In today’s world of luxury watchmaking, authenticity is paramount. Brands invest vast resources in convincing us, the buying public, that what we buy is something that, as the saying goes, will last a lifetime. More than one, in fact. After all, what could be more authentic, more precious than a mechanical object containing a mixture of heirloom technology and cutting-edge science, accompanied by the promise that you can pass it on to your children? Watch companies often get the message across: we are the real deal! Vote for / choose / buy us! —And telling their stories over and over. Authenticity, to borrow a phrase, is the new oil.
In fact, many luxury watch companies now employ armies of people who, like reverse prophets, explore the past to shed light on the present, and then service the museums that serve as vectors for those stories.
Take Audemars Piguet, founded in 1875. It now has a team of 20 people who run its spectacular museum and heritage department designed by Bjarke Ingels. Next year will be the 50th anniversary of the brand’s totem Royal oak, and already the company’s archivists are teasing the faithful with news that they have uncovered all kinds of relevant details about its history that slipped through the net the last time they dived into history, for its 40th.
AP is not alone. Patek Philippe, Vacheron Constantin, Omega, Jaeger-LeCoultre, IWC, Tag Heuer, the list of brands that invest in well-funded museums and / or heritage departments continues to grow.
Stéphane Belmont, director of brand heritage for Jaeger-LeCoultre (founded in 1833), puts it this way: “[Heritage] is particularly essential in the luxury segment since history, tradition and know-how are the keys to the brand’s credibility.
At Omega (1848), Petros Protopapas, head of the company’s brand heritage, put it this way: “It’s about conserving and preserving history to ensure that the brand, as well as the fans, have the most in-depth access to the past. “Omega customers love stories of Speedmasters landing on the moon, split-second Olympic records and explosive James Bond watches. Protopapas gives them reason to believe.
Not that this is a strictly new phenomenon in watchmaking. Already in the 90s, when the astonishing revival of mechanical watchmaking took hold, many realized that tapping into what they did yesterday could help change what they were selling today. Tag Heuer had previously shelved its Monaco and Carrera models, but by reissuing them in the late 1990s, he has endeavored to remind us of his connection to Steve McQueen and the golden age of motorsport. It worked, didn’t it?
But, as if to prove the theory of its value today, the past has not always been treated that way. Catherine Eberlé-Devaux, now at Bulgari but formerly Director of Heritage at Tag Heuer, once told me that during the 1980s and 1990s, when Tag Heuer was bought and sold twice, the new generations of Executives felt archives, stashed in heavy files rather than in the cloud, were unnecessary baggage. So they threw them away. Her job, she said, was to rebuild them, which meant scouring the earth in search of copies of old textbooks, print ads, and books.
Due to the perceived value of heritage in the watchmaking world, the status of brand heritage manager is growing exponentially. Their work sells watches. And not just for the brands they represent. Auction houses and second-hand sellers also benefit. Just look at how aftermarket prices for Royal Oaks and Nautilus have soared in recent years. And of course, given that it is a circular economy, there are a lot of spinoffs that brands also benefit.
Sébastian Vivas, the director of heritage and the playful and bookish museum of Audemars Piguet, understands the sexy side of his work, describing it as “a constant adventure” and “like a perpetual treasure hunt”. Next year, when we hear the story of how Gerald Genta created the Royal Oak in a way we’ve never heard it before, we will no doubt see a commensurate increase in sales.
Omega Protopapas says, “An authentic story gives people confidence in your brand. This is important because it serves as living proof of a brand’s authenticity. With so many shopping choices available, it’s the real story, the real story, that makes the difference.
Such is the value of a good heritage story that even new generation brands are forced to redeem a past with which they have nothing to do. The British watch company Bremont is a master in the field, telling its story through timepieces inspired by the Wright Flyer, HMS Victory and the Enigma machine, cultural markers that in some cases predate the brand’s first watch by several hundred years in 2007. The company’s subsequent success only breathes life into the idea if you don’t. not your own wealth, you’d be smart to borrow someone else’s.
But let’s face it: talking about authenticity and heritage is a varnish in itself, hiding the reality that what we’re really talking about here is nostalgia, which has a new motto when the world goes to hell in a handcart. Earlier this year, Cartier introduced a new version of the Curved Tank, a faithful reboot of a play that debuted a century ago, when, as no one saw it, the world was heading into the Roaring Twenties.
There is no reason why such a design heralds another period of prosperity, but that is not the point. The call is in the suggestion that it might. Authenticity, laid bare, feeds our cloudy appetite for optimism and hope. Cynical marketing approach or not, most of us will welcome a little hope.
Robin Swithinbank frequently contributes to The New York Times, the Financial Time and GQ. He writes from the UK