How’s The Time

As the seconds till 1985 ticked away last night, the thought arose that for most people, they weren’t ticking at all. Clicking, maybe, softly, as numbers flipped over on digital clocks. For all the bands and bells, the seconds, minutes, hour and year changed silently, thus marking New Year’s milestones in both high tech and high living.

The technological triumph is that of the quartz watch. When electricity from a battery passes through its crystal, it can tell time with no moving parts. The sociological development provides a new twist on Veblen’s theory of conspicuous consumption – the idea that sometimes, the more something costs the better it sells because, more than the thing itself, the purchasers are buying status.

That Veblen applies to modern watches is evident from Christmas advertising. On Dec. 8, the main news sections of The Times contained 108 pages, of which the equivalent of 7 full pages was devoted to ads for watches. The least expensive was a multi-function quartz Casio chronometer selling for $44.95. The most expensive was a mechanical Rolex Day-Date in platinum and diamonds, selling for $32,400.

That one watch can command 720 times as much as another is not surprising given man’s thirst for prestige. What’s new here concerns value. Once, a watch was a handmade marvel of ingenuity and costly materials and it was a sign of status simply to own one. Then, starting in the mid-19th century, American companies like Waltham and Elgin pioneered mass-produced watches for every pocket, and pocketbook. Even so, some relationship endured between cost and quality. The clumsy dollar watch was not notably accurate or durable. ”Precise” still meant ”precious.”

The same relationship remains in other instances of luxury technology. A Rolls-Royce, made by craftsmen, costs a great deal more than a Plymouth made mostly by machines and robots. But it’s possible to rationalize the extra cost because of the finer workmanship. But for timepieces, the quartz revolution has disconnected price and value.

As David Landes observes in his captivating history of clocks, ”Revolution in Time,” science has defeated art. It’s possible, he writes, to buy a solid- state watch for about $100 that does almost everything imaginable. ”A mechanical watch with such capability would not fit in any ordinary pocket, would weigh a pound and would cost several hundreds of thousands of dollars – if one could find the workers to make it.”

Yet mechanical watches survive. Cheaper may have become in some sense better, but that does not repeal the ancient law that says if you’ve got it, flaunt it. ”When I go to a presentation,” Jerry Della Femina, a New York advertising executive once said, ”my watch says more about me than I could ever say.” Swiss watchmakers, who long sold precision as an attribute of prestige, have turned to selling the prestige of prestige: ”A Patek Philippe doesn’t just tell you the time. It tells you something about yourself.”

Time, at this dawn of 1985, is still money. And now, without even the pretense of precision, so is time-telling.

New York Times 1 Jan. 1985 Op / Ed