Is watch collecting a fictional activity?

Ever since the meteoric rise of Clubhouse talks about watches or watch related topics, I can’t count the number of times I have been in a room which ended up discussing the grey market for watches, and how difficult it might be to buy a Rolex at retail price. It was pretty boring to hear this so frequently, and yet, here I am again – talking about it!

The reason it came to mind, however, is because of Yuval Harari. Unbeknownst to few, he’s that famous chap who wrote “Sapiens” – here’s a brief summary of the book, taken from his own website:

Seventy thousand years ago, there were at least six different human species on earth. They were insignificant animals, whose ecological impact was less than that of fireflies or jellyfish. Today, there is only one human species left: Us. Homo sapiens. But we rule this planet.

Sapiens invites us to not only connect past developments with present concerns, but moreover to question our basic narratives of the world. The book’s conclusions are enlightening and at times provocative. For example:

  • We rule the world because we are the only animal that can believe in things that exist purely in our own imagination, such as gods, states, money and human rights.
  • Sapiens are ecological serial killers – even with stone-age tools, our ancestors wiped out half the planet’s large terrestrial mammals well before the advent of agriculture.
  • The Agricultural Revolution was history’s biggest fraud – wheat domesticated Sapiens rather than the other way around.
  • Money is the most universal and pluralistic system of mutual trust ever devised. Money is the only thing everyone trusts.
  • Empire is the most successful political system humans have invented, and our present era of anti-imperial sentiment is probably a short-lived aberration.
  • Capitalism is a religion rather than just an economic theory – and it is the most successful religion to date.
  • The treatment of animals in modern agriculture may turn out to be the worst crime in history.
  • Individualism was fostered by states and markets as a way of breaking up families and communities.
  • We are far more powerful than our ancestors, but we aren’t much happier.
  • Sapiens will soon disappear. With the help of novel technologies, within a few centuries or even decades, Sapiens will upgrade themselves into completely different beings, enjoying godlike qualities and abilities. History began when humans invented gods – and will end when humans become gods.

Now this is, oddly, both radical and logical. I don’t really want to go into all the details of the book, but rather focus on one specific area. So Harari reckons that the key difference between humans and other animals is not on an individual level but rather, on the collective level. Humans control the planet because they are the only animals that can cooperate both flexibly and in very large numbers.

For example, there are other animals, such as bees and ants, that can cooperate in large numbers; however they do not do so flexibly i.e. their cooperation is totally rigid. There is only one way in which a beehive can function, and if there is a new opportunity or a new danger, the bees cannot reinvent their social system overnight. They cannot, for example, execute the queen and establish a republic of bees or a communist dictatorship of worker bees. Other animals, such as wolves, elephants, dolphins and chimpanzees… they can cooperate much more flexibly, but they do so only in small numbers because cooperation among chimpanzees is based on intimate knowledge of one another. The only animals that can combine the two abilities together and cooperate both flexibly and still do so in very large numbers is us, homo sapiens.

When asked what allowed us homo sapiens, to be able to do this, he replied:

“The best solution that I can offer is our imagination and the ability not only to imagine things to yourself but to share your fictions, to invent and spread fictional stories. This is why we can cooperate in our billions whereas chimpanzees cannot, and why we have reached the moon and split the atom and deciphered DNA, and they just play with sticks and bananas.”

Yuvel Harari

Clearly, all other animals use their communication systems to describe reality only. A chimpanzee may say, look, there is a banana tree over there, let’s go and get bananas. Humans, in contrast, use their language not merely to describe reality but also to create new realities; indeed, fictional realities. A human can say, look, there is a God above the clouds, and if you all believe these stories that I’ve invented then you will follow the same norms, laws and values. This is something only humans can do. You can never convince a chimpanzee to give you a banana by promising him that after he dies, he will go to chimpanzee heaven and receive lots and lots of bananas for his good deed… so now, hand over the banana. Only humans believe such stories.

