Do people still care about movements?
Deep Thoughts, MB&F, Uncategorized

Do people still care about movements?

This is one I have been thinking about for a long time and still cannot seem to fully flesh out my thoughts.  There is a shift that I can feel, but cannot quite put my finger on.
6 years ago, in the beginning of the major mechanical watch boom and early stages of Contemporary Horology, it was all about the movements.  Who made the movement?  What sort of technical challenges did it present?  What expertise does it show?  To the very niche group of people following these things, watches were miniature machines and the engines were the fascination point.

As Contemporary Horology has gone more mainstream and so many companies have entered the business, I believe this is changing.  It is only natural to get confused with so much marketing, new brands coming from all directions, and tons of crazy pieces being released each year, many of which will never even reach production.  Value has been more and more separated from the product, often by companies which provide very little (who will go unnamed forever in my blog as I wish to keep a positive tone).  All the nonsense has left consumers somewhere between overwhelmed and confused.

At MB&F, we focus on this machine aspect.  However, more and more people only see a piece of design.  Our engine for HM4 is technically one of the most interesting pieces of horology that I have seen, yet the number of technical questions I have received about it can be counted on one hand.  I imagine this is in stark contrast to the technical interest Max received when he first showed HM1.

Or think of URWERK, another of my personal favorites.  Their movements cannot be seen through their cases, and more or less no one talks about the movements at all.  If you read about an URWERK, you will read about a super cool watch and about what it does, but not how it does it.  People are ok with the fact that it is a super cool watch, and they trust URWERK enough to assume that the mechanics are sufficiently intricate and well-done – which they are.

No where has this shift been more evident to me than in the coverage and chatter around the Devon Tread 1 watch.  While it is obviously a very cool watch, it uses electronic motors to power rubber bands.  A few years ago this would have been completely dismissed by the enthusiast crowd.  Wearing or talking about a non-mechanical watch was considered one short step up from wearing a fake – completely unacceptable amongst the WIS (watch idiot savant – a term enthusiasts often use for themselves) community.  However, this watch has been covered everywhere, talked about with enthusiasm by big collectors, and will undoubtedly land in the collections of people who would not have given it a second look before.

I am not saying this is a bad thing.  I love cool watches too.  However, it is a point that I have not heard articulated by anyone and it is obviously very important to be aware of.  Part of our job in the industry is to communicate the value of our pieces to our customers.  If we bury our head in the sand and refuse to take note of shifts like this, we will miss the boat completely.

  • Hi Steve,
    Great that you have started this!

    My take on this is slightly different. First of all – a minor correction, if I may. The rebirth of interest in mechanical watches really started in earnest about 20 years ago…the late 80’s. When Blancpain relaunched in the 80’s with their slogan “there has never been a quartz Blancpain watch, and there never will be” – that was a sign of what was slowly starting to grow. Several watch companies began to launch interesting and complicated mechanical models by the mid to late 80’s: Nardin, Blancpain, Breguet, Patek, IWC, etc.

    The interest in movements is what always drove me as a collector. But I think most collectors go for the “look” first, the perceived status second, and the heritage of the company third.

    What I look for in a movement is: 1. it is accurate, 2. it is reasonably serviceable and will remain so for a very long time, 3. it possesses inherent lasting value. That’s about it. All the experimental and wildly interesting stuff done by some of today’s newer companies is remarkable (Greubel, MB & F, etc.). Being a bit of an old fart, I am not always convinced that the movements will remain viable for a long time. I think a watch MUST remain viable and serviceable for at least 100 years. Classically designed movements such as the complicated Patek’s, Lange’s, Zenith (love the movements – not so sure about the designs), IWC, etc. fall into that category certainly. I’m not sure that Richard Mille, for instance, will.

    I am, frankly, MOST impressed with Seiko’s Spring Drive. If you want innovative – THAT is innovative. Their top-end stuff is rather amazing if you simply look at it technically.

    Great new blog. Love it.

    • Steve

      Hi Michael,
      Thank you for your thoughtful comment. One point of clarification: I am not referring to the rebirth of the mechanical watch, but to the huge expansion of the market that began to grow exponentially in around 2003-2004. This was also the era that launched the early “Contemporary Horology” brands.

      Glad you like the blog. Keep checking in! Nice to have the POV of a vintage/classic fan.

      Best,
      Steve

  • Hi Steve,
    First of all congratulations on the new blog, I am really looking forward to learning from your unique insight into the industry.

    I think to a degree the changes you mention above are being driven by changes in the luxury watch industry’s consumer demographic (which I believe you touch on in your article), especially as the transfer or creation of wealth shifts to the younger generations. In simple terms, to a varying degree its not the same people buying timepieces now as it was 20 years ago. And you are absolutely right that this is something the industry needs to be aware of and to a degree, cater to.

    My experience with The Watch Lounge has largely been that people are more concerned with how a piece looks, as opposed to the masterfully intricate machinery powering it. I think this may be attributable partly to the fact that newer consumers (i.e. those without a strong knowledge and grounding in watch-making history) don’t appreciate just how complicated it actually is to construct something like the movement of the Thunderbolt versus the Devon 1.

    And perhaps to a degree they don’t care, I’m not sure?

    I think the challenge for the brand then is how to convey that message effectively without boring their audience. Yes the Devon 1 is cool but as I noted in a recent article we wrote on it, I’m just not quite sure where it fits? Is it a luxury timepiece or an expensive toy? Yes it is very appealing, but how do we define the industry relative to it? Is it an outlier or this the direction horology is heading in?

