Watch Words

Watch Words

Thank goodness for the dictionary and the thesaurus: all languages have words with multiple meanings, so it’s easy to check that “conflict” (as a noun) – doesn’t only mean war and it isn’t always negative. Indeed, in a non-militaristic context, it does inspire and drive thinkers and doers, inventors and designers and artists and musicians to new heights.

It can be internal, as in: “Should I really have another slice of cake?” Or it can mean, “a serious disagreement or argument”. It is often grand and global, such as: “The eternal conflict between the sexes.” Or it can describe another type of non-bloodthirsty confrontation, for example, doctors coming into conflict with politicians or two generations in the same field with opposing views, such as musicians or artists.

Etymology aside, in the watch world, the most obvious conflict was, and for some remains, mechanical vs quartz. Note that I didn’t say “digital” because that only means the type of display. Long before Pulsar and others discovered LEDs, since the heyday of the pocket watch – and even the early days of the wristwatch – there have been mechanical watches with digital displays. Lucky are those who own a Cartier Tank à Guichets or Cortébert digital model from 1929 or, more recently, one of the super-cool Lord Elgin Chevron digital jump-hour watches with domed cases made in the 1950s.

There are myriad conflicts in the watch world, most of them involving the customers rather than the brands. You might be one of those who buys only Swiss-made timepieces and would find German, Japanese or offerings from other countries unappealing for a variety of reasons. There’s steel vs precious metals, straps vs bracelets, manual vs automatic, round cases vs square – you can do this for hours if you run out of conversations at the bar.

Every issue of Revolution contains articles that feature conflicts: new CEOs vs their predecessors, new mission statements vs the previous modus operandi, China vs the West, black vs white (not race!!!), originals vs reissues, to restore or not to restore, and other general debates. But overriding the lot, if you mention “watches” and “conflict” in the same breath, most will assume you mean military watches which, if you look at the current values of Milspec Rolexes, the Dirty Dozen, RAF and NATO timepieces and the like, have never been more in-demand.

There’s another appearance of the word “conflict” that eludes the watch industry, as in “conflict of interest.” But that’s a topic for another day – or one for the forums, Twitter and other avenues where the industry’s foibles can be debated by those who have no fear of conflict with lawsuits.

But back to basic definitions. One of the lesser conflicts in my working life is an obsession with the correct use of words vs the watch industry’s misuse. I once had to struggle with a Continental client for whom I write press releases (no, not a watch brand), who was inspired by the term “contamination”, apparently a buzz-word among marketing types a few years ago. Despite his word-perfect English, I could not get across to him that it wasn’t edgy, which was what he assumed. “Contamination” is always negative, as in the sole dictionary definition of “the action or state of making or being made impure by polluting or poisoning.”

Meanwhile, the  majority of Swiss and German watch companies continue to misunderstand the nuances of the word “novelty”, which is categorically not what one should use to describe something that’s more aptly described as “a brand-new model”, a “debut” or a “launch”: to English speakers, “novelty” (as well as “novelty value”) means “the quality of being new, original, or unusual,” not the object itself, as the watch brands seem to think.

But the linguists enjoy the last laugh: “novelty”, when applied to a thing, means “an object intended to be amusing as a result of its unusual design”, like a fake moustache or a whoopee cushion. Unfortunately, this is what pops into my head every time I go to SIHH or Baselworld and hear some po-faced presenter talking about: “Our novelties for this year.”

Let me assure you: if you earn your living writing about watches, it doesn’t do many favours for the credibility of a £300,000 tourbillon.