. Clearly, in Western society, women are seen as being primarily interested in wearing non-functional items to enhance their sense of beauty, poise, and status. Men, for the most part, aren’t able to get away with such behavior unless (ironically, in pure Calvinist tradition) those items have a functional excuse for being needed. (“Well, of course, I need to see the time in a theme-appropriate package on my wrist while flying my plane.”) Men do wear jewelry but they simply don’t call it that. We like the terms “gear” and “stuff,” but when it comes down to it, all the gear and stuff which exists outside our pockets is probably functional jewelry. And, like all jewelry, its specific design and execution give it communicative value.

The thesis here is that watches need to be treated (for the most part) like functional jewelry in order to sell them. Good watches, however, are born not as functional jewelry, but as wearable tools. How, then, can the watch industry proceed into the great unknown of the 21st century by successfully doing both at the same time? I ask because right now the dialectic between tool watches and functional jewelry might be causing more strain in the industry than just value.

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  • Mikita

    Today watches are 0 – 10% percent tools, 90 – 100% fun accessories. “Tool” marketing mostly wants to sell watches through romantic stories about brave divers / mountaineers / explorers / racers / pilots etc. In reality, professionals mostly use more feature-packed wrist (or pocket) computers, while tool watches are targeted towards auditorium who has carved in their brains and hearts what true brave men should look like and what should they wear. Interestingly, most young generation (15-21 yr old) already grew a different way, have different markers and things which influence them, so tool watches are mostly targeted towards middle age men IMO. I must say that I am in the right group – most of my watches can be classified as “tool” pieces: divers, wannabe pilot watches, wannabe racer watches, etc. So I also want to look like a brave professional 🙂

    • IanE

      ‘So I also want to look like a brave professional’ – and I’m sure you do! ;-}

    • Sheez Gagoo

      We have almost the same taste. I spent some time in the army (Swiss Airforce) wearing a G-Shock. So I could pretend to be a brave pro, altough I was stoned all the time and there was no enemy around. So I measured dinner time and weed smoke events with it. Or cooking time, when I was sent to work in the kitchen as a kind of punishment (Instead of going on a 30 km march). The best memories I have with the G was when I was in the militaryjail for three days because I crashed a fork-lift truck and they left the watch on my wrist so I could play with it. Not really a story that makes heroes but you take what you get. I still have the G.

      • Mikita

        All the things that happened to you and G put it into true “wrist friend” category. What is the model BTW?

        I’ve never been to the army, even though the recruitment is strong in my country right now and has always been. Most of the young people consider it a waste of time, frankly speaking. Two of my friends have been to the army, and the stories they tell me go in line with that opinion. First one of the was in the very secretive camp – signalmen. They took his phone, and everything except an Elektronika watch (ancient design, but still being made in Belarus:, but all he was doing during 1.5 years in the army was painting the grass with a toothbrush (not joking!), digging holes in the ground with a teaspoon (don’t ask me what for), unloading linoleum rolls from the army trucks, wandering through the forests without any clear purpose, etc. Another guy was in the anti-aircraft missile forces. He was marching every day, literally, in winter at -25 C, in the middle of a deep forest, everywhere. Both of them didn’t make a single shot in a year and a half. So the army in Belarus may look like the Apocalypse Today: people wandering in the forests, getting more crazy than before, accomplishing crazy tasks, very remotely related to training.

        • Sheez Gagoo

          It was a classic 5600. Well, at the time we had no other choice than going in the army (Wehrpflicht). I shooted many thousand bullets around during the time. My favourite tasks in the airforce were:
          -Driving around in a VW Bully and firing some firecrackers against the birds.
          – There was obviously a rabbit on the airfield, and some Lieutnant odered to catch it. We went out, smoked a few joints and said that we did it.

    • Sheez Gagoo
      • Mikita

        Respect these guys – I also hate when someone disturbs me during lunch time.

  • seoulseeker

    I kind of disagree with the conclusion of this article, that women are more comfortable buying functional jewelry.

    I think women are more comfortably buying straight, nonfunctional jewelry. Men on the other hand, are more comfortable with the jewelry they but has a function (which is why men are more drawn to watches than say, bracelets, rings, and necklaces).

    Smart marketing just capitalizes on this.

  • Ally

    A valuable social and evolutionary debate set out by the article. Well done.

  • fitz

    … what is the strap material in that top shot of a Blancpain ?

    • Joel Schumann

      Rubber 🙂 Look for a tropic watch strap. Or consider a sailcloth strap instead – also popular with white bread.

