Rob Walker | Essays

Timeless Object

The chief function of a watch, you might assume, is to tell the time, accurately. But watches can do other things too. Some years ago, for instance, there was a trend toward watches with calculators built into them, although that didn’t last. Also there’s the aesthetic factor. The look of a watch might sound more like a matter of form, but style has its functions, too.

The watch is an interesting product category through which to examine the function of style, because mere time-telling isn’t a very powerful selling point these days. A majority of Americans now own mobile phones, and like many other portable gadgets we now tote, these omnipresent devices tell the time quite well. And indeed, according to Experian Research Services, watch sales overall have fallen significantly since 2001. But within that wider trend is a significant countertrend, which is the popularity of what can be broadly described as special watches — luxury-brand watches, high-design watches, vintage watches. Watches, in other words, that give you something more than the time of day. Or maybe even something other than the time of day.

Consider, for instance, the Uno, from Botta, the German watch brand. It has only one hand. This item, which sort of suggests what time it is, can cost almost $1,000. Another example is the 900 Abacus watch, a $150 object featuring a tiny ball that rolls around a completely blank face; if you stand still and position the watch horizontally, the ball supposedly moves to the appropriate spot on the edge of the face where the numbers would be. Then there’s the NOW Watch, which has no hands or numbers, just the word “Now” where the time should be. Or the Timeless Bracelet, designed by Ina Seifart: a link-style watchband with a traditional foldover clasp, it has no face at all, just an open spot where you would expect to see one.

There are other examples, but you get the idea. I ran some of these by Jonah Berger, an assistant professor of marketing at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. His research often touches on the connections between certain product categories and identity. Not surprisingly, some categories (like clothing and cars) are more “identity relevant” than others (like bike lights or dish soap). And sometimes the product element that’s most useful in signaling identity is something “afunctional.” This can mean some obvious aesthetic component like color, but it can also refer to things that “actually make it harder to do what you want to do,” Berger says — like sporting sunglasses indoors, or wearing impractically baggy jeans, donning a scarf in the summer or riding a fixed-gear bike with no brakes. He also points to the extra-rarefied examples that sometimes pop up in couture runway shows: a shirt with two collars, or three sleeves, etc.

Counterfunctionality is precisely what makes such things effective identity markers. Berger hit upon the category’s appeal while looking into “product abandonment” — that is, the way that certain consumers drop trends when certain others pick up on them. Those particularly interested in expressing difference might be drawn to something the masses are less likely to “poach” — even if that’s because it’s annoying or inconvenient. “Most people want a watch that tells time, and they want to be able to see indoors,” Berger continues. “So to do the opposite is a good way to separate yourself from the masses.” In other words, it’s not that a watch with one hand, or no hands, has no value. It’s that the value it has is unrelated to the telling of time.

This, in fact, is what makes a useless-seeming watch potentially more valuable — in identity terms — than, say, regular jewelry. If the Timeless Bracelet didn’t have an empty space where the face should be, it would just be a bracelet. “It has more value because it’s missing its functional component,” Berger suggests; a thing that’s more of a comment on watchness than a watch “provides more information” about the person wearing it. And actually, most of the examples above come from cool-spotting blogs that specialize in ferreting out stuff that makes the consumer seem like more of an individual. The absurd-sounding Abacus watch with its little rolling ball might make you “miss appointments” but it’s likely to “get some attention,” commented a writer on one such site, JoshSpear.com. “Sweet.” And really, if you’re the alpha-consumer type who craves such a watch, surely you tote a mobile to tell the actual time — and to call whomever you’re meeting to explain that you’ll be late. Again. 

This essay was originally published in The New York Times Magazine, October 28, 2007.  

Posted in: Popular Culture, Product Design

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