It has taken me about seven years to get this scoring system right where I want it. The reality is the scoring system has been worked out for a while, but I have long feared that I was not the right person to review watches. I just didn’t “get” them. My tastes and opinions were so far out of step from the watch intelligentsia (Hostinkee) that I simply assumed that I was wrong and I just couldn’t wrap my head around what makes watches interesting.
But then I thought about this problem from another angle: what happens when there is a dominant approach to something that, over time, seems to be clearly and obviously lacking? Why aren’t watch guys getting this? To me this is the problem of dogma. The orthodoxy of watch opinions is so strong, so unified, and so entrenched, that the watch community can’t see another way. Some do. Nick Shabazz and I talked about this on GGL90 and he gets it. But the Hodinkee-reading public seemingly doesn't.
And so I put this out there with a huge caveat: I am not approaching watches from the position of watch dogma. This is, I think, a different take, one better tied to rationality. But, of course, I could be wrong. I have thought about this very carefully for seven years and I think I can defend my position, but there is a huge possibility that I am just out of it.
I feel like I have good intellectual company though. Immanuel Kant, epic German philosopher, wrote of David Hume: “He awoke me from my dogmatic slumbers.” Good thing he did, philosophy without Kant would be like rainbows without colors. At the time, Cartesian rationalism had dominated Western though for a hundred or so years. David Hume came along and, ever the intellectual bomb thrower, and blew up all of the encrusted assumptions around that way of thinking. Then Kant came along and did his thing. Dogma is a conceptual straightjacket. Here is me blowing up gear dogma on watches. If this bothers you avert your eyes.
Watches are tools. If you want a piece of jewelry on your wrist, buy a William Henry man bracelet. As tools, they can be nice and refined or cheap and crappy. I will, of course, reward the former and slight the latter. It is also important to note that if you like watches as jewelry, more power to you. But that is not the perspective I will use in reviewing them. As a corollary to this position, I am also not so obsessed with watches as exercises in branding or status symbols. As a lawyer I see plenty of people that enjoy the signaling provided by an expensive watch. The “he-is-wearing-a-Rolex-so-he-must-be-a-good-lawyer/doctor/investment banker” approach to life is one I find lacking. Perhaps it is living in New England, where this trend is less common than, say, in California, or perhaps it is my lifelong disdain for branding and signaling, but whatever the reason, I am not going to bother giving watches credit for this either. I also have a hard time swallowing the horse-pill sized marketing efforts of watch companies to connect their timepieces to you becoming more manly, elegant, or sophisticated. Things do not make you a better or different person, no matter how much they cost. I don’t care if my mechanic has Snap On tools, so long as he gets the job done right and economically and the same logic, in my mind, should apply to watches.
This doesn’t mean that I can’t appreciate a coaxial Omega or a nice Rolex. They are well-made tools. But I am not going place value in something like the Rolex Submariner simply because “everyone knows” that it is a watch that tells others how wealthy you are. Status symbols won’t move the needle in my reviews because: 1) I don’t care about status symbols; and 2) it is exceptionally hard to evaluate this. Aside from the Submariner, the Presidential, and maybe the Omega Speedmaster I don’t have any reliable way of determining if a given watch “conveys” status to the average person. Certainly the average person would not “get” the prestige of a Audemars Piguet Royal Oaks. In many ways, to the untrained eye, the gaudy Royal Oaks looks like one of any number of cheap “Randy Jackson” watches you’d find at a low-rent mall. So the capacity of a reviewer or critic to reliably measure or conceptualize the status signaling of a watch is problaby zero, outside two or three very unusual cases.
As tools, watches have a simple function: to measure, in a variety of ways, the passage of time. Anything that subtracts from that function should be held against the watch design. If a watch loses time, is inaccurate, is burdensome to use or wear, or is illegible it is a poorer design. I am not so concerned with movements. I want an accurate one, but to the extent that a movement is complex and inaccurate, I don’t like it. Paying for complexity in a tool seems odd. Rube Goldberg machines aren’t tools. Their function is purposely secondary to the complexity of the machine. Watches ARE tools and therefore their complexity should be in service to something else. This is especially true when the cheapest mechanism--a quartz design--keeps better time than the complex ones.
Often when I push watch gear geeks on this topic, they have a typical rejoinder: expensive knives are equally silly as cheap knives cut stuff just as well. My response has a few parts.
First, of course, this is true, and I agree with this approach. For many years running my #1 recommended knife and my favorite knife has been a $80 Spyderco--the Dragonfly II in ZDP-189. I have had knives that were much more expensive, but in the end the Dragonfly II works so well that I only own more expensive knives I want to not because they work better. This want is something that I have a very difficult time justifying to others. This is one reason I have a hard time reviewing custom knives. All of those reviews usually have some caveat like “this is not a rational purchase.” It is also why I gave the SPY007 a score of 20/20 but NOT RECOMMENDED. Things that expensive are wonderful devices and insanely well-crafted but they are not justifiable or defensibly rational purchases in my mind.
Second, there is an issue of scale here. An expensive knife is ten or twenty times more expensive than the Dragonfly II or better yet the San Ren Mu 605, but an expensive watch is orders of magnitude more expensive. Compare say, a Timex Weekender to a Rolex Submariner, 266 times more expensive ($8,000 for the Submariner and $30 for the Weekender). That difference matters, especially when the Submariner does not keep as good a time as the Weekender. The rejoinder stresses that expensive knives cut “just as well” as cheap ones, but in the watch world the expensive watches do not keep time “just as well” as the cheap ones, and when the better timekeeper is 266 times cheaper than the more expensive one, there is a problem.
Finally, there is this--it is exceptionally difficult for me to evaluate expensive things that are expensive for non-performance reasons. Too many matters of taste are brought into the equation for criticism of these things to be useful. This is one of the reasons modern art criticism is so inaccessible to the average person. Whether it is paintings, orchestral music, or poetry the gulf between what critics like and what the average person understands as great is huge, except in the rarest of instances--like, for example, Beethoven’s 9th Symphony or Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue.
On the flip side of this is something like high performance automobiles. When you compare a Pagani Huayra to a regular car, there are, to be sure, a lot of elements that are unnecessarily expensive (rhodium dials, for example) and there is a dash of “oh this is rolling sculpture” as well. But there is one area where the Huayra is clearly and indisputably better: performance. It handles better, it is faster, it accerelates better, it is lighter, more rigid, and has better stopping power--all things that can be measured. There are clear and objective measurements that make the Huayra better than cheaper cars and that makes evaluation of the Huayra more easily intelligible to the average person. An average person may be just as unlikely to purchase a Huayra as they are to purchase a Mark Rothco, but at least the average person can appreciate why the Huayra is superior to their econobox, get-me-to-work-and-back car. Imagine if you had to pay Huayra money and all you got was a Ford Taurus with rhodium gauges. That is what many expensive watches are asking people to do and those in the thrall of the dominate watch dogma do it time and again with joy. This, in my mind, is proof that the dominate watch dogma is flawed and in need of being upended.
In the end I do not expect to persuade anyone. If you have purchased a $10,000 watch that performs worse than a Timex Weekender, you have clearly shown where your beliefs and values lie. Post purchase rationalization is very strong in this case. What I do hope to do in reviewing watches from this distinctly counterdogmatic position is to formulate a method of evaluation that is defensible in the face of Hodinkee-powered orthodoxy. The Hodinkee crowd may disagree with me, but I hope to at least make arguments cogent enough for them to see the logic and reasonableness in them.
Up next is the watch scale. And then, with much trepidation, my first watch review--the Sinn 556.