    I’d have to say the former but I still think it is very interesting (and as you rightly pointed out) that what is a essentially a quartz watch (formerly the bain of many collectors and enthusiasts alike) created such a buzz in the luxury watch arena, whereas 5 to 10 years ago it seems more likely it would have been shunned as an impostor.

    What’s changed, and more importantly how will this affect true watch-makers in the future?

    • Steve

      Exactly what I am trying to get at, Tom. Thanks for your comment!

  • Very interesting discussion. From my perspective, watchmaking has been historically thought of as an “ancient” profession that is tradition-bound, with many “legacy” brands such as PP, Breguet, Vacheron, etc.
    I think the inherent core of this discussion is style vs. “fashion.” A lot of collectors (and this has ALWAYS been true) have more money than taste. Many have a big checkbook, and they want what they perceive as the newest, the coolest,the hippest, the most noteworthy, etc. Unless I am wrong, I don’t think they primarily think about the mechanics of the watch. Once they have their first $1000 (or much more) service bill…..they may rethink things. But, also, many move these pieces around quickly – avoiding the long term servicing issues.

    I admire a lot of the newer independent firms, and their design and technical know-how is astounding. But, for me, at the end of the day – I will take my Patek 5070 and simply admire the flawless re-examination of a great calibre (Lemania) done by a premiere brand. I also have an original Longines Lindberg from the 1930’s that is like a great old battleship. For me….hard to beat the resonance of those kind of watches

    The wonderful thing about collecting is that I learn new things every day. I love that there is in independent spirit of experimentation and design that is only bound by the limits of imagination.

    • Steve

      No question that watchmaking is rooted in tradition. However, until recently, most everything the industry made was just copies of things made 150 years ago. Precision and quality jumped well into the realm of diminishing returns, but creativity was almost nonexistent.
      I see Contemporary Horology as I see Contemporary Art. It will never replace classic horology, nor is it trying to. Minimalism could never hope to replace oil landscapes. Instead it broadens the question of “what is art?” or “what is a watch?”.

      Again, in art you have true innovators and you have true masters – you also have entries of lesser quality in both the classic and contemporary realms. In watches it is similar. Phillipe Dufour is obviously a master and is valued as such; however I do not believe many would call him an innovator (although the Duality is interesting). Similarly, I believe URWERK and MB&F will be looked back on as the masters and innovators in this new space. Of course Max and Felix would both be the first to tell you how much respect they have for the masters of traditional horology, just as the best contemporary artists have reverence for the Renaissance masters. The true test will be how people look back on these creators and these pieces 10-20-50 years from now.

      I actually wrote an article for Esquire (was published in the Latin American version)on the history and present state of Contemporary Horology. I’ll post it here in the next few days.

  • Gaëtan

    Hi Steve,
    It is a very interesting article to read. I’ve actually asked my-self recently if the trend to create in-house movements (I am not talking about manufacture movement which at least triple the investments costs) is worth the money.
    In your article, for obvious reasons, you’ve chosen MB&F as your benchmark and that’s another story but I am talking about more common luxury watch brand, such as Panerai, IWC, etc.
    What percentage of consumers is actually buying a watch knowing what’s inside? But most importantly, who cares what’s inside? IWC and Panerai are both still using ETA/Valjoux movements for their best sellers. The fact that they are offering pieces with in-house movements are appealing to a very very very few. For 99% of their clientele, the Swiss made (which is a bit controversial as you know) label is enough.

    The two main purchasing reasons are very simple: Brand (must be well established) and Design.
    The rest (movements, R&D, integrity, etc) is made for watch aficionados.
    But the turnover of watch brands is achieved through the non-connoisseurs…

    Sorry for my poor English,

    G

    • Anonymous

      Hi Gaetan,
      Thank you for your insightful comment. I think you are onto a very important and true point. I will be writing about in-house vs outsourced movements eventually as I have some thoughts as well.

      While you are right that brand and design account for most of the volume in the lower price points, the high end niche brands exist in a very different market. I think *some* of what you say still holds true, but there are many other factors in play.

      Very very good points though, please keep commenting!

      -Steve

      by the way, your English is perfect!

      • Jerome Pineau

        There is a world of difference (as in day and night) between outsourced and in-house shops on every level including target markets. Two entirely different businesses IMHO and two different markets. If you can manage to do a blend supplying both mass and aficionados, then you got it made 🙂 But not sure on the economics of that…

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  • Good question indeed. If you look at other discussion channels (namely Linkedin for example, where a raging V 7750 discussion is going on ) then yes I would say *some* people in certain market segments are still movement conscious. The public at large is not so much it seems as long as the perception of the Swiss Made is not violated (keyword: perception). And for the lady side if the market, there seems to be rising interest but nothing off the scales. This is just my personal experience based on limited time in the biz – the result is that the engine is of importance but perhaps not any more than other aspects of the product like style and statement (and price!).
    My 2 cents 🙂

    • Thanks for the comment. I think it is all an issue of education. Unfortunately, we in the business are not doing a good enough job of educating the consumer as to what really matters. Sadly, for many this is on purpose in order to grow profit margins. Luckily there are lots of good guys still making amazing stuff and trying their best.

      • Jerome Pineau

        But isn’t the consumer the ultimate gauge of what “really” matters? Amazing stuff is indeed laudable obviously but, if you cannot sell it…I dunno..

        • There is always a market for amazing stuff. You are talking about a different business than that of art, design, or the independent watchmakers that are really doing amazing things. They are creating for their sake, not for the consumer. If you want to create a watch to please the most people and sell the most, you make the same watch that has always been made – round with 2 or 3 hands.
          As Henry Ford once said, “If I had asked the people what they wanted, they would have said ‘a faster horse'”