Thursday, November 20, 2008

I Love the Swiss Watch

I really do love the Swiss watch. I don’t own one and could never, ever justify buying one. But still, I love 'em.

Here’s why.

This is, without a doubt, the craziest financial season of our lifetimes. It surpasses the days I was learning to drive during the 1970s oil embargo (when I was sure God was going to dangle a driver’s license in front of my nose and then destroy modern civilization), and taking my first job on Wall Street when the prime rate soared to 18% and started bumping into state usury laws.

Today, everything retail, financial and monetary appears to be melting, crumbling or running for its life.

So, the big, bold, cross-the-top headline in today’s Wall Street Journal announced: Stocks, Bonds Tumble to New Crisis Lows. Could the news get any worse? Could retailers be any more paranoid about holiday spending? Could Washington seem any more befuddled?

Then I turned the page and, what to my wondering eyes should appear but: Swiss Watches. Not one small ad, but four mighty ads and a fifth on the next page. Jacob & Co., Ulysse-Nardin, Carl F. Bucherer, Cartier, Longines.

Figure $17,000, 14,500, $8,000, $5,900, and maybe $1,600 retail. Each for the simple joy of telling time.

Now, put a $25,000 automatic Swiss watch up against, say, a $29.95 quartz Timex. The Swiss watch will have fewer features—far fewer. It will stop running if you stop wearing it for a few days, unless you purchase an expensive little spinning machine that’ll drive you crazy (like a hamster wheel) while you sleep. Compare that to a whisper-quiet Timex whose battery will need replacement every, oh, five years.

The Swiss watch will drift maybe a minute a month versus, say, a few seconds a month for the quartz Timex. Pay a bit more for a quartz and you can get drift of a few seconds a year. Pay a little bit less for the Swiss and you can get drift of a few minutes a month.

The Swiss watch won’t fit under the cuff of your sleeve. (File under: Got it, flaunt it.)

The Swiss watch won’t light up in the movies or on the long overnight to Paris.

The Swiss watch may have dual time, but only for another $25,000, and you’ll still be stumped how to set it.

The one, enduring value statement of the Swiss watch: A man only gets to buy one piece of jewelry in his life, so he might as well splurge for an exquisite, jewel-filled, miniature machine to strap on his wrist.

In other words—as someone who grew up in a country whose legacy is the reluctant adoption of cheap watches just so the trains wouldn’t collide—there is no value statement. I can get everything I need for $29.95 or nothing I want for $25,000.

That’s why I love the Switch watch. That’s why there are five beautiful Swiss watches taking up major real estate in the Wall Street Journal this morning. That’s why Swiss watches are selling as briskly as ever in Europe, (especially) in Asia, and even in America.

In this season of retail horror and looming business collapse, the Swiss watch stands out as a beacon to unnecessary, reckless spending. It is the North Star of irrational retail--our hope for a rapid return to a better, brighter, more profligate future.

Even if we may drift a few minutes off the hour getting there.