The watch industry's equivalent to HighEnd Munich or CES is BaselWorld. Scanning some of their novelties over the past few years once again demonstrates overlap with our high-end audio industry; and rather sad disparities. Possible overlap can occur in aspects like fine arts, jewelry finishing and advanced mechanical engineering. In our sector, the latter is particularly elevated with turntables and tone arms but also finds itself embodied in Esoteric's disc drives for example. At the confluence of fine art, jewelry and complex mechanical engineering, one naturally arrives at high prices. When a cheap battery-powered quartz watch tells time every second as good as a super luxuriorus time piece, haute horlogerie must transcend pure utility by celebrating visual or mechanical complications for their own sake. Be it a basic mechanical watch without battery; an automatic mechanical engine where an eccentric rotor converts wearer movements into stored energy by using a series of gears to wind up a spring; additional display functions beyond basic timekeeping executed without the cheap crutch of battery power; record-breaking thinness... luxury watches miniaturize complex mechanical engineering into space that's wearable on a wrist. This becomes a compact celebration of human ingenuity. This may even include coloured fluids which are driven by bellows and a capillary system à la HYT at right; and are so once again without relying on electricity as the driving force. Watch their YouTube video for a presentation. Wicked!

BlancpaiN's Great Wave watch applies silver obsidian atop a Shaduko base, which is an ancient Japanese alloy patinated in a bath of rokusho salts.

Collectors of mechanical watches are faced with having to either wind them up manually; or mount them to electrical watch winders aka motion machines which simulate wearer action. Otherwise, not wearing such a watch for a while will expend its stored spring-coil energy. Regardless of money spent, it'll stop. Meanwhile a cheap quartz movement won't suffer that blunt inconvenience until its battery fails many years later.


Ownership of multiple mechanical watches thus requires a certain slightly impractical protocol. Perhaps that's not so different from high-end systems which need to be warmed up for 30 minutes before sounding their best. The fine arts aspects of watch making extend to optics which include extreme levels of finish quality; and using the entire watch face as a de facto canvas. Our two BlancpaiN models here are examples of 3D artwork options.


These models and others like them combine painterly aspects with advanced alloy tech for patination and specific colours; and use miniature metalurgy, mosaic, enamel and related traditional arts. They also embody the type of extremely specialized craftsmanship that might limit execution to a single artist. If just one artist is capable of creating a particular watch face, it ensures instant exclusivity. And that's always at the base of peak pricing.

 

Another typical way to elevate a watch's basic functionality is to throw precious stones at it. Consider the diamond-encrusted Bulgari model at right. At what point good taste crosses over into garish bling is entirely in the eye of the beholder. What that Bulgari does as well is to, like nude motorcycles which strip off racy plastic fairings to show off raw hardware, display its mechanical guts. That proudly states "no battery inside".


The Chopard at left combines the face-as-painting option with the fine jewelry aspect of diamond setting. The Roger Dubuis at right has twelve 6.5mm bronze miniature knights who extend their swords at the hour markers and each hold a different helmet in the other hand. That aging eyes might require a jeweler's loup to fully appreciate the involved sculptural intricacies is besides the point.


So whilst one could argue with the excess of it all, there's no arguing the extreme craftsmanship involved. The implicit motto must be that "we can, therefore we do". Nobody really belabours the unnecessity of luxury watches. They're so obviously unnecessary as to not even require any verbal agreement. This instantly opens up the entire realm as an artisanal showcase. Being locked into having to be wearable, i.e. of a certain size, imposes strict limitations. Whatever fiendishly difficult engineering feats one may dream up, they must fit inside the case. These obvious challenges neatly support exorbitant prices. It's as easy to acknowledge that it's all perfectly unnecessary as it is to see often mindboggling mechanical complications. Those quickly give way to awe and delight in having been solved so elegantly; and perhaps desire to own.


That just because they're there doesn't mean they have to be scaled - that's never yet prevented mountaineers from climbing our highest peaks and often risk life or limb to do so. Much of luxury watch making is no different with its self-imposed challenges. Thus we have this Jacob Astronomia Clarity tourbillon watch which elevates kinetic sculptural art to a new level whilst the Bulgari snake watch reinforces haute horlogerie's identity as also being fine jewelry with that functional wrinkle of telling time.


Super high-end audio is just as unnecessary as these types of watches are. After all, the very definition of luxury is being blatantly unnecessary. Super high-end audio can further borrow from fine watch making the celebration of finish quality and mechanical complications for their own sake. Where things diverge is that except for portable hifi—we're beginning to see diamond-encrusted smartphones—home hifi can't be worn. It's not something one shows off in public. This eliminates some of the fashion and status symbol psychology and with it, hifi's appeal as fine jewelry though Dan D'Agostino for one would disagree and so would makers of outdoors headphones. Functionally meanwhile, we can probably argue that the job of music playback is more complex than telling time.


Achieving jewelry-type finishing on hifi equipment is difficult even for Swiss companies and the size of our goods mostly opts against gold or Platinum finishes though exceptions exist. For most hifi however, mechanical engineering seriously trails what the best watchmakers will do and show off.



Where a fine watch is a "closed system" or "end to end" proposition—the buyer's only tweak could be the choice of wrist band—most hifi systems are completely open-ended. The designer of a particular audio component has no idea about, or control over, what the end user will combine with it. That limits what kind of visual artistic statements can be made. After all, something too different from the norm won't look good together. Now being different becomes its own sales prevention agency. That's where all-in-one components have a distinct edge. Here Devialet are one company that have taken that concept to a very high level also visually. That their product doesn't look like anything else doesn't matter. You don't need anything else. Voil√†: a rare op to approach industrial hifi design and fine finishing unencumbered by the usual restrictions on size, colour and shape.


If just hifi's utility were as basic as telling time! Then we'd have no endless discussions about superior or inferior ways of doing it. It'd all be down to doing exactly the same thing, just in budget or luxury implementations. It's precisely because telling time has become as pedestrian as a $9.95 quartz watch that discussions about luxury watches never really get into telling time better. There's no justification for high prices relative to time keeping. Like magic, this easy admission dissolves the types of forum wars we have in hifi: about the right and wrong way to make good sound; and what good sound is to begin with. A watch either tells correct time or it doesn't. There's no middle ground. In hifi, middle ground is all we have. Nobody knows what our form of correct time would be. That not only makes for endless interpretations and choices; it makes for a wholly fractured presentation, of our industry to the public at large. As Ken Kessler loves to remind us who also covers luxury watches, hence impersonates this article's perspective to perfection: high-end audio is its own worst enemy. Now wouldn't it be lovely if we learnt a thing or two from the watch industry?