“Wow.” said my wife. “Why would you buy a watch that’s all beaten up?”
“Ahem. Actually, I bought it because it looks like this.”
She looked at be extremely confused, just like how my 6 year old son looks at me when I’m trying to teach him the modern math.
She did not ask any further questions. She knows better than to quiz me on my weird love of vintage watches. I dont blame her. It is a rather complex world. She has a whole life that is not at all interested with tiny man-made works of mechanical art on her wrist. Lucky for me, I have you lot.
For those new to Wabi-Sabi have a look at the simplistic wiki explanation here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wabi-sabi
Wabi-Sabi is a word that gets tossed around in the watch community, perhaps a bit more liberally than it should. We generally use it to describe wear and tear, but of a kind that we find aesthetically appealing.
You will often see it applied to vintage dive watches but can be any watch that has character in dings and dents noticeably etched into it showing evidence of clear use.
Researching the term, I discovered a wealth of information about the concept of wabi-sabi in Japanese art and culture. Some describe the translation of Wabi to “the feeling of sorrow, often felt when seeing something ravaged by time” to shibusa, which might be described as a combination of age and bittersweet remembrance. Other sources define wabi as rustic simplicity, and sabi as the beauty of that which is old or faded. Together, they encompass imperfection, and the beauty found in the natural cycle of growth and decay.
I cannot find a word in English that serves as an acceptable substitute however “Patina” comes to mind. In its most literal sense, it is the layer of oxidization that forms on some metals, or the sheen that develops on wood as it is polished over the years. It is also used to describe any desirable effect of aging. This certainly covers the physical aspects of age we see in our watches. Those of us with brass or bronze watches certainly embrace the literal patina, and we can see its almost immediate effect on the appearance and texture of a leather strap. Still, it falls short when compared to “Wabi-Sabi”. The word is too fixed on the tangible. It fails to capture emotion.
Whichever you choose, wabi-sabi, patina, or something else, the idea is that signs of age have a beauty and value of their own embracing the provenance, not destroying it. Now, there is greater respect for patina and acceptance of normal wear because, as they say, it can only be original once. It also illustrates how subjective the concept can be. Many will read that and see a dirty old watch, others will see history and romance.
It begins with how you value the object, then how you value its interaction with other lives. Only then can you respect the story it tells. An item that is brand new has no story apart from being born and couriered to a retailer. It has achieved a level of perfection that comes with the moment of manufacture completion, but after that, it immediately begins to deteriorate as time and oxygen take their toll. If a new item represents perfection, then it can only become less perfect. You could always seal it in an airtight vault to delay the inevitable, but that denies the item its purpose – particularly true of machines, which by definition are designed to be in motion. If you embrace its journey, on the other hand, then the object cannot get less perfect, only different. Age and damage are merely part of a transformation that will never be complete.
Dings, dents, scratches, scrapes and scuffs all combine to create a singular, timeworn look that imparts character and charm. Fixing any of these life-wounds would ruin a watch – depending on your opinion. What some may view as flaws, others will view as ‘added value’, like discoloration or UV fading – which can only be properly achieved over time. Ask a Rolex guy about “creamy lume” or “tropical dials” or “pumpkin plots” or “spider dials” and you will find the same reverence for the aging process. There are guys out there literally cooking dials in ovens to achieve this look and people will pay a premium to get their hands on them – I know because I have bought and sold watches like this.
It is all well and good to talk of wabi-sabi and patina when you buy it that way. It is quite another thing to see that first scratch or ding in a new watch – maybe one that cost you a bit – and when it happens, to have a peaceful acceptance of it rather than express a grimace or a huff. Over time, you either fix it, or get over it. Im sure we have all had this experience with just about every watch we have worn. We acquire a watch, cherish it for reasons personal and horological, wear it proudly, and before long, it has a mark or scrape somewhere. Every time, it makes our stomach drop, but we eventually put it in perspective. Nothing is ruined. The watch is now uniquely ours, not the manufacturer’s, not another owner’s, just “ours”. I’m sure one of us are in a hurry to beat up our watches, but one day, when a heirloom watch passes to a son or family member or friend or loved one, the inevitable blemishes will identify it as “Dad’s watch”. I know this from my experience. Just look at my Mum and Dad’ watches. Would I want to “clean these up”. Not for all the money in the world!
And look at my Grandfathers pocket watch. I never got to meet the man. He passed away shortly after WWII, but I have his watch. I love to wind it and listen to it’s beautiful tic-toc-ing. I smile knowing it is exactly the same sound he would have heard all those years ago. He used this watch. Probably every day and every little scrape and mark on it was caused by him using this watch for the precise purpose that it was conceived and made
All of this will become part of its physical display of the passage of time, and really, isn’t that the very purpose of a watch?