In the world of luxury watchmaking right now, authenticity is paramount. Brands devote vast resources to convincing us, the buying public, that what we are buying is something that, as the saying goes, will last a lifetime. More than one, in fact. What could be more authentic, more precious, after all, than a mechanical object containing a mixture of heritage technology and cutting-edge science that comes with the promise that you can pass it on to your children? Watch companies often convey the message: we are the real deal! Vote for/Choose us/Buy us!—repeating their stories until you’re sick. Authenticity, to borrow an expression, is the new oil.
In fact, many luxury watch companies now employ armies of people who, like inverted prophets, mine the past to shed light on the present, then maintain museums that function as conduits for those stories.
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Take Audemars Piguetfounded in 1875. It now has a team of 20 people serving its spectacular Museum designed by Bjarke Ingels and heritage department. Next year will be the 50th anniversary of the brand totem royal oakand already the company’s archivists have teased the faithful with news that they’ve uncovered all sorts of relevant details about its history that slipped through the net the last time they delved into the story, for its 40th.
Stéphane Belmont, Director of Brand Heritage at Jaeger-LeCoultre (est. 1833), puts it this way: “[Heritage] is particularly essential in the luxury segment because history, tradition and know-how are the keys to brand credibility.
At Omega (1848), Petros Protopapas, the company’s brand heritage manager, explains it this way: “It’s about retaining and preserving history to ensure that the brand, as well as the fans , have the deepest access to the past.” Omega customers love stories of Speed Masters the moon landing, split-second Olympic records and the James Bond explosion watches. Protopapas gives them reason to believe.
Not that it is strictly speaking a new phenomenon in watchmaking. As early as the 1990s, when the amazing revival of mechanical watchmaking took hold, many realized that tapping into what they were doing yesterday could help change what they were selling today. Tag Heuer had previously mothballed its monaco and Carrera, but in re-releasing them in the late 1990s it tried to remind us of its connection to Steve McQueen and the golden age of motorsport. It worked, didn’t it?
But, as if to prove the theory of its worth today, the past has not always been treated that way. Catherine Eberlé-Devaux, currently at Bulgari but the former heritage director of Tag Heuer once told me that in the 1980s and 1990s, when Tag Heuer was bought and sold twice, new generations of executives felt that the archives, stored in files heavy rather than in the cloud, were unnecessary baggage. So they threw them away. Her job, she says, was to rebuild them, which meant scouring the earth for copies of old textbooks, print advertisements and books.
Due to the perceived value of heritage in the world of watchmaking, the status of brand heritage director 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 the secondary market prices of Royal Oaks and nautiluses have risen in recent years. And of course, since it’s a circular economy, brands also get a lot of spinoffs.
Illustration by Celyn
Sebastian Vivas, director of heritage and museums at Audemars Piguet, understands the sexy nature 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 before, we’ll no doubt see a commensurate increase in sales.
Omega’s Protopapas says, “An authentic story gives people confidence in your brand. It’s important because it serves as living proof of a brand’s authenticity. With so many trading choices available, it’s the real story, the real story, that makes the difference.
The value of a good heritage story is such that even new generation brands find themselves forced to redeem a past with which they have nothing to do. British watch company Bremont is its master, 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 in 2007 by hundreds of years. don’t have your own heritage, you’d be smart to borrow someone else’s.
But let’s face it: talking about authenticity and heritage is a veneer 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 introduces a new version of Fitted Tanka faithful reboot of a play that debuted a century ago – when, as no one will have missed, the world was heading into the Roaring Twenties.
There’s no reason for such a design to herald another boom, but that’s beside the point. The appeal is in the suggestion that it might. Authenticity, laid bare, feeds our hazy appetite for optimism and hope. Marketing approach cynical or not, most of us will welcome a little hope.
Robin Swithinbank frequently contributes to The New York Times, the FinancialTimes and GQ. He writes from the UK
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