Passing time

By Daniel Holz | June 5, 2009 2:10 pm

Flip through a random magazine, and you are likely to be confronted by one of the great mysteries of modern times: an ad for a mechanical watch. Breitling watch adFor the past 30 years it has been possible to acquire a watch with a quartz movement for a minimal investment. These watches are small and light, and do an extraordinary job of keeping time (i.e, drifting by roughly one minute a year). Nonetheless, there is a flourishing market for watches with mechanical movements. These watches are generally large and heavy, are significantly more expensive, and most importantly, are far inferior as time pieces: easily a factor of ten worse than their quartz counterparts. How could there still exist a market for these obviously inferior watches? The answer lies somewhere in the unfathomable realm of fashion and marketing.

Last week’s New Yorker has an article [pay per view] by Patricia Marx about Baselworld 2009, the annual watch fair. Although I find the article annoyingly cutesy, it has some interesting tidbits. I guess there’s little reason to buy these watches besides the ineffable associations with the brand. So watchmakers go to extraordinary lengths to craft and define their brands:

Among the countless blowouts at Baselword, Breitling’s is considered to be the most lavish. A few years back, guests were taken in buses to a quarry that had been transformed into a mythical Persian landscape, appointed with sandpits and palm trees. Camels and white stallions roamed the premises, as did chickens. Guests were given flowing robes and head scarves to wear, and sat on cushions, where they were entertained by belly dancers while being served a Middle Eastern banquet and forbidden hooch. Hookahs were passed around. “Just when you thought it was over,” Roberta Naas, a watch-industry writer, told me, “one of the walls disappeared, revealing Siberian tigers and tiger tamers in cages.” After the animal act, the cages vanished in a puff of smoke, and, lo, another wall lifted and the pseudo oasis turned into a pseudo disco. Another year, at what the Breitling people call their “terrorist party,” the buses were pulled over at an abandoned warehouse by men in full military garb with machine guns, who subjected the passengers to interrogations. Afterward, there was dinner and dancing.

This was all in the middle of Switzerland. For a Swiss watch company. To what end exactly? You obviously can’t sell your watches on the basis of their time-keeping ability, so you craft a completely arbitrary image. And, amazingly, it actually works. Fortunes are being made selling bulky, antiquated, unreliable time pieces. The last paragraph of the article pays homage to the fact that time belongs to physicists:

It turns out that memories may be a thing of the future, if as some physicists believe, time runs backward (backward wristwatch,, $28.95). More bad news: time may be running out of time. Other physicists speculate that our universe could mutate from space-time to just plain space. Time itself would cease to exist. Even your platinum Sotirio Bulgari with a perpetual calendar will be no good then ($212,000).

I have no idea what she’s talking about. Maybe our local expert on the arrow of time will chime in?

Modern humans have a fascination with time: how quickly it passes, what happened yesterday, what will happen tomorrow. I like to believe that physics has a role to play in this. On the one hand, Einstein was so kind as to show that time is a fairly complicated, observer-dependent quantity. And thus the only time that is really meaningful is, in some sense, the time we measure on our own watches. So we had better keep track! On the other hand, we have now firmly established that the Universe has not been around forever. It is only 14 billion years old. There is a huge psychological difference between living in an eternal Universe and one that has a finite history. It’s now incumbent upon us to keep track of the Universe’s age. Unfortunately, we’re still a little unclear as to the Universe’s life expectancy. Current indications are that the dark energy will continue to accelerate the Universe’s expansion, and therefore the Universe will last forever (instead of ending in a Big Crunch). However, given how little we understand about dark energy, this is at best an educated guess—nobody would be all that surprised if it turned out to be a much more complicated scenario. And so, in this framework of a Universe with a finite age, and an uncertain future, it makes sense to keep careful track of the passage of time. It is now 3:10:12 PM Mountain Standard Time on Friday, June 5. I need to get back to work.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Gadgets, Miscellany
  • JP

    I love this blog, but sometimes I think the dismissive attitude about anything that doesn’t “compute” scientifically speaking, is silly. It’s like you guys are robots or something. Completely unemotional about everything and believe that everything can be and should be reduced to numeric rationality. I personally couldn’t care less about these over-priced watches, but I understand why people obsess about them. They are handcrafted pieces of mechanical workmanship. 1000’s of man-hours go into creating these watches using traditions that have been handed down and refined over centuries. Yes, a 5 dollar quartz watch that was stamped out at a factory, 1000 at a time, is a more efficient time-keeper, but these watches aren’t being used to calculate NASA trajectories. I would never pay more than $500 for a watch, but I understand collectors and enthusiasts who value the work and effort that goes into each and every one of these watches. They are works of art, and they are beautiful.

