Green Rambles: Investing In the Obsolete

I cannot think of a more successful obsolete technology than mechanical watches. Even when you invest several hundreds of thousand euros or dollars into a triple tourbillon delight, it is outperformed by the cheapest quartz watch, which in turn has a hard time competing with your smartphone. For decades a mechanical watch doesn’t make sense anymore, and in all honesty, we can apply the same verdict to its quartz-powered sibling. Nevertheless, mechanical watches are still a multi-billion dollar/euro industry. What is even more remarkable is that this same industry is investing hefty amounts in research and development to make mechanical watches more precise, knowing that it will never be enough to come even close to the precision offered by a quartz watch, let alone radio-controlled timepieces, smart watches, and other cellular products. Are we fooling ourselves?

My straightforward answer to this is no. While mechanical watches were initially a practical invention with a sense of beauty because we wear them on our wrists, the quartz crisis proved that their functional supremacy was over and passed on to the next generation of technology. In most fields, such a transition is brutal and means the end of the obsolete. In the business-to-business market, this is a law. No airline would order a zeppelin anymore for its intercontinental flights, just as the market for steam engines vanished. In the consumer market, this is slightly different, as there is room for emotion. It doesn’t mean that any surpassed technology survives, but it has a chance. We see this, next to watches, also with vinyl records.

If consumer demand stays strong, that changes everything for an industry. It is then not only profitable to continue making the obsolete product but also to introduce new models. But shouldn’t we draw the line there? Why fool ourselves with developing thinner, more accurate, more complex mechanical watches that don’t stand a chance against today’s cheaper, more accurate, and more versatile devices? It is because it has become an art. It is not about beating another technology but excelling in one’s own category. It is about celebrating human ingenuity and the appreciation that all those tiny little parts, sometimes even put together by hand, can function at incredible precision. That is what makes this obsolete product worth investing in, for both consumers and the industry.

Why are you still buying mechanical watches? Let us know in the comments!

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  1. Urs Gottscheu

    This is one of the best articles about watches I was reading the last 20 years. Doesn’t have to be one thousand words, when the essence has been recognised.
    We have to admit that the product in it’s original meaning is obsolete, precisely to realise that this is why more is needed than ever before. Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us.

  2. Dan F Spencer, III

    It is absolutely about “celebrating human ingenuity”. Keeping accurate time is no longer a challenge. The question is “What can we accomplish within defined limitations?” It is the intellectual equivalent of demonstrating bravado by “I can beat you with one hand tied behind my back!”

    In the process of exploring that intellectual exercise, I discovered something that surprised me. While I am pretty sure that nobody will argue that a watch’s design gives it a personality, Quartz watches left me with an empty feeling. I felt they had no soul. That implied that I felt that mechanical watched DID have a soul… I think the cycling of the balance wheel is the heartbeat of the device.

    So, for me a mechanical watch has a personality, a heartbeat and a soul. Does that leave any question about why I love them?

  3. Jeff Taylor

    I love having a beautiful mechanical machine on my wrist. Seeing the second hand smoothly sweeping across the dial brings me joy and some sense of serenity.

    That being said, I’m having a hard time getting excited about buying any more mechanical watches. Between the ballooning costs and the future servicing costs, I’m not sure I will be buying any more mechanical watches in the future.

  4. David Balkin

    Mechanical watches will always be a big deal as long as civilization remains intact. Practicality aside, they’re art and in each long gone civilization it’s the sole unsullied contribution to the betterment of this fragile planet. That and they’re jewelry. We have a passion for adorning ourselves.

  5. Steve Cseplo

    Outside of the fact that they are functional art, the main reason is I am sick and tired of replacing batteries!



  7. Tor Schofield

    Missing the point that it has nothing to do with time keeping, but just wearable status and ‘look what I’ve got on my wrist’, nothing wrong with that we do it all the time, The time mechanical technology bit is just a way of assuring our guilt, in a very guilty pleasure.

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