  • Jorge Miranda

    Insightful reading that explores the “notion of desires” in an era when a cellular phone through apps, could easily perform most of the utility of a tool watch.

    Perhaps could be useful to explore also the cultural trends among different markets worldwide.

  • Berndt Norten

    In critical moments men sometimes see exactly what they wish to see. When you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. After a time, you may find that having is not so pleasing a thing after all as wanting.

    • Raymond Wilkie

      Hi Berndt. You’re talking nonsense. Hope your having a good day.

    • spice

      warning, warning – – – adage overload 🙂

    • egznyc

      I just want to get a piece of the action.

  • DanW94

    Regardless of their utility (I mean, men sport watches with pushers and sub-dials that don’t even work) watches remain the one piece of jewelry that is universally acceptable for men to wear. Pinky rings are an exception but only if you’re a large man whose job is to “take care of things” for nebulous, unnamed organizations. More jewelry beyond that means you probably manage a group of ladies who provide conversation and other “services” to a specific clientele.

    • Raymond Wilkie

      You mean a pimp?

      • DanW94

        Such an ugly word. I prefer “Gratification Distribution and Logistics Specialist”.

  • Jared

    as far as I see it, watches are a luxury item

    that means the utility really doesn’t matter, its main “Feature” is being expensive. Watches are just a way to signal wealth while you are away from your Ferrari.

    thats why all these microbrands don’t become runaway successes for offering a similar product at 1/10th the price, thats because the vast majority of watch buyers aren’t actually looking for an “Affordable” luxury watch. Being affordable is a negative, not a positive when it comes to luxury items. Because wearing one just means you are cheap. The only people who fall for the “affordable” gimmick are young people who are too broke to actually buy a luxury item, this is why they are the core demographic for brands like Daniel Wellington and MVMT.

    Real luxury buyers WANT people to know they dropped $10K on a watch. All this discussion about features, movements, horological importance, brand history is useless to the non-WIS public. The only thing non-WIS buyers of luxury goods are looking for(and lets be honest, thats about 95% of the market) is buying an expensive item that most people can’t afford and being recognized in public as someone who can afford that luxury.

    This is why hublot was as successful as it was. To the WIS people, they saw a company selling a 7750 movement in a AP looking case for $20K. OMG so overpriced right? Well to the general public they saw a unique looking beautiful watch, at a high price point. and since it was a unique design, everyone who saw them wearing that watch KNEW that they dropped 5 figures on it. This is why Hublot still sells a $9,000 Classic Fusion with a Sellita movement…because watches are more than just a sum of their total parts. They could easily build their own in-house movement, but they don’t actually need to.

    Something like Richard Mille and MB&F, wouldn’t be even remotely popular among the super rich if it was sold as a regular lets say $15,000 watch. Because the whole point of a Richard Mille/MB&F is to have a watch that costs more than a house sitting on your wrist instead of one that costs more than a car like you used to before this new generation of watches came along.

    A luxury watch is supposed to be expensive, that is literally its one killer app feature.

    It also helps if its hard to get. Everyone hates Rolex and Patek for cutting back production on their steel pieces, but the very fact that you can’t just buy one even if you are rich makes those two watches even more desirable. Because getting one means you have the connections and the pull to get something that others could not.

    This is why traditional watch companies that try and compete on price are struggling. Because they simply do not understand the market they are in. They are still competing in the “tool watch” category where the price actually mattered while that market is long gone.

    • ray h.

      This was very well said. Still watches are jewelry not matter what anyone says , but the ones with the right label are high end jewelry and the wrist well, the are just off the rack. Now a well thought out off the rack item is cooler in my book, hard to be smart at a price.

  • Jamie McKay

    The last two sentences sum it all. It’s a bit hypocrite, isn’t it? While a man is actually looking to buy a jewelry (to make his friends jealous), he pretends to be looking for a tool, and the seller who actually sell the jewelry would need to “allowing” them to play the pretending that they are buying a tool, and they both know it’s a jewelry, because no such tool need to be that expensive.

  • Raymond Wilkie

    I’ve never in my life sought out the opioion of others in what I do and wear. ( that’s all a bit shallow me thinks ) Nor have i ever thought I’ll wear what I have and make people around me jealous. If i was fortunate enough to have a watch of distinction I would concider myself very fortunate and it would be my pleasure to show to anyone who took an interest in it .

  • ray h.