  • boreds

    I’m a scientist, but I absolutely agree with JP. Summed up by the phrase: “the unfathomable realm of fashion”. Why don’t you have a go at fathoming it?

  • lojinx

    Actually, I thought Marx’s Baselworld article was quite hilarious, and spot on.

    >> I have no idea what she’s talking about. Maybe our local expert on the arrow of time will chime in?

    Here’s what she’s talking about:

    Why our time dimension is about to become space-like
    October 9th, 2007 | by KFC |

    It don’t get much weirder than this. The universe is about to lose its dimension of time says a group of theoretical astrobods at the University of Salamanca in Spain. And they got the evidence to prove it.

    The idea comes from the study of braneworlds: the thinking that the universe we see around us is a 4-dimensional cosmos called a braneworld embedded in a multidimensional universe. The “signature” of our universe is the number of space and time-like dimensions it has: in our case we got 3 space-like dimensions and one time-like dimension. It’s what astrobods call a Lorentzian universe. So far so good: lots of astronutters think the same thing.

    But our universe may not always have been like this. Some theorists think it may once have had a Euclidean signature meaning that all the dimensions were space-like. Now Marc “Bars” Mars and a few pals in Spain say that the Universe’s signature might be about to flip from Lorentzian to Euclidean. In other words, our dimension of time is about turn space-like. Gulp!

    This ain’t entirely bonkers and here’s why. Bars Mars has calculated what it’s like to be an observer in a universe that is about to flip and get this: it would look as if it were expanding and accelerating away from us. Sound familiar?

    Yep, it’s exactly what astrobods have been observin over the last few years, a phenomenon they attribute to dark energy. If Bars Mars is right, dark energy ain’t got nothing to do with it and we’re all starin’ down the barrel of a cosmic catastrophe.

    Still, maybe four space-like dimensions will be better than three. Who needs time anyway?

    Ref: Is the Accelerated Expansion Evidence of a Forthcoming change of Signature?

  • Fundie

    Flip through a random magazine, and you are likely to be confronted by one of the great mysteries of modern times: a celebration of non-reproductive sex. For the past 30 years it has been possible to acquire a child without having sex at all. These children are small and light, and do an extraordinary job of being children. Nonetheless, there is a flourishing market for non-reproductive sex. The participants are generally large and heavy, are significantly more expensive, and most importantly, are far inferior as generators of children: easily a factor of ten worse than their reproductively unrestricted counterparts. How could there still exist a market for these obviously inferior sex objects? The answer lies somewhere in the unfathomable realm of fashion and marketing.

  • anonymous

    What about a higher accuracy wristwatch – maybe something like a GARMIN Forerunner 205? It should be able to provide accurate time with its internal clock, and provide corrections to that clock using GPS signals.

  • C H

    Who even wears a watch any more? I generally either have a cell phone, laptop or car radio in front of me. And if I don’t, that usually means I don’t care what time it is.

  • greg

    Regardless of silly marketing and fashion, did you ever think someone might want a mechanical watch because it is finely crafted machine? You obviously need some more engineering genes. The point here is not who keeps the most accurate time (OK quartz wins, so what?) but rather the aesthetic enjoyment of finely crafted timepiece. I guess you think slide rules are stupid too. Sure they’re obsolete but people still buy them and appreciate the craftsmanship that went into them. Well, at least some people do. You should have spent more time in the lab.

