So, I’m a member of this Whatsapp chat group, right. It’s got a whole bunch of people in it who are interested in watches — mostly collectors, some industry heavy hitters, handful of journalists. We share wristshots, horological news, commentary, funny videos — the kind of stuff you’d expect from a group like this.
Last night, someone hit us up with the news that Kari Voutilainen is collaborating with a Chinese smartphone manufacturer to produce a signature series of phones bearing Voutilainen elements. Specifically, Kari is contributing a SIM-card cover, which comes in the shape of a watch dial, mounted on the back of the phone. It’s not some half-assed exercise in repurposing stock components either — the dials only go up to the eighth marker, so they’ve got to be custom. They’re made in Comblémine, Kari’s dial factory, and are as well made as you’d expect anything by Kari to be. Fellow Finn Stepan Sarpaneva has also pitched in with some work on the bezels, so you can see this is a group effort. Yay, Scandinavian solidarity!
Within the group chat, initial reactions to this announcement were kinda mixed, which seems fair, because it is an unexpected move from Kari. But then later that evening I did a quick tour of my social media accounts and it seemed as if people were, like, going apeshit over this.
Am I the only one who doesn’t have a problem with this news at all? I’m actually cheering for Kari in this situation, and although I understand a lot of the knee-jerk reactions and where they’re coming from, I would be really surprised if people didn’t move past their emotions fairly rapidly and take a more balanced view. Or maybe I wouldn’t be surprised in the least, just appalled and disappointed, but we’ll see.
My assessment of the situation, which I posted in the group chat, is as follows:
“If it brings Kari a ton of money and allows him to spend more time creating incredible watches without having to worry about financial pressure… I gotta say I’m totally cool with that.”
Let’s break it down a bit more. We can assume that Kari’s involvement comes with a substantial remunerative component, because there’s no way he’d be making a move into China’s luxury smartphone market otherwise. Last time I checked, we’re not living in the Twilight Zone.
Kari having more financial resources at his disposal is a great thing in my opinion. The watch industry is in a bit of a hole at the moment, in case you hadn’t noticed. I like Kari, I’m borderline obsessed with his watches, and I’m sure as hell pleased that he looks set to do well out of a collaboration that doesn’t take too much time away from his watchmaking. We know he can make beautiful and innovative timepieces. I still have vivid daydreams about his double-direct-impulse detent escapement, framed by softly incandescent Côtes de Genève.
I want him to have the wherewithal to indulge the full extent of his creative exploration, and I want him to have the freedom to work on something truly special — without the constraints that come with client commissions or investors. This kind of non-industry, relatively low-involvement partnership is pretty much perfect for this.
I don’t want to talk about the pricing culture that surrounds direct sales in independent watchmaking, but I will say this. It’s very easy to call someone a sell-out if you’ve never had to make a living one sale at a time, whilst keeping all your biggest, most ambitious ideas in a drawer. Can we just not do this here? Can we at least try not to be that guy — that guy who wants his favourite band to stay indie and his favourite director to remain arthouse forever?
Plus, it’s not even like he’s making the damn phone itself, or even co-branding it! He and Stepan made one component on a limited series of high-end personal mobile devices. Apparently the phone manufacturer, 8848 (kinda like the Chinese Vertu, but less vomitously expensive) is planning to collaborate with other exceptional artisans in the future. Couture designers, maybe, or enamellers, sculptors, engravers, who knows, right? I sure as hell don’t.
My point is, this is not something to lose your shit over.
But what about the downside? What about the effect this will have on the Voutilainen branding, the prestige of Kari’s watches? What about how people will think?
I don’t see how this changes anything. Is Kari less of a watchmaker because of this? Are his watches less appealing today than they were yesterday? Does anyone seriously think that the people who buy Voutilainen watches are going to be put off by his legitimately interesting (and mild) foray into diversification? Does anyone seriously think that the people who buy Voutilainen watches are gonna go elsewhere to get their fix of technically superb, visually intoxicating, mythopoeic modern classic watchmaking? Who the fuck actually thinks like this? Newsflash: People don’t buy a Voutilainen watch because they like its image, okay. It’s not a Tinder date. People buy Voutilainen watches because they need them in their lives.
At the end of the day, this situation works uniquely for Kari because of who he is, what he does and how strongly he connects with his existing clients. A bigger company wouldn’t benefit from this kind of collaboration at all. From where I’m standing, it looks like a pretty good move on all fronts for Kari. And let’s not forget that Voutilainen watches might gain new admirers along the way. Let’s not forget that we know Kari, we know what he can do, we know his dedication to the values of fine watchmaking. Let’s not forget that we actually want to expand the community of mechanical-watch enthusiasts. Let’s not forget that more people getting to know and understand and love the work of masters such as Kari is a GOOD THING. So why you gotta hate?
If you don’t agree with Kari’s decision, fine, that’s your prerogative. I mean, everyone’s got a right to an opinion. As a journalist, I can’t be going around telling people to mind their own damn business — that’s just batshit insane. And in any case, I know the criticism comes from a place of deep caring, of incredible passion and love for fine mechanical watchmaking — I never want to lose sight of that, no matter how much and how vehemently I disagree with anyone’s take on any issue. I was educated in a supremely nerdtastic environment and went around with a bunch of ferociously smart all-female school debaters (still do, to this day), so I kinda gained by osmosis the ability to engage in pitched intellectual battles without losing an iota of mutual respect or affection. But let’s stop with the reactionary bullshit now, please.
Peace out, lovers.