WOW FACTOR
World of Watches|Festive 2020
We bring our odyssey in 2020 novelties to a close with a few punchlines. This list of fun tickers is a tribute to the many watches of 2020 that sparked joy
ASHOK SOMAN

Watchmaking’s top executives have a story they like to tell. The story tends to take on different forms depending on who’s doing the talking, but the message is always the same. To unpack it and cut ahead a bit, this is how it goes in one sentence: time is a friend that is on your side, or at least it could be if only you had the right watch. It does make for a pretty sweet pitch to anyone already toying with the idea of getting a nice watch, while needing some justifications. After all, no one wants to be a slave to time. To put it another way, we all want to be in charge of our time, despite all evidence to the contrary. When you get yourself a (likely and relatively) expensive watch, you definitely want it to set you apart from everyone else. In a matching move to reinforce this idea, watch collectors typically talk about smartwatches (typically affordable) as pedestrian tools or even as an extension of the stress-inducing digital world we are immersed in.

One watchmaking brand even went with a stunningly literal interpretation of this, with a timepiece that literally allowed you to stop and restart time whenever you wanted. As distinctive as that was, this brand is far from alone in playing charming little tricks with the space-time continuum. Of course, the beauty of the Hermes Time Suspended piece was that the watch kept track of time even when its display of time was, well, suspended. Yes, the name turns out to be quite literal after drawing you in with questions, but we have more to say on naming conventions elsewhere in this section on fun with time.

On that note, yes this is another instalment of WOW’s special sections. This issue though, we opt to be a little disconnected from the mainstream of watchmaking. I shall have more to say on our motivations here, but first I have to orchestrate the odd structure of this article. And no, the presence of the Patek Philippe Ref. 6301P here is not an elaborate bait-and-switch. We hold such moves in reserve for the Internet.

TIME AS YOU LIKE IT

Turning back to the 2011 Hermes watch, it gave you, the wearer, the ability to have time on-demand, as they say. This is not quite the same as smartwatches that do not display the time unless somehow triggered. That was due to an engineering drawback while mechanical watches are typically deliberate in how quirks are expressed. Indeed, such quirks are often priced as virtues, or necessary compromises. And now, chiming watches can enter the story properly, because these are quite often not water-resistant at all. It may seem a minor oddity but watches that are not water-resistant in the 21st century are swimming against the user-experience tide. Recall that this is the era of the sports watch, and those all have varying degrees of excellent water-resistance at minimum.

There are, as it happens, proper comparisons to be had here with the smartwatch, and we will get to at least one more before we end. It is the various types of health monitoring that makes water-resistance a challenge for wearable tech, just as the integrity of the tones and notes of the chiming watch require a way for the movement to interact with the environment. Patek Philippe, for one, has decided to compromise on water-resistance to avoid compromising on musical ability, so to speak. It must be noted though that as the sports watch establishes ever greater dominance, the big names in traditional watchmaking have responded by creating minute repeaters that are water-resistant (to 30 metres at least). Even Patek Philippe came out with ref. 5520P, its first water-resistant chiming watch, last year. In so doing, it made plenty of fun and quixotic watch lists.

In any other year, it gives us enormous pleasure to set aside some time for a bit of playful discovery. In any other year…

THE TURN TOWARDS WHIMSY

With a pandemic fast approaching its first birthday, and a world largely on its knees, playful instincts might be misplaced. As this issue goes to print, multiple vaccines working well, and on their way to securing FDA approval in the USA are making the news. But infection rates are also spiking, especially in our spiritual heart, Switzerland. All in all, it tempers our excitement at the thought of a light at the end of this tunnel. This is my preferred narrative, being completely in-line with stoicism and the like. We had a change of heart some time in September, when we looked at the full list of the GPHG-nominated watches. Unlike in previous years, this time the entire selection of watches resonated - perhaps because even as watchmaking retreats into conservatism in the face of economic meltdown, the nominated watches celebrate horological diversity.

This also turned the spotlight on the tendency of so-called fun watches marking their special status with truly special prices. The pricing and exclusivity issues are why “so-called” gets appended to “fun” when it comes to horology. Smartwatches are obviously more fun than any mechanical watch, and most are available and accessible. To be blunt, mechanical watches get less and less accessible and available as the quirk factor goes up. This is a critical failing in watchmaking, and has been much-criticised, including by us. For the record, we did so in issue #53, and before that in #47. This year, the Jacob & Co Astronomica Phoenix, to cite just one example, is as spectacular in its asking price as it is horologically stunning.

That watch is on our list for another story, but absent here because the GPHG nominees also proved that big ticket horology need not have big ticket sticker prices. So we very deliberately excluded other favourites, such the Arnold & Son Globetrotter Night, the spanking new Urwerk UR-100V Iron, the Greubel Forsey Hand Made 1 (a GPHG winner no less, and an amazing watch besides), the Ulysse Nardin Freak X, any number of Richard Milles, certain Bovet Recital models, and of course our cover star from the Autumn issue, the Chanel J12 X-Ray. These are all great, for sure, but most require more than just money to acquire and enjoy. Our list has plenty of such watches anyway.

Instead, we saved a couple of spots for a couple of standouts that are very accessible. We also had to exclude others because, as we noted in issue #58, small brands sometimes do not respond to press requests as their media departments are stretched thin. Other brands did respond but did not have the right sorts of pictures; if we are to feature these pieces, they should not look poorer by way of comparison against the likes of Patek Philippe and A. Lange & Sohne. As it turned out, the eventual GPHG winners represented a triumph of bankable sensibility but that is neither here nor there. This list of fun tickers is thus a tribute to the many watches of 2020 that sparked joy.

KINETIC ART

But hang on a moment. What exactly do we mean by fun watches anyway? As we have done more than once, we have launched into a subject without defining it properly. In curating a list of watches like this, it is necessary to work with firm definitions, I can almost hear you protest. Well, more than one of my collaborators on the issue weighed in with that concern when confronted with covering fun watches. Leaving aside the very serious nature of 2020, and a probably challenging 2021, deciding what watches are “fun” might imply that other watches do not impart a sense of pleasure to their owners. Worse, it might imply that we think most watches are only for serious collectors. Nothing could be further from the truth.

To begin with, this list is made up of watches that do not put chronometric performance front-and-centre. Instead, they represent efforts to consider time differently. More than 10 years ago, these sorts of watches were sometimes grouped together as watches with unusual displays of time, or watches that tell time differently. As you can tell, the clunky phrasing never stuck, and nobody ever came up with anything that did. When MB&F first started out, 15 years ago, pundits toyed with the words kinetic art and time machines, but the problem with that is we can trace unusual displays of time all the way to the era of pocket watches. Creativity is not something confined to the 21st century after all.

Leaving aside just digital displays of time, including jumping hours, and erotic watches, then the era of astonishing timekeeping tales probably began with the Ulysse Nardin Freak and the Richard Mille RM01, both in 2001. Both watches were instrumental in completely reshaping people’s ideas of what a wristwatch should be. This serves as a great starting point for us, because what we are interested in here are watches that go beyond the hands of time. The original Freak was a watch without traditional hands, crown, and dial - even the case was more than just mere housing for the movement. It was, in fact, a total time machine where everything bar the strap was functional. By way of contrast, RM 001 delivered the time in a more or less conventional manner; the presentation, execution and price point were complete shockers though.

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