How a Million-Dollar Superwatch Is Fighting Back Against Computing

Cheap or expensive, mechanical timepieces remind human wearers of their own humility.

At its heart, a mechanical watch is a fancy spring. A metal coil stores power when the crown is wound tight. A series of gears harnesses that energy in even increments. It spins a central wheel, whose oscillations are geared to turn the watch’s hands.

Once gears spin, it’s possible to add more complications, as watchmakers call them. A date display, for example, can be accomplished by adding a reduction gear mechanism to cause a calendar disc to rotate every two full revolutions of the hour hand. A similar mechanism can track the phases of the moon. A more complex one, called a perpetual calendar, can account for months less than 31 days and even leap years. The more complications, the more complexity, cost, labor, value, and mechanical drama.

The Swiss watchmaker Vacheron Constantin recently announced a remarkable mechanical movement with 23 complications. The mechanism contains 514 components but measures less than 9mm thick. In addition to such picayune matters as the perpetual date, the device is geared to track, in part: the Earth’s elliptical orbit, solar time, the zodiac, solstices and equinoxes, tide levels, the position of the sun, and the night sky in the Northern Hemisphere. Dubbed Les Cabinotiers Celestia Astronomical Grand Complication 3600, it is encased in 18 karat gold, and can be had for a cool $1 million.

It’s easy to sneer at such preposterous ostentation: a couple free smartphone apps can do all that astronomy, and more accurately too. But the Celestia Astronomical Grand Complication still does something digital devices cannot: provide delight via mechanics rather than integrated circuits. And it’s alone in that spectacle. Today, the watch has become the final resistance against the supremacy of computers.

* * *

Today, millions of smartphone owners use handheld devices to tell the time instead wristwatches. Even before smartwatches came on the scene, phones became wearable devices too. Like a pair of glasses or an epinephrine pen, the mobile device became a permanent accessory for the body.

It had fashion sense, too, for a time. Bulky, plastic handsets became thinner, or with sliding or folding functions, or clad in bright colors or shiny metals. Until the iPhone came along—that great wool topcoat of personal accessories—and made everyone’s timekeeper the same. A spectacle of temporary novelty rather than ongoing operation.

When smartwatches appeared, some predicted they would mark the final chapter of wristwatches. And the high-end Swiss watch industry has indeed seen its sales decline in recent years. To some extent, wrist computers from Apple, Samsung, Fitbit and others have displaced consumer purchases of timepieces. But the person who spends hundreds of dollars on smartwatches and smartphones might not have been interested in doing the same on fine watches anyway.

In truth, the decline in Swiss watch sales has been caused by more complex factors than simple technological disruption.

One is global economics and monetary policy. After the Swiss unpegged the franc from the euro in 2005, its value spiked, making exports more expensive. Likewise, the decline of the British Pound after the Brexit vote had an impact on the affordability of luxuries abroad (although purchases of British timepieces surged). The rise of the price of gold, a common ingredient in luxury watches, hasn’t helped either. Even the disruptive products weren’t immune. Apple, for example, discontinued the $10,000+ 18k gold edition of its smartwatch last fall. Another factor was a crackdown on corruption in China, where luxury watches had been common bribes.

The Swiss watch business has faltered before. Starting in the 1970s, inexpensive battery-powered watches replaced mechanical watches in the global market. These watches use electricity to cause a quartz crystal shaped like a tuning fork to vibrate at a predictable frequency. In a modern quartz movement, an electronic circuit measures those vibrations and converts them into electrical pulses timed a second apart. Those pulses then power a small motor to drive the second hand of an analog watch display. The result is accurate and reliable—requiring no winding or maintenance, other than replacing a battery every couple years.

Quartz crystals had been used in timepieces since the 1920s, but the wide availability and low expense of electronic circuits in the 1970s and ’80s made them cheap and therefore ubiquitous. The result was a “quartz crisis” in the mechanical watch industry. By the early 1980s, more than half of Swiss watchmakers proverbial clocks had stopped.

But the quartz disruption was largely internal, largely invisible to the user. There are some differences in operation: A mechanical watch’s second hand sweeps smoothly, whereas a quartz watch jumps discretely from second to second. And the need to wind a mechanical watch by crown or by wrist persists as a feature of traditional movements. But whether quartz or mechanical, watches still did one thing: tell the time whilst wrapped around a wrist.

This time, the watch market is changing in response to multiple factors. In part, the luxury industry has lost control over their tight distribution channels, and high-end watches are available via unauthorized, “gray market” dealers at a fraction of their list prices. Even folks who can afford a $500,000 Audemars Piguet might not mind saving 28 percent.

There’s also been a rise in sales among smaller manufacturers. These companies sell direct or via distribution, spurning the tightly-controlled retail jewelry channels traditional to high-end watches. They range from new, luxury watchmakers that sell exclusively online, to discount manufacturers with more modern design sensibilities, to so-called “microbrands,” often individual makers funding projects on Kickstarter or marketing them through horology enthusiast websites. Even Vacheron Constantin is trying to lure millennials by selling $45,000 timepieces online.

Some Swiss makers, including TAG Heuer, Alpina, and Frederique Constant, have introduced “horological smartwatches,” Swiss-luxury timepieces with hidden, digital features. These devices have helped keep sales flat, at least, compared to some brands. But ironically, the smart-device revolution that seemed certain to doom wristwatches altogether, no matter their movements, instead seems to be inspiring a revival of traditionalism rather than an embrace of hybridization. The variety and affordability of timepieces—including fully-mechanical ones in the spirit of that million-dollar Celestia Astronomica—are greater than ever.

* * *

Until last year, I hadn’t worn a watch since Bill Clinton was president. At the time, Yahoo! and Netscape were the kings of technology. I started taking it off when I was programming ten hours a day; wristwatches—designed mostly for soldiers and pilots—have never been particularly compatible with the repetitive keyboarding of office work. In 1999, I got my first cell phone, the chunky Nokia 6190, and like so many others I started using it as a portable clock instead. Mobile handsets were bulky. Carrying one felt burdensome, and that burden justified stripping other accessories from the body. The watch was the first to go.

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.

* * *

It’s an important lesson. During the Enlightenment, when widespread mechanical timekeeping was new, the metaphor of a “clockwork universe” gained currency. The behavior of the universe appeared to be understandable according to a series of laws, interconnected like gears in a clock. A great machine that runs of its own accord, absent the intervening hand of God, both rational and tractable.

Computers haven’t just overtaken the public’s work and leisure lives. They have also changed how people think about knowledge. First steam-powered and then electrical machinery replaced the clock as a metaphor for the universe of knowledge, and then computation followed suit, offering itself up as a model for cognition—and even for the universe itself.

The great beauty of timepieces is that they make clear the impossibility of a clockwork universe, and they do so by clockwork itself. The watch is a mechanism that reveals the ingenuity of humanity’s control over existence, while also showing the limits of that control. It is a mastery that must be nurtured, lest it grind to a halt. Wristwatches probably won’t save a marriage, or a community, or a country, or the planet. But they might offer tiny, tactile reminders that to live in the world requires touching it daily in order that it might continue to run.