I don’t doubt that many buyers of expensive mechanical watches are merely signaling their wealth and ostensible good taste. But there’s more to it, for some. An appreciation of craftsmanship—literally, the skill and dedication of the watchmaker. And a more direct connection between form and function, which engages the user.
I’m a mechanical engineer, and a hi-fi nerd. [warning: tech jargon ahead]
Update: Edifying reader response after the jump
I have a belt-driven, manual turntable, which has one electrical control—an on/off switch. To change speeds, you lift the platter and switch the belt to a different pulley. You lift the tonearm off the rest, and lower it to the lead-in groove; when it reaches the lead-out groove, you have to get out of your chair and lift the tonearm and return it to the rest. The tonearm has to be manually adjusted for vertical tracking angle, azimuth, anti-skating force, cartridge overhang, stylus rake angle, and tracking force. For starters. If you’re really careful, you adjust for the thickness of each record. And I won’t bore you with the details of keeping tube amplifiers in working order.
I find analog, mechanical, tube-amplified sound reproduction superior to more modern alternatives, in the final judgment of listening. But even if I didn’t—if I preferred the sound of a PCM-encoded file, in a flash-memory device, with solid-state amplification—I’d still value the visceral connection to the process, and the sense of control, that I get from mechanical, manual gear. Who knows what’s going on inside a microprocessor?
I’m not into cars or cameras or watches—or any gizmos other than audio gear and bicycles. If I were, however, I think I’d instinctively prefer, say, a manual-transmission, manual-everything, carbureted, non-computer-controlled 1960s Triumph to a technically-superior-by-every-measure new Porsche 911 (or whatever—I know nothing about cars). This has nothing to do with impressing others, but with the satisfaction of feeling yourself a part of the device and an active participant in its performance. It sounds stupid, probably, if your principal concern is ease of use or reliability.
And less-value-neutral concerns argue against old-fashioned technologies in many instances; microprocessor controls make new cars safer, more fuel-efficient, and lower-emitting than their predecessors. Tubes generate more waste heat than transistors. (See the current contretemps over ugly/efficient CFLs vs. beautiful/dirty incandescents.)
Automated arm-swinging simulators for self-winding watches are idiotic. Watch enthusiasts are probably crashing bores to anyone who doesn’t share their interest. And the investment banker with the Vacheron Constantin worn conspicuously over his sleeve may be deeply insecure about his self-worth. I can make no ethical case for spending $5 thousand (choose your own threshold of absurdity) on a watch that keeps worse time than the proverbial $20 Timex. (While we’re at it, I got an unspeakably ugly digital watch from the 99-Cent store, which drifts about two seconds per year. How you can you justify that extravagant $20 Timex now?) But fine Swiss watches are the pinnacle of mechanical craftsmanship, and we’ll lose a bit of our civilization if cheap, reliable, and accurate always win out.
Update: David Ware knows as much as I don’t about watches:
I don’t get too nostalgic about Swiss quality, though. The Franco-Swiss watchmaking industry made much of its early mileage by cheap imitations of the finest watches of their day: English watches for the “quality” and, later, American watches—reliable timekeeping for the “equality” as well as the carriage trade. The Swiss watch companies managed to figure out how to add complications and other features to their product, and how to make them relatively reliable while shrinking them drastically. In the end, U.S. watch makers simply could not or did not keep up with Swiss innovation and marketing and the last true American watches were substantial time-keepers but lacked the Swiss sense of style. Open up the back of a 21-jewel high-grade American movement, though, and the delicate strength of the watch works, adorned by gold inlaying, blued screws and damascened surfaces, offers style enough or anyone. The irony is that “cheap, reliable and accurate” won out—first, with American watches (think a seven-jewel Hampden in a nickel-silver case, priced by Sears to be accessible to most workingmen), then with the Swiss counterattack of the early 20th century.
Each time, something was lost, or the perception of loss was created. I’d bet that almost every supercession of craftsmanship by manufacturing efficiency has this effect.