Now I own… well, more watches than I’m willing to admit in case my wife reads this. I wrap them around tiny, oblong pillows that fit into chambers inside a box purpose-built to hold reserve timepieces. None come close to the prestige (nor the cost) of a Rolex or a Vacheron Constantin. But they don’t need to. Facebook serves me constant ads for new watch microbrands. Today, the appeal of a watch is partly—perhaps largely—derived from the fact that it is chosen despite its obvious digital alternatives.
A mechanical watch is one of the only devices left that embraces utility, design, and fashion without having any relationship whatsoever to computers and the internet. It is automatically contrarian, offering a deliberate, if modest, rejection of digital and online life. The wearer of such a timepiece feels the cool solace of that serenity against the skin. A tiny reprieve from the unceasing persistence of computation.
Likewise, the modest care needed to keep a watch running makes it a pleasure, not unlike gardening. Mechanical watches used to operate by hand-winding only, but most movements today are “automatic,” or self-winding. An asymmetrical weight inside the watch oscillates with the natural movement of its wearer’s arm, re-tensioning the mainspring. Once fully wound, an automatic watch worn daily will keep running perpetually. And if it stops, it can easily be restarted. But not before reminding the owner of the modest duty required to tend to an alien physical object.
For those lucky/foolish enough to own many watches, the small ritual of daily winding turns a watch collection into a litter of steampunk puppies. A few moments when loosening a timepiece at night or donning one in the morning offers communion with the miracle of power absent electricity.
Unlike the smart device, the analog watch orients its wearer toward the world rather than the self. The smartphone is all about you. It notifies you when new messages or likes arrive. It offers an ointment of information when the boredom of routine burns hot. The smartphone sucks in data and reprocesses it in a way that satisfies the device’s owner. As the smartphone’s handmaiden, the smartwatch merely compresses that information and makes it more accessible, from the wrist rather than in the pocket.
But the watch directs that attention outward, back toward the world. Checking the time is different from checking the phone. It poses implicit questions about where one ought to be, or what one ought to be doing. It situates a body in relation to the duties and accidents unconcerned with the tension of a spring wrapped inside a metal shell on a human wrist. Checking the time is always a humble act, while checking the phone is always a selfish one.
And perhaps most important of all, the mechanical watch reminds its wearer that the promise of universal computation is also a lie. No machine can truly simulate all others without distortion, because simulation is just another kind of representation. Even the million-dollar Vacheron Constantin has its limits— sunrise and sunset, for example, can only be indicated accurately in relation to longitude and latitude. A machine that seeks to measure the heavens can only ever approximate that measurement. Otherwise it would be coextensive with the cosmos.