  • Anne

    I agree with greg: there’s an appeal to a clever machine, and while it’s obviously possible to do all kinds of things digitally, and even many things electronically, sophisticated mechanical devices have a brilliance and wonder all their own. Mechanical watches, certain old radios (ART-13!), even guns if one can overlook their function, are all astonishing. All the more so if you can take them apart and see how they work (and of course reassemble them and get them working again), though I realize with a mechanical watch that’s not likely a layman’s task.

    As for slide rules, not only are they neat gadgets, they make great props for teaching logarithms.

  • Patricia Shannon

    If they didn’t cost so much, I would get a mechanical watch because I hate to use batteries, which are very damaging to the environment. Like CH, I no longer wear a wristwatch. I finally broke down a couple of years ago and got a cell phone. At least its battery is re-chargeable.

  • Luis

    It’s a matter of functionality and style. If you want another example, I own a pair of running shoes in which I can walk literally all day without making my feet hurt or feel tired, but I don’t wear when I’m lecturing or socializing (I wear trendier sneakers or dress shoes). It’s the same reason why we short-sighted people invest time in finding an eyeglass frame that looks good on our face, rather than picking the first one that does a good job of holding the lenses in front of our eyes. Mostly I use my cell phone to tell the time, but if I’m going out, I take a little pocket watch (purchased in a street market in Amsterdam for about €14) because (i) it looks way better than a piece of cheap plastic strapped to my wrist –as in women-compliment-me better–, and (ii) if you are in a bar on a Friday night, who cares in your watch is five minutes off?

    Now, would I pay €500 for a watch? Hell no. There is a difference between functionality and style, but there is also a difference between style and shelling cash in a futile attempt to show off.

  • Tszap

    It is now 3:10:12 PM Mountain Standard Time on Friday, June 5.

    …which is not very relevant unless you’re in Arizona. Everywhere else in the time zone uses Mountain Daylight Time.

    (Sorry… people referring to “Standard Time” during DST is a peeve of mine!)

  • Counterfly

    I’ve never seen a post on this blog that failed to get it as much as this one. For a lot of people who own and collect automatics, it’s not about fashion or communicating class status (which are reasonable goals in themselves) but about the sheer joy of having a beautiful object. The timekeeping is secondary.

    As a physicist, you really should appreciate the making of these astonishing objects. Google tourbillon…

  • DancingBear

    But of course the point of the post is that these expensive watches are not sold on the basis of their mechanical marvels, functionality, or the elegance of their craftmanship, but rather on the basis of an arbitrary image of coolness and exclusivity that the companies work hard to give themselves (complete with tigers and camels). Do the watches themselves, taken without the marketing, possess that coolness?

  • miller

    One time, I asked my grandfather whether he preferred analogue watches or digital watches better. I was surprised, he said he liked digital watches much better. But immediately after he answered, I realized why. He had spent most of his life as a chemist working on liquid crystal displays. Of course he would appreciate digital watches!

    Now, I have no idea how quartz watches keep time, but I’m sure it must be nothing short of amazing.

  • Kaleberg

    Now that watches no longer have to keep time, expect to see them used more and more as signifiers. In magazines and the fashion world, we’re seeing them as increasingly extravagant jewelry. For the folks who follow Gizmodo or Engadget, the mere display of time is part of a cryptic game. Why not watches that only display the time when you have an appointment? Why not watches that tell you where you are instead of when?

  • daniel

    I am not trying to say that there is nothing beautiful or remarkable about a mechanical watch. DancingBear has it right: It is the marketing aspect that I find incomprehensible. When most people pay thousands (or, in some cases, hundreds of thousands) of dollars for these timepieces, they aren’t doing it for the remarkably intricate mechanism hidden inside (which they are probably only dimly aware of). They’re doing it because of all the ads they’ve seen. Because of the branding. Because on the front of the watch it says Rolex or Breitling or TAG Heuer. I imagine the price of the average mechanical watch is almost entirely due to marketing costs (modulo those encrusted with diamonds, etc.).

  • Paul Ricker

    If I had a spare $600, I know exactly which watch I would buy — and it would have everything to do with its beauty and very little to do with its practical use: the Astrodea watch ( You don’t see ads for Astrodeas in the Aspen, Colorado airport though.

