Other brands, like Omega, that previously made relatively affordable watches survived by catering to the wealthy. The Speedmaster—a “mechanical” watch, meaning it is powered by a mechanism—remains one of the most popular Swiss watches around. Besides telling time, it has a chronograph, which basically means it can also work as a stopwatch, and a tachymeter, which measures speed. It also looks remarkably, to use a technical term, cool.
But the fact that people still buy watches—let alone ones that cost thousands of dollars—shouldn’t make sense. The wristwatch should have gone the way of the astrolabe, the astrarium, and the gramophone. The mechanical watch works much as it has for more than a century, but now it is surrounded by cheaper and more accurate alternatives. After all, a cellphone keeps time, too; a $400 Apple Watch keeps time and measures heart rate, and makes calls; and a $30 quartz timepiece from Target tells time with greater precision than a mechanical watch. The mechanical watch should be an anachronism. And yet it is not. Far from it—if successful funding efforts on Kickstarter are a measure. In January, Swatch, Omega’s parent company, reported that in 2018, its strongest sales growth was among brands such as Blancpain, Omega, and Longines, which are part of its “prestige and luxury range.”
“In this era of disposable technology, people want things that last,” Paul Boutros, the head of Americas for Watches at the auction house Phillips, told me.
In other words, the Speedmaster and watches like it provide a sense of permanence in an age with little of it. The Speedmaster available today is virtually the same as the one Aldrin wore on the moon, or indeed the one Omega introduced way back in 1957, as a tool for race-car drivers.
It is unchanged because there’s nothing to change: The mechanical watch is, along with the bicycle, an arguably perfect invention. If wound every day and serviced regularly, it can run for perpetuity. There aren’t many things you can say that about in our era of fast fashion and biennial phone upgrades.
Part of the lingering appeal is atavistic: Humanity’s desire to record the passage of time possibly dates back to the age when people cowered after sunset in the seeming permanence of darkness. Ancient Egyptians used the sundial more than 1,000 years before Christ. The Ancient Greeks used water clocks; the hourglass has been around since at least the Middle Ages. The first modern clock, the kind we’d recognize, was invented in the 15th century. Its mechanism was such a wonder that the Founding Fathers even likened God to a clockmaker, who, having created the world, was cheerfully absent as it functioned. And in the 1962 speech that launched the American conquest of the moon, President John F. Kennedy held up the watch as the exemplar of technological sophistication: The rocket that would go to the moon, he told the crowd at Rice University, would be “fitted together with a precision better than the finest watch.” It was—and the men inside relied on the Speedmaster, to do more than tell time.