A watch tells a story
As Albert Einstein put it, time is relative. And as this venerable scholar is no longer with us to tell us more, here instead is a fascinating conversation with two figureheads in the world of watch design: Carlo Giordanetti, a member of Swatch’s management and CEO of the Swatch Art Peace Hotel in Shanghai, and Swatch Vice President of Marketing, Bernardo Tribolet. We begin by discussing the impact of design - a key trademark at Swatch - on our perception of time.
Carlo Giordanetti - When you choose a watch, you are defining your relationship with time. A rational approach means opting for a visually classic style, while a freer relationship with time might mean choosing a model where the time telling is less important than the design. Sound design is also important. At Swatch, this is a signature feature. To the point that we have been criticized for it as the ticking of our watches is rather loud. This doesn’t necessarily make you think of time passing, it can also be perceived as the voice of the object.
Bernardo Tribolet - A watch tells a story. It has a utilitarian aspect, but at Swatch we also make sure we capture the zeitgeist. My Swatch watches from the 80s and 90s tell me who I was back then. Where I was. Who my girlfriend was, and so on. There really is a playful interplay between function and the history associated with a watch. Design is a goal in itself, but it is also the keeper of memories linked to a particular model.
What is your personal conception of time?
BT - Time is a key part of my existence. I attach a lot of importance to the past because my values carry over as I move forward. I define myself as a collection of memories and moments that made me the person talking to you right now.
CG - I try to live as much as possible in the present. For me therefore time is about a present in which the past has a role. The more history you have, the more it influences your choices. We live in a society where the acceleration of time is omnipresent. The challenge is therefore to focus on this present so as not to get lost in the pull of the future.
If measuring time were to be invented in the 21st century, how would you approach it at Swatch?
CG – It was back in the late 1990s that the brand joined forces with MIT and Nicholas Negroponte to create an Internet time system, the Swatch Beat, which was matched with a watch of the same name. By defining a time system without time zones, the very notion of time measurement was not reinvented but it was, at least, challenged. Later, with the Paparazzi model created in collaboration with Microsoft, we expanded its function to include information beyond time data.
Despite being rooted in the spirit of the times, Swatch opts for analogue rather than digital displays. Why is that?
CG - The analogue display allows you to abstract yourself from the speed of time passing and gives you the opportunity to position yourself in time. Digital displays record time as flying by. That said, for the Swatch Beat, the Paparazzi, and a few other models, Swatch has embraced digital displays. It's all about relevance. We also represent the Swiss watch industry, which tends to be associated with analogue displays. Although we are passionate about innovation, we are also very attached to our roots.
Hermès – like some other watch brands – has played with the passing of time with models like L’Heure Suspendue, L'Heure Impatiente or Les Grandes Heures ...
BT - Swatch has also played the same game, though with less precious materials. In particular with its CUCKOOLUS model, whose hands are equal in length for both the hours and minutes. We also produced the White Hours & Black Minutes duo in 1995 to be worn together (or not), one showing the hours and the other the minutes. It was a way of disconnecting from the acceleration of time.
Can owning several watches be justified at a time when responsible environmental production is something to strive for?
BT - A Swatch tells a story and for that reason it chooses you as much as you choose it. Despite the longevity of an original model being sufficient for some, the trend towards collecting persists thanks to our affordable prices, but above all because of the precious moments our watches may hark back to. Environmental responsibility has been fundamental to us since our inception in 1983. There is no planned obsolescence in our products. We are therefore not part of the trend for fast food, fast fashion, and so on. The quality of our products ensure that they last and we continue to replace the batteries in our quartz watches free of charge.
You launched a self-winding mechanical watch, the SISTEM51, in 2013?
CG - We had actually already launched a self-winding mechanical watch in the mid-90s. It was a provocative statement based on a traditional mechanical movement. In 2013 the second Swatch revolution came, a new movement and a new concept called Swatch SISTEM51. With a reduced number of components - provocatively equal to those of a Swatch quartz movement – it offered a revolutionary production process and is proof of our responsible approach. The message of that watch is, ‘The Front Tells The Time, The Back Tells The Story’. Thanks to a transparent rotor and back, the mechanism is fully visible and can be decorated, thus becoming part of the story and establishing an intimate link between the wearer and the measuring of time.
Your HQ and factory are located in a group of eco buildings designed by Japanese architect Shigeru Ban and you recently started using a bio-based plastic. What link do you see between measuring time and sustainability?
CG – We are attached to our roots so will probably never give up plastic completely. But we are nonetheless looking for responsible materials with which to pursue our creativity. In September we are launching a transparent bio-sourced plastic that was impossible to find a year ago. Expanding our offering does not mean abandoning our existing one. On the other hand, we are systematically replacing our plastic packaging with recycled and recyclable materials. We are also making sure we use as little energy as possible to produce our watches. Moreover, behind the scenes we are very green.
text by Serge Vanmaercke