Will Novosedlik: Selling time (a.k.a. the art and science of brand mythology)

It is both the most sought-after and the most elusive of commodities. Like money, once we've spent it, it's gone. But unlike money, it is completely intangible, and we can never really hold it, let alone own it, which is probably why we're always calling it precious. We may say we have it, but we're really just fooling ourselves. In fact, it has us.

It is both the most sought-after and the most elusive of commodities. Like money, once we’ve spent it, it’s gone. But unlike money, it is completely intangible, and we can never really hold it, let alone own it, which is probably why we’re always calling it precious. We may say we have it, but we’re really just fooling ourselves. In fact, it has us.

I am talking about time. When you’re young, you waste it. When you’re old, you try to stop it. And perhaps it is because of its very intangibility, its detached, almost fearsome independence from us, that we try to convince ourselves that we are masters of it…by wearing wristwatches.

With the amount of money you can spend on a wristwatch these days, you need to be the master of something – hopefully something that will make you wealthy enough to believe you are a master of time. Over the last decade or so, some watches have become the equivalent of wrist-borne Porsches. In fact they’re not called ‘watches’ anymore; that term is far too prosaic to capture the subatomic precision with which these extremely complex, jewel-laden devices can dissect and reconstruct the moments of our daily lives.

At the luxe end of the wristwatch spectrum, they are called ‘chronographs’ or ‘chronometers.’ You can ride these puppies to Mars, dunk ‘em into burning lava, drive over them with your Hummer, and they’ll still be able to keep time within an infinitesimal margin of error.

The artificers of these remarkable instruments can be found at Geneva’s annual week-long Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie. Here the real time lords assemble to ogle each others’ latest attempts to create the world’s most exquisite and expensive timepieces. Names like Panerai, Audemars Piguet, Patek Philippe and Hublot are here to make Rolex look like Timex. Indeed, at 2,000 watches a day, Rolex almost sounds like a commodity next to Audemars Piguet, which turns out 30,000 watches a year.

It’s not that Rolex is a slouch. You can buy one for as low as $4,200 or as much as $100,000. It’s just that the luxury watchmaking industry is one in which perfectionism knows no bounds, which means Rolex has plenty of competition. Once the Kleenex of luxury watches and the hottest selling knock-off on the street, the venerable timepiece competes with rivals such as the Grand Seiko, manufactured at the Morioka factory in the northern reaches of Japan. Here the average watch takes up to 40 days to create, including 17 days of testing. Audemars Piguet may boast a limited run of 30,000 watches a year, but Morioka produces a fifth of that annually, and sells them only for about $15,000.

So here we are in the 21st century and we have the makers of luxury, precision timepieces duking it out to produce fewer watches than their competitors. You don’t want to see too many other folks wearing your Hublot or Panerai. But far more interestingly, at a time when it seems we can do almost anything with technology, the most expensive timepieces in the world are mechanical. You still have to wind them up.

To sell a wind-up watch for tens, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars, you need a lot of brand mythology. For a taste of how intensely mythologized the high art of watchmaking can be, go no further than YouTube. There you will find short branded films that explore the universe of chronography in macro detail, all set to the kind of soundtrack you might hear just before you die and go to heaven. Check out Patek Philippe’s ‘The Birth of a Legend,’ for example.

Patek Philippe is the brand that claims ‘You never really own a Patek Philippe; you merely look after it for the next generation.’ So not only do you need to go back in time to earlier methods of mechanical craftsmanship, but you have to surrender to the fact that your timepiece has much more of a future than you do. It is the contemporary equivalent of a vanitas painting, the historical form of still life that features a skull to remind the artist’s patron of the inevitability of death.

The ultimate example of chronographic vanitas? The Hublot ‘One Million Dollar Bang.’ Reminiscent of British artist Damien Hirst’s ‘For the Love of God,’ a human skull encrusted with 8,601 diamonds and priced at $100 million, the Hublot One Million Dollar Bang is a timepiece with 493 ‘baguette’ diamonds and priced at a predictable $1 million. The only visible working parts are the hands, which float above a pure diamond face. Validating the old saying ‘time waits for no one,’ the first edition sold out over the phone before the brand was even launched.

The marketing insight? No one buys a watch to tell the time. The correct time is all around you – on your computer, on your mobile phone, on TV. As Marc Schund, CEO of Swiss watchmaker Xemex, recently noted, ‘Time is everywhere. But this has been very good for us. Now everyone wants to own a nice design. Watch buying has become like buying a painting. We are in that market.’

Will Novosedlik is VP brand and communications for Globalive Wireless, Canada’s newest national mobile operator. novosedlik@gmail.com