I wear an upper-middle Swiss mechanical watch made of stainless steel. It is priced in the high fours, not the mid six figures of today’s altitudinous luxury watch market. So when boulevarding on Bond Street, I feel like a man in a Ford Fiesta rubber-necking at the Monaco Grand Prix. Still, my watch is handsome, robust and reliable. It tells me the time and I tell myself it’s indestructibly perfect. Like many things I tell myself, this is a delusional fantasy.
My watch, and they did not tell me this when I bought it, needs very expensive servicing every few years; otherwise it stops. I bet they did not tell Rolex ambassadors Herbert von Karajan or Roger Federer either. Patek Philippe says a new watch may need attention after as little as 36 months. My functional masterpiece has a regular need to be lubricated, cleaned, polished and lovingly fettled.
If a mass-produced artefact from a modern factory needs such fastidious maintenance, what on earth does a watch hand-made out of precious metals require? Chaucer mournfully asked ‘If gold do rust, what then will iron do?’ I have begun to ask, if stainless steel suffers wear ’n’ tear, what are the chances my pink gold complication will tick and tock until the final gongs of oblivion?
The answer is zilch. Exquisite watches are delicate and need as much maintenance as a jet engine with its hierarchy of A,B,C and D checks. And the most exquisite ones eventually require complete restoration. Because watch collectors tend to be the obsessive type, there is a strong and evolving market in restoration. And restoration is to maintenance what having your 1959 Ferrari 250 GT SWB rebuilt from the ground up is to having KwikFit change the exhaust on your Fiesta hatchback.
Something of the reality of our precarious moment has hugely increased the demand for both collecting and restoring classic timepieces. It’s as if history offers more certainty than the present, a buffer against worldly chaos. Patek Philippe runs a busy restoration department in its Geneva headquarters. Fully stocked with original parts, it complements with high craft the aura which Patek’s own museum confers on its brand values.
Cartier too is acutely aware of its history, recently sponsoring an exhibition at the Paris Grand Palais and busily acquisitive in the marketplace, buying up old watches for its archives and for exhibits. Audemars Piguet also has pro-active archives and teams of experts who can spend up to 800 hours on a single restoration job. Meanwhile, Classic Watch Repair in Hong Kong is not a sleazy Kowloon sweatshop, but a big business recycling instruments of the zeitgeist.
There is something about restoration that speaks of the Swiss personality and its quiet, white-lab-coat fanaticism. The career of Michel Parmigiani began when he worked on a classic Perrin Frères pocket watch whose movement had corroded and, even in a land of expert restorers, he is outstanding. He talks about the ‘intelligence of the hand’ and his workshop has acquired exceptional skills in microscopy, goldsmithing, enamelling, chisel engraving, gilding and glassmaking. He does microsurgery with precious metals. This is not, he quite correctly insists, mere repair, but an altogether higher form of creative activity where the intellect is as involved as the craft skills.
There is a philosophy of restoration. In the 19th century, the architect Viollet-le-Duc attacked France’s medieval remains with pitiless imagination and inexhaustible energy. Repair, he maintained, was what a jobbing builder could do. But restoration transcended the limitations of the original. Accused of imagining his own Middle Ages, he said he was merely doing what the originators might have done had they possessed his superior knowledge, taste and techniques.
To avoid any temptation to reimagine the past, since 1996 Parmigiani has been making new watches inspired by the restoration of ancient ones. Thus he has moved from microsurgery to childbirth. The quiet fanatics at his workshop in Fleurier have acquired huge expertise dealing with the complications of a half millennium. And customers can now strap on this expertise.
Parmigiani’s 2009 Bugatti Type 370 watch shows where we are going. Its arrangement is as radical a departure from the norm as Ettore Bugatti’s cars once were, its complication set athwart the wrist like a miniature T35 crankcase. The face is angled to be visible when the driver’s hands are at the ten-to-two position on the steering-wheel of his 225mph £1 million Bugatti Veyron hypercar. Ralph Lauren was given the first. If you need, to ask, you really cannot afford one, but about £140,000 would do it.
Other restorers have also made the conceptual leap into design and production. Peter Speake-Marin, ex-Hackney Tech, used to work in the crepuscular luxury of Somlo Antiques in Piccadilly Arcade, but since 2000 has been based in Switzerland producing, for example, a tourbillon movement for Harry Winston.
There is something haunting and reflective about using ancient techniques in new watches. If there are thoughtful individuals among billionaire collectors, they might wonder as they stare at the beautifully tooled face of a restored watch, where is truth? What is a lie in restoration? New products made with old techniques can either answer or conveniently avoid the question.
It’s a paradox of our moment that no one needs to wear a watch; a phone has satellite time whose accuracy mocks the gods. Yet demand for technically complex clockwork has never been higher. And some of those who can afford it prefer a human touch with its beautiful possibility of error and very high price.
All of time is an approximation, as Einstein discovered. Something a little like the special theory of relativity occurs in a restoration workshop. In Parmigiani’s, restorers and maitre-horlogiers sit side by side. Old and new are not separated. Restoration, recreation and invention are not segregated. Materials and ideas cross the frontiers of time and space. To many, that’s a comfort.