  • Anne

    daniel: Yes, that was clear. But really, watches don’t seem to be any worse than other status items – expensive cars, fancy chocolates, and the like. In fact, since watches are wearable, a more apropos comparison is maybe the fashion world, where the marketing is almost completely divorced from the items themselves: an expensive fashionable outfit is probably just as shoddily made as and more uncomfortable than a cheap outfit from a big box store. You could even argue that a watch is one of the few items of jewelry that men of the relevant class wear. From that point of view, it’s not so different from elaborate diamond necklaces – whose value is almost all created by marketing and artificial shortages.

    miller: Actually, the way quartz watches keep time is really rather dull. They have one precisely-made component, a piezoelectric crystal that resonates at a very specific frequency. Electrical signals are fed into it to get it moving, and a voltage oscillating at that frequency is read out. A chip counts the peaks, and when one second worth has been accumulated, it moves the second hand. There is certainly cleverness that went into designing the crystal and the chips, but it’s a cleverness that was invented once and applied in every practically every sort of electronic gadget. Mechanical watches, on the other hand, more or less require an extremely fine balancing of spring tension, very precise gears, gemstone bearings (to minimize wear)… to work at all they need to be beautifully-crafted. (Clearly there’s no need for them to work hard selling me on mechanical watches. Shame they’re out of my price range.)

  • greg

    I love the Breitling Navitimer – it is exquisite both inside and out – but I’m not going to buy one unless I win the lottery. I went with this wonderful option instead:

  • Jason A.

    “Actually, the way quartz watches keep time is really rather dull. They have one precisely-made component, a piezoelectric crystal that resonates at a very specific frequency.

    Mechanical watches, on the other hand, more or less require an extremely fine balancing of spring tension, very precise gears, gemstone bearings (to minimize wear)… to work at all they need to be beautifully-crafted.”

    It could be argued that your whole explanation is based on the branding of the ‘coolness’ of mechanical watches. You could just as easily talk about the elegance of quartz watches in their simplicity and efficiency of design as opposed to the Rube-Goldberg device that is the mechanical watch.
    Not that I care either way, I don’t wear watches for the same reason as CH, just pointing out that your standards of what makes a good watch (or good machine) are pretty arbitrary – you (and others here) seem to be saying a complex machine is good simply due to the fact that it’s complex beyond need. Which I think was the original point of this post: if people are judging watches by some standard other than their ability to keep time, why is that? And would those people be just as happy with their watch if it was purely a fashion piece where the hands didn’t move at all, and why not?

  • greg

    Rube Goldberg?? No – more like an elegant mechanical engineering solution to the problem of compact timekeeping. Must everything be merely utilitarian? I have nothing against quartz timepieces. Some of them are pretty cool. I own two. But if you can’t understand the attraction to a precision machine crafted to very tight tolerances that performs the timekeeping function quite well (do you really need quartz accuracy?), I don’t know what to say. A good design is timeless (no pun intended). A DC-3 is a lot slower than a Boeing 747. But it’s a beautiful design. You would think readers of a physics blog would resonate with a mechanical device that elegantly produces simple harmonic motion! Channel your inner Christian Huygens!

  • Pingback: Devouring time | Cosmic Variance | Discover Magazine()

  • Anne

    Jason A.: You could argue that the reason I think mechanical watches is arbitrary. Maybe it is. But I don’t think so: I think there’s a notion of cleverness that I’m trying (and apparently failing) to describe here that has much broader applicability. In a way it’s like “elegance” in mathematical proofs. Some proofs are elegant, others are not, in spite of being just as valid.

    I think in the case of watches what I admire is that mechanical watches manage to solve a difficult problem – making movement exactly repeatable and periodic – under very challenging constraints. Quartz watches, well, it’s like applying a sledgehammer to the problem. *I* could design a quartz clock, and I don’t really know what I’m doing. I could be sloppy about it – so the battery voltage isn’t quite right, so the resistors are a little off, so what, I just fiddle one pot and it keeps great time. Modern electronics provides such powerful tools, you can churn out zillions of cheap watches. But try to do the same thing with, essentially, pre 20th-century techniques, and it becomes extremely difficult. Solving hard problems is more impressive than solving easy problems.

