What is is with these ridiculous watches?

In the Wildavsky Forum Lecture that led to his most recent book, Bob Frank had the audience in stitches with an exploration of the wristwatches of the rich. The key exhibit was a device with several plush-covered wrists, each of which can hold a watch and wave it back and forth to keep it wound. Why in the world would enough people need such a ridiculous object to make it worth selling?

Well, there are only a couple of ways to make a watch expensive enough to serve as an indicator of the wearer’s merit. One is to have an expensive model made a century or so ago, get your great-grandfather to buy it, and arrange for his descendants to pass it on to you. An heirloom fine watch certifies that your ancestors were people of taste and wealth, but this scheme has two defects. One is that the more distinguished your ancestors were, the more insistent the question about why you are regressing toward the mean, and American dynasties almost invariably turn to weeds by the third generation. The other, of course, is the second law of thermodynamics, only violated in the movie Somewhere in Time, with its watch that was never made.

Another way is to stick gems all over it. Gluing stones to a timepiece is a particularly crass and inelegant way to violate the design essence of a watch (where making the case of precious metal is not, especially if the metal is corrosion-resistant like gold or platinum) for pointless, therefore parvenu, display.

The third is to make the watch itself particularly polyvalent and clever (thin counts here as well). The more dimensions of data it displays (time, date, day, phase of moon, etc.), and the more accurate, the better. A mechanical watch needs to be wound, so you wind up resetting it a lot unless you wind it religiously, hence two more pieces of cleverness, an eight-day spring and a self-winder dependent on your normal arm movements. So far, so good, unless you have two or three watches, and that leads to the winder on your dresser, because resetting one of these babies when they run down is an exercise of a good half-hour, and needing a stack of two pairs of reading glasses…anyway, you lost the instructions long ago. These watches are indeed something else, especially when we note that they are almost as accurate as a $20 Timex.

Unfortunately, electronics has lately submerged mechanical technology six ways from Sunday. For two hundred dollars, you can find a nice-looking watch with three alarms, that keeps track of time, day, and date in a couple of dozen zones, lights up so you can read it in the dark, and keeps better time (with regular checking against a radio time signal) than any mechanical watch. So display of wealth comes at a cost of what would appear to be the core function of a wristwatch.

Pity the rich, especially men. Even when the idea of accurate time display is put aside, they have no way to signal, in public, that they have lots of multi-thousand-dollar fairly accurate watches, and wearing only one at a time, don’t even have a way to know what time it really is. (I guess one could carry an electronic watch in one’s pocket). I think it’s time for a fashion breakthrough: who will be the first to wear his Rolex, his Breitling, his Cartier, and [someone’s] grandpa’s Patek Philippe all at once, over his left jacket sleeve? Generals wear more than one star, musicians have multiple hangers-on, the Budweiser wagon has more than one Clydesdale; why only one watch?

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.