Ken kessler
Ken Kessler.

Rewriting history undermines the watch industry

With deference to the prosaic and self-congratulatory press releases that companies love to share with the watch world, Ken Kessler asks why brands can’t simply tell the truth.

George Santayana warned that, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”.

Conversely, Henry Ford, that poster child of intolerance, spat out, “History is more or less bunk”.

Two opposing views but, for too many in the watch industry, alas, Ford is the one with whom they agree. For some watch houses, history is there for rewriting.

As cavalier with their own stories as they are with the English language, Swiss and not a few German wristwatch manufacturers play fast and loose with the facts.

Nobody wants consumers to be reminded that they made watches for Hitler to hand out to his officers.

The only deterrent to tampering with the past is that the internet places brand biographies at our fingertips, but even Wikipedia isn’t free of corrupting when the manufacturers write their own entries.

Almost without exception, brands are guilty of creating faux accounts of two particular aspects of their legacies. The first is exaggerating longevity, in particular uninterrupted production.

In some cases, the original brands never even made wristwatches yet they’re happy to suggest they’ve been at it for 250 years.

Doh: wristwatches didn’t even arrive until the 20th century.

Only slightly less egregious is the second area ripe for revisionism, as there is room for doubt.

It’s claiming to be responsible for horological firsts, whether milestone technical inventions or other achievements like attaining the greatest depth for diving watches.

Add to this a refusal to provide any disclosure or documentation when called to task by a journalist writing up a story, and you realise that Swiss watch houses take after their fellow countrymen in the banking industry. Silence or secrecy? The phrase “something to hide” springs to mind.

Says watch journalist Simon De Burton: “There are plenty of reasons why watch brands should never attempt to rewrite their histories – not least of which is that, in an age of instantly accessible facts which might have been impossible to unearth 20 years ago, the truth will always out.”

De Burton and other writers who do care about the facts are drawn to online watch enthusiasts and scholars who, he says, “appear to be on an almost evangelical mission to catch-out the fakers”.

With forensic approaches such as employed by the tenacious, which exists to expose revisionism and obscurantism, it has become increasingly more difficult to deceive journalists, retailers and ultimately consumers.

What’s so worrying in this era of fake news is that journalists who grew up after the arrival of online sources tend to believe press releases and brand-originated puffery.

They’re unaware of a time when one had to undertake actual research, when book stores weren’t bursting with brand histories and newsstands carried few watch magazines.

One might argue that they have no reason to be suspicious, but more experienced hacks know exactly how disingenuous brands can be.

Marcus margulies
Marcus Margulies.

Industry stalwart and chairman of Time Products Marcus Margulies sums up his thoughts on the relationship between brands and contemporary media, saying: “Brands are, for the most part, commercial entities that ignore their history and tell their clients what they hope will maximise sales. Each journalist is free to share their thoughts, which sadly are often a direct reflection of their relationship with certain brands and the advertising spend.”

Perhaps the least concerning of the claims for being first are the celebrated ‘perfect storms’ where three or more manufacturers came up with similar solutions within months of each other.

One on-going debate is who deserves the honour of creating the first automatic chronograph, a fracas dating back to 1969 involving Seiko, Zenith and a collaboration of Heuer, Buren, Breitling and Dubois-Depraz, all three contenders claiming the title.

The ambiguity is down to definitions: Are we discussing first produced? Modular vs integrated? First sold? First shown at a watch fair?

More recently emerging from the briny is a similar battle about credit for the first diving watch – not merely water-resistant but actually made for deep sea dives, as opposed to the less rigorous demands of scuba diving.

This three-way rivalry dates back to 1953 and involves Rolex’s Submariner, the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms and the Zodiac Sea Wolf.

Muddying the waters even further – again thanks to what criteria you wish to apply, e.g. does it have a rotating bezel? – are Panerai’s brutally rugged watches first seen in the late-1930s, and Omega’s double-cased Marine of 1932, neither of which sport said bezel.

But they were designed to go deep, so add them to the mix. All can claim the honour with some justification, and – being generous – the confusion might just be down to sloppy research.

Such examples aren’t so much about lying as they are pedantry.

In both of those debates, you could argue a case for each according to the definition. So heated is the battle to own the title of the world’s thinnest watch, a distinction which seems to change monthly, that the categories increase to spread the glory.

Thinnest repeater, thinnest chronograph, thinnest automatic, thinnest watch made on a Tuesday – take your pick.

There remains a litany of stories which keep watch enthusiasts fired up in bar disputes. The creation of assorted watch case designs and movement details have been declared by later users who categorically inherited them when they bought the companies which did devise them.

A perfect example is the design of the first successful automatic wristwatch, which belongs to British watchmaker John Harwood whatever anyone else might declare.

The worst abuse of this brands is often “disappear” independent designers, claiming in-house artistry.

But only an idiot would erase the involvement of a rock star designer like the late Gérald Genta.

Another problematic area is the reviving of long-dormant brands – some out of action for centuries.

The definitive work, Kathleen H. Pritchard’s Swiss Timepiece Makers 1775-1975, lists over 8,500 entries, and that stops 50 years ago.

A phone call to a solicitor, some deep digging, and you, too, can own a forgotten name with horological roots in the 1700s. Bang! Instant provenance.

Peter Roberts, instrumental in the rebirth of famed British maker Dent, says: “We didn’t need to gild the lily. The history was genuine, it was admirable, and it was a name worth reviving without any fiction.”

The same is true for Duckworth Prestex, legitimately reborn as it was revived by a family descendant, as was Vertex.

Says Don Cochrane, “I grew up with stories about Vertex but it was my grandmother’s passing which served as a catalyst to bring it back to life. Our history is a genuine British-Swiss collaboration – we produced watches for the ‘Dirty Dozen’ during the Second World War – so we didn’t have to fabricate a thing.”

As De Burton says: “A watch brand should not have to rely on the past for its future.

History is important, but when the need arises to manipulate that history in an attempt to boost sales something must be wrong.”

Deserving of respect are the long-extant brands satisfied with their genuine histories. Omega’s NASA connection, Hamilton’s dominance of Hollywood when films need tool watches, Doxa producing the first orange-dialled diving watch for better legibility – there is no reason to spill porkies.

When brands are caught lying, the distrust this creates will never go away. De Burton sums it up perfectly.

“The key is to research diligently, stick only to the facts whether they are good or bad and, if there’s the slightest uncertainty, say nothing at all. Otherwise, a level of trust that might have been built-up over decades, even centuries, could be lost in a heartbeat.”

Or the tick of a timepiece.

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1 Comment

  1. For years, Omega signed their Speedmaster Professional with ‘First And Only Watch Worn On The Moon.’ I think it was a result of sloppy research and was removed when the larger audience got educated. Nevertheless – probably because it wasn’t a lie but just ignorance – I don’t think it did much damage to their decades of build-up trust.

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