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Why we splurge on timepieces

THERE is nothing rational about buying a luxury watch. Indeed, the modern luxury watch today is more akin to jewellery than usefulness.

Before digital technologies, when mechanics and electrics ruled the earth, wrist horology was a high science pursuing superior mechanics for greater precision.

From the 1960s, with the advent of quartz movements, many brands perished. Yet some survived and are thriving today. They thrive not because of greater technical achievement, but thanks to their brand stories.

Among watch aficionados, it is this slice of brand story that often sets hearts racing. For watches with technical complications, such as tourbillions and minute repeaters, their stories may be horological art in its creation.

We therefore buy watches because we desire them, not because we need them. This is not surprising, since timekeeping alternatives are abundant and even the cheapest mobile phone relying on network time is often more accurate.

Desire works pretty well in encouraging us to buy a particular watch - an object providing pleasure, sometimes reassurance, or confidence, each time it is worn. Treasuring something is human nature, in the way we identify with the story or how it identifies us.

So, like jewellery, we desire timepieces because of how we respond to a brand's story and how it humanises the object for us. In the relentless march of time, it gives us a sense of permanence and validity in the face of endless change and innovation.


Our watch-buying choices are sometimes determined by a timepiece's design and creation, or how it wears on our wrist. How long we keep it may be determined by how we identify with its brand story and the universe of its values. The details of this story seek to explain where it came from, how a particular material or detail was included, and its distinguishing qualities.

Simon Sinek's most often viewed lecture on TED - about his Golden Circle framework, or "Starting with Why" - is one way of understanding why we identify with some watch brands and models, and not others.

It has three components. From inside out, "Why" is at its heart, representing the purpose, cause or belief of how a watch brand identifies with us individually. In the middle layer is "How", or its guiding values and principles. Finally, right outside, is "What", which is the values or guiding principles represented by technical details.

This framework explains why there is no romance in using your mobile phone to tell time.

"How" it helps you tell time and other smartphone features are rationally understood. "What" it represents are convenience and practicality. The "Why", or heart of the story, reinforces the fact we often live in a stressful, time-pressed world of the moment.

In the case of a luxury watch brand, starting with "Why" at its heart, it's about the story we have chosen to identify with. The "What" are the values of that "Why", and finally the "How" is just the fact its mechanics work.

Take Rolex as an example. Since 1905, it has touted its technical excellence and innovation. None of these are earthshaking anymore, yet it remains popular.

The real Rolex story is therefore not technical excellence, but its "Why", how its watches are iconic and witnesses to history - a tenet of its brand storytelling that is timeless.

This link to a heritage lifestyle is calculated, linking the future with the past. Owning one allows you to tell a story about the slice of history your watch model has witnessed.

However, an expensive watch does not automatically grant it collector status. Sometimes I get asked if a particular S$2,000 watch is a "good investment". The truth is that, if you have to ask, probably not.

My Benrus Type I diver, for instance, was originally issued free to some Navy Seals who served during the Vietnam War but is today very collectible. Its collectability is its story, and that only 6,000 were ever produced.


Making the audience a key part of that storytelling, creating feelings of identity with a story that is unique, is even more powerful. We often have one particular watch that's more special to us than any. This may not be because of its brand story, but how that one piece tells our story as a witness to our life histories in the making.

Many of us which have completed National Service get a free Hamilton watch with a Singapore Armed Forces logo. While inexpensive, if you consider it often takes more than 10 years of your life in service to earn it, it is your most expensive watch.

Another is the example of my cousin Glenn Cheng and his Bell & Ross Type Demineur, a bomb-squad watch he first bought new in the 1990s. Over the years, each time I saw it, its tritium markers had become just a little more creamy-yellow.

About two years ago, he asked me if he should sell it and upgrade. I said "Why? What else will tell the story of your life the way this one does?" Fortunately, he listened to me.

Last year, Glenn published a post in his Facebook. In his own words: "Inexpensive quartz; classic looks; and such robust material and construction; virtually unbreakable (until they run out of battery).

At -40 degrees Celsius wind-chill (at Bathura glacier), 18,000 ft above sea level; splashed by a fellow mountaineer's pee overlooking the Karakorum; free-fall exits from 3,500 ft, 7,000 ft, 10,000 ft, and 12,000 ft; jumped out of a Russian Mil-8 Heavy Lift chopper at 14,000 ft; two parachute malfunctions; one bar brawl; one ruptured L5 spinal disc (climbing) Pennines; two horse falls, one car crash; and . . . getting married, two births and one called time of death. Never lost a second."

The best in watch storytelling isn't, therefore, only its brand story but - for many of us - how a particular watch helps us tell our own story.

  • The writer is director of communications at a professional services firm.

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