    Smart article. You would never see this on some watch sites, calling a spade, a spade.
    Have a good week, and let’s wear our jewelry in good health !

  • Raymond Wilkie

    Live long and prosper.

  • Raymond Wilkie

    Wize choice. What with the internet there’s not much money in pimping now.

    • Sheez Gagoo

      I don’t work as a watchmaker anymore. I’m a teacher now.

  • H.S.M.

    Being a functional jewellery saved the bloated Swiss Watch Industry sitting in its Ivory Tower perhaps, but the rest of it is pretty much fine.
    Also this “functional jewellery” sounds exactly like one would expect as a description for anything coming out of Switzerland with a dial and hands on it and a price over 10K.
    But then where are the small boys and the middle class men of the watch world? The ones worn by the average person on a night out with friends, or at work?
    They are just fine, thanks for asking. They are the REAL industry, they are the REAL innovators and the ones who carry the torch and helping the brands of old to survive. Yet here we are pondering over what will happen with Rolex and Friends in ten years time, again.
    It is pretty simple if you ask me. They either come down form their Ivory Towers or they lock themselves up with their exclusive friend, Mr Moneybag and keep on selling them stuff they don’t understand and actually don’t need. (You can guess which one will happen)
    So where do those real heroes come in to the definition of functional jewellery I ask? As calling them jewellery is such a massive overstatement as calling a Ford Fiesta a sports car.
    Rather say that it is an accessory. One would compare them to a hat, a nice scarf, leather gloves and so on. One which isn’t necessarily a functional part of one’s dress.
    So a watch is more than just a tool. It’s more than a jewellery. It is an accessory.
    Watches are still worn. Companies and brands still come to life. And nothing really happened except for the giants of old.
    Build accessories and not jewellery. If you stay within the definition of jewellery (functional or not) you are not solving the problem.
    Of course this doesn’t mean we don’t need watches falling into that category, but what we don’t need is an entire industry moving into it. As that will be probably that last thing it will do before dying a horrible death.

    An industry based around time, can’t keep up with it.
    We should call it really the Irony Towers instead.

    Also rename the article to “Wondering about the Swiss Watch Industry, Again”.

  • SuperStrapper

    I just keep repeating the title of the article in my head over and over.

  • SuperStrapper

    The Incredible Sad Tale of Tool Watches in the Age of Jewellery and the Heartless Grandmother that Wears Them.

    Chalk up another Nobel.

  • Raymond Wilkie

    To what end?

  • S Jones

    My Omega Speedmaster is a rather expensive egg timer… Either that, or it is a piece of jewellery. I can’t make my mind up, although the eggs are really nice. Into cold water, bring to the boil and then 2 minutes 40 seconds. Never fails! 🙂

  • Tony NW

    It’s not that hard. I have tool watches and I have watches… meaning functional jewelry.

    Christopher Ward C5 Mk II: Tool. Automatic, SS, very practical, survives everything. Probably around $650 today, had it a while.
    Seiko Cocktail Time Blue: Watch. Also Automatic, largely SS, but with the pathetic hardlex and the leather strap, and not being so legible, even though it was relatively affordable, it’s a friggin’ hanger queen.
    Rolex DJ41 (Dark Rhodium, Fluted, Jubilee): Watch. It’s tough and done many a scuba trip, bike ride with me. But it’s way pricey and pretty. It’s also the most comfortable watch I own.
    Casio 158: Tricky… but I’m going with… watch. This thing works, it’s cheap ($14), but utterly cool and retro. And, unlike my CW or Rolex, it can’t go diving.
    Sotto Marino: This is a captive brand tritium all-black with rotating bezel pseudo-diver watch. Metal bracelet, Miyota quartz, but don’t forget that tritium. And sapphire crystal. For about $100. The perfect tool watch. It’s comfy, it works, it’s functional even at night.

    Tool vs Jewelry is just your personal trade-offs. But tough is part of it. Rolex has it, Patek does not.

  • Lingua Franca

    I think Ariel was going for Walter Benjamin.

  • philips defreville

    Ariel, I really enjoy reading your essays and observations regarding the watch industry. Many of your views are very accurate. One point you often make, however, I do not agree with. You often refer to people buying watches to impress others, in the case of this article to make your peers “jealous”. 99% of my friends and associates know nothing about watches, do not care about watches and are not interested in talking about watches. The watches I wear are for me only.

    • I concur: my watches are for me alone.
      Then again, maybe if my watches costed as much as a Ferrari, they’d notice them.

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