More generally, he goes on to say, if you think about any religion, economic system, or political system… at the root you will find some fictional story about God, money, human rights, or a nation. All these things are, he says, fictional stories. They are not a biological reality, but a very powerful, convincing and benign fiction that helps us organise our political and legal systems in the modern world.

He uses the legal field as an example; where legal systems today are largely predicated on a belief in human rights. But what are human rights? Take a human being, cut him open, look inside. You will find the heart, the kidneys, neurons, hormones, DNA, but you won’t find any rights. The only place you find rights is in the stories that we have invented and spread around over the last few centuries. They may be very positive stories, very good stories, but they are still just fictional stories that we’ve invented. The same is true of the economic field. One can take a worthless piece of paper, go to the supermarket, give it to a complete stranger who you have never met before… and get, in exchange, real bananas which you can actually eat. Money, in fact, is the most successful story ever invented and told by humans because it is the only story everybody believes.

This brings me to watches… it is probably abundantly clear now, that money is used to buy watches, and here we see money being described as ‘fictional’ – so indeed, watches are fictional. Well, kind of. Here’s where all the marketing geniuses will come out of the woodwork and talk about branding, and brand power. There is also the social aspect to consider – but this falls within the sphere of branding in my opinion.

The Rolex GMT Master 2 retails for £7750 or thereabouts … and almost everyone reading this would jump at the chance to buy it if offered at that price, largely because it can immediately be resold for significantly more. Why is that? If you take the value of the steel and other materials used to make it, along with the cost of machining the movement and so on, it is hardly worth anything at all… then we have the brand value, and the reliability that the watch has become renowned for having, along with the warranty and the prestige that comes with owning such a brand – but really, what is that brand value? Imagine if every known paedophile was discovered to have worn a GMT Master, and that this is largely a symbol of their preferences… and lets say this caught on around the world – the very same watch would simply not be sold anymore – right?

So none of this is news to anyone – the #watchfam loves a good story, and fundamentally that’s what this whole hobby is all about. Friendship, and stories. Do you really give a damn about Hans Wilsdorf? If you read about him, he was actually a super smart guy, and he made some superb moves in the early days of Rolex to help it grow – he had a longer term strategy to get to where the brand is today… its easy to buy into that sort of history, grit and hard work… and therefore grow a connection to a brand.

Hell, I have the same problem with Journe… I buy into his ingenuity, and his attitude of perseverance, and above all – his undivided, single-focused approach to putting watchmaking first, and all the corporate mumbo-jumbo second. Are his watches worth what they sell for? Says who?

This is a bit of an open ended topic, since its both philosophical, and also mundanely obvious. Of course money is a promise… of course “something is only worth what someone is willing to pay you for it” – these are obvious points. What was a nice reminder for me, was using these truths to help reel my mind back into reality. I recently nearly traded three of my watches for a more expensive one… At the time, I had mixed feelings because I had yet to try this new watch, and I was also still enjoying the ones I was going to trade. As you all know, I often speak in favour of consolidation, so I was going to entertain the idea at the right price. The dealer came back with a low offer helping me make the decision NOT to complete the trade, but in the time spent waiting for the response, I had some realisations about ‘worth’…

This whole hobby is total fiction… A house of cards. This house will probably stand the test of time (Pun for Virani) … but in the end, here’s a simple test: If there was a nuclear fallout followed by food shortages, you would pay a lot more for a banana than a 5711 right? That is reality – that is something that has measurable value, for every human. It is cheap, because it is taken for granted and supply is abundant. Since this is the world we live in, we must indeed go with the flow… enjoy the happiness brought by these things with stories and value attached to them… YOLO, as the kids say.

Just don’t forget what is really important in life – know the difference between fiction, and reality.


2 Comments Add yours

  1. I’ve dabbled in watches for a while, and it’s so awesome to come across this niche in WordPress. I love how you connect the hobby with a bit of philosophy, and that was a fun read. Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. kingflum says:

      Appreciate you saying that, and also awesome to find another watch person on WP! 😃


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