Decolonizing Watches

As part of my interest in time, I’ve also become interested in world of watches. The craft practices associated with the production and maintenance of watches, the history of types, calibers, and brands, the generally incremental approaches to technology, and the appeals to tradition make it an appealing, if commercial, antidote to rapid pace of change present in so much of society and culture in the 21st century. 

Appeals to tradition, craft, and even technology are certainly part of the strategy that the watch industry uses to sell their products. In general, these complement another array of white, masculine, tropes used in contemporary efforts to market watches. I’ve loosely clustered these into four categories. Some watches – like the Rolex Submariner or Explorer, the Blancpain Fifty fathoms, the Omega Seamaster, Breitling Emergency, or Longines Conquest – evoke the adventure of scuba diving (especially the various watches associated with Jacques Cousteau), mountain climbing, polar exploration, or even space.  Other watches are military inspired: various Panerais (of Rambo fame!), the iconic IWC Pilot watches, the famous Cartier Tank (in a vague, but historical way), field watches from Hamilton and others brands, and various models based on the requirements of military contracts. There is a category of watches associated with motor racing, including the famous Rolex Daytona (associated with Paul Newman), the Omega Speedmaster, and the various (now TAG) Heuers with names like Monaco, Carrera, and Camaro. Finally, there is the category of slim, subtle, and elegant dress watches which largely seem to follow the design vocabulary set out by Patek Philippe with their early 1930s Calatrava. With subtle nods to the contemporary Bauhaus movement, these watches wore their mechanical precision in their design and reflected the values of a “sharp dresser.” These categories overlook, of course, the wide range of practical watches designed for specific functions or tasks such as maintaining rail schedules (e.g. the Omega Railmaster), flights over the poles (iconic Universal Polarouters here), work around magnetic equipment (my favorite watch of all time, the Rolex Milgauss), or jumping second watches designed for doctors.

This litany of watch types and examples provides a framework for contemporary efforts to market these watches which generally draws on the heroic (and in some cases legendary) origin stories of these brands and models. As a result, the watch industry exudes white, privileged, European, masculinity laced with colonial narratives of conquest, martial prowess, aristocratic risk taking, and scientific progress and precision. 

[I recognize, of course, that the very concept of the watch and the need for precision timekeeping is also manifestation of colonialism, so it’s hardly surprising that watchmakers embrace these colonial motifs in such a traditional industry.]  

Of course, not all watch brands are Swiss and European. Over the last fifty years, three of the largest watch brands in the world are Japanese – Casio, Seiko, and Citizen – but in many ways these brands follow the model set out by the European (and to a lesser extent American) industry and produce watches that fit into these categories. What is interesting, of course, is that these brands (and I’m more familiar with Seiko and Casio than Citizen), engage in a distinctive strategy of colonial mimicry. The design of Japanese watches evoke those of the major European brands while at the same time subtly expanding the vocabulary of design to accentuate the precision of Japanese manufacture. For example, Taro Tanaka insisted that the crystals of Seiko watches should not distort the dials and the cases themselves should embrace planar, geometric forms both to reflect the light and to evoke the precision of the watchmakers craft (for more on this go here). These standards both drew upon Swiss standards of precision and accuracy, while also developing a distinctive “grammar of design” that defines the brand even today. The use of distinctly Japanese forms in Seiko watches, such as the use of enamel or the “snowflake dial” that imitates Japanese rice paper, creates an identity for this Japanese watch maker that mimics European horological traditions in a distinctly Japanese way. The cult-like rise of Casio G-Shock watches which drew upon the long-standing traditions of rugged military watches as well as Japanese street culture similarly demonstrates how Japanese watchmakers mimicked European traditions while at the same time defining their practices in ways that evoke Japanese culture both for their domestic audience as well as the global consumer.

[As an aside, I want to acknowledge the presence of watchmaking traditions in China, especially the interesting story of the Seagull ST19 movement, and in India where HMT Watches emerged as one of the largest manufactures of watches in Asia using the almost bullet-proof HMT  020 (and the upgraded 0231) movement (which is basically a version of the Citizen’s venerable 0201 movement from the mid-1960s) that HMT manufactured until 2016 when the Indian Government closed the company down.]

Over the last two decades, watchmaking has further proliferated through the emergence of “microbrand” watches. These brands tend to produce watches in small batches using mass-produced movements in distinctive cases. I own a few myself from Zelos (Singapore), Dan Henry (Brazil), and Unimatic (Italy). The rise of microbrands depended in part on access to low cost manufacturing in China which often takes advantage of surplus capacity at factories which also produce European and Japanese watch cases, movements, dials, and bands. The watch movements used by microbrands come from Seiko, Citizen (Miyota), or ETA (which are produced by the Swiss watch conglomerate Swatch Group) as well as some other clones of these well-known and trusted movements.   

This post was prompted in some ways, by a comment on a microrband Facebook group that noted how many Seiko movements are now manufactured in Malaysia. The commenter mentioned this both to imply the Malaysian manufacturing standards were not as high as Japanese or Swiss standard, but also to note that Malaysian workers do not have the same protections that Japanese or European workers do. In the “conversation” (let’s say) that followed people complicated the issue further by pointing out that many Swiss brands manufacture parts of their watches in China, for example, where worker protections are often far less than in, say, Europe or the U.S. The use of manufacturing facilities in China, Malaysia, or elsewhere reflects global economic realities that both make microbrands possible and maintain profit margins for Swiss, Japanese, and American watchmakers. The idea of a watch being “Swiss Made” is little more than a marketing strategy designed to suggest quality and traditional practices which may or may not reflect the actual processes that actually produced the watch. Microbrands, interestingly enough, tend to be more forthright than the major Swiss or Japanese brands, as to where their watches are made often investing a good bit of time and energy into demonstrating that they have quality controls in place to ensure that their movements, cases, and dials maintain a certain standard even if none of them are produced “in house” (see for example, Nodus or Halios). In some sense, this transparency of manufacture offers another example of colonial mimicry where the microbrand assures the customer of the quality, while also locating the watch’s production within a global supply chain that nevertheless requires another degree of in-house quality control. 

The transparency of microbrands stands in contrast to their marketing which continues in the traditional European tradition of a rugged colonial masculinity. In fact, many microbrands specialize in dive watches (e.g. Zelos or Helson) or field watches (e.g. Unimatic or Hemel) or watches with automotive themes (e.g. Straton or Autodromo)  or combinations of these types. What has intrigued me, however, is not their adherence to the canonical types associated with European watchmaking, but the potential for their concern with transparency of production to open a new area for watchmaking as a field. Could microbrands introduce a decolonial watch that leverages the transparent supply chain to insist on ethical manufacturing of watch components, that embraces a designs that challenge the traditional of colonial masculinity, and that appeal to consumers who want to see watches (and time) in a more global perspective? What would such a decolonizing watch look like? Could it represent more than than the dense and ambiguous language of colonial mimicry and embrace a distinct set of production, marketing, and horological values on its own grounds?   

 

 

One Comment

  1. Bill, I won’t engage with your socio-political musing, but will say that if you want a first class ticket to watch nostalgia and perhaps nostalgia in general when in Minneapolis, visit Marshall Ferster (yahoo link below). He does a fair-priced trade in watches etc, similar with repair, and is just an interesting person to chat with. His standard line when selling you a vintage watch is: “Now, you understand, this is not a digital watch. It will require care and maintenance.” Sentiment from our pre-consume-it-toss-it world.

    https://local.yahoo.com/info-24304885-american-vintagem-ferster-minneapolis?guccounter=1

    Reply

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