    A mechanical watch is almost the opposite of a Rube Goldberg machine: a Rube Goldberg machine does a simple task using the most complicated method available. A mechanical watch must be as simple as the task and the constraint (no electronics) allows or it just won’t work. And a mechanical watch that doesn’t work – whose hands don’t move – isn’t a solution to the problem at all.

  • Neal J. King

    Anne (23),

    I understand what you’re saying: The mechanical solution appeals to you because it has to be done right, whereas the quartz solution can be made to work almost any which way.

    But isn’t it the mark of true sophistication and elegance in a solution that it is robust to variations and specific values? An analogy: I might be able to prove a particular result using either a complex calculation (in which I have to get every step right) or a simple symmetry argument. Which is more elegant?

  • Spiv

    Fashion? Wait, Fasion? That’s what interesting watches are about? I don’t wear a watch . I, you know, own a cell phone that plugs in to a network that plugs in to some atomic clock somewhere. That same cell phone handles all my other stuff like alarms, messages, and telephone calls. I do own a few watches though (tossed in a drawer where I can admire them whenever I please)

    Getting by day to day “on time” doesn’t take accuracy. Mechanical watches are interesting to look at, and very interesting to build. It’s art.

    I do have something against a quarts watch: You’re probably already carrying around at least one other device that serves its purpose. You’re also probably in view of at least one more time piece (in fact if you’re reading this, you certainly are). A wristwatch no longer serves a purpose. What’s left is a testament to precision machining that is perfectly fine to admire.

  • Doug K

    I am currently wearing a large heavy quartz-watch imitation of the fashionista mechanical watches, for no better reason than that it amuses me. For those of us who don’t have cell phones and/or occasionally wander into mountains or canyons where all signals die, a wristwatch is still useful. Also, for swimmers, runners, randonneurs and their ilk, carrying a cellphone is irksome or impossible. A quartz digital watch is perfect for us.

    I have an old automatic watch, a Buren, which at the time (1950s) was the thinnest automatic watch made. It’s worth about nothing, although it runs fine and keeps time to about 2-3 minutes a week. When all the watch batteries die, it’s still going.

    If the cost of mechanical watches were a reflection of admiration for their engineering, I’d expect these older watches to be worth more.. so I agree, it’s mostly the ineffable wonder of branding that sells. Those watches are accessories, not timepieces: signifiers, as Kaleberg says.

  • Jo

    @JP: “It’s like you guys are robots or something. Completely unemotional about everything and believe that everything can be and should be reduced to numeric rationality.”

    Come again? Hang out with many New Agers? I’ve heard this bogus accusation before. Usually means you missed the point.

  • Yale s.Y. Landsberg

    I add this here as I believe it refocuses attention from displays of both mechanical and quartz timepieces to the need for more holistic “tymewhole” displays of the whole picture of time. As our bodies need to know the time.

    I said elsewhere that the Chronophage’s depiction of time being devoured seems really cool.
    And then I added that, as recent medical research shows that many illnesses (including depression, obesity, insomnia, autism and Sundown Syndrome in Alzheimer’s patients, and more) are associated with poorly operating biological clocks, maybe it is we who are being devoured by time? At least “corporate standard time” — as compared with “local natural time” — i.e., “time” that is naturally defined as “time of local sunrise, local noon and local sunset”!

    As modern working conditions and modern time-keeping (such as time zones, and Daily Saving Time) have more and more gotten in the way of our biological clocks knowing what they need to know to healthily regulate our circadian rhythms, perhaps it is time for us to get our bio-clocks back in sync with the flows and ebbs of actual day and night? Can’t hurt, and might help a lot. Which is why GreenTyme’s recently patented Synclecron is freely available on the Web at And also why its mobile edition will soon be freely available for the browsers of iPhones, gPhones, BlackBerries, etc., via

  • serial catowner

    Reminds me of the soliloquy in Jurassic Park by the guy with the flea circus- how the customers would all describe the wonderful things the fleas were doing, and how did he ever train them to do that?

    The point being, of course, that there weren’t actually any fleas there at all.

  • wuzzy

    Years ago I had a $10 Timex, self-winding, which lost about 1 second/month. It too, was Swiss made.


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