Show me the money

Time is an illusion, watches are obsolete but the multi-billion-dollar Swiss watch industry is still going strong. Peter Sherwood reports.

Time is imaginary. We made it up. Like north and south and trickledown economics. Being simultaneously clever and delusional we even invented different types of time, like quality time, which exists even less than the ordinary sort. We’re flailing around in a panic believing we’re saving time, squirreling away something that doesn’t exist.

Those who are obsessed by time are called Swiss. They are renowned for being precisely on time and for making anyone who’s late feel like skunk droppings, while earning vast loot for producing fancy instruments that record it.

Having sworn at a dozen departing Swiss trains I get it that they run with stupefying exactitude. As Orson Welles says in The Third Man (1949): “In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love – they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”

Eight-week countdown

Nobody except me needs a watch, since accurate time is available on every mobile thingamajig. But nobody told the Swiss watch industry, which flogs over US$20 billion’s worth every year. At last count there were 237 different premier Swiss brands. (To find another seriously unnecessary product generating such a multibillion-dollar bonanza, you’d have to look to bottled water.)

The popularity of Swiss watches leans on an iconic image – a tanned elder tradesman, in a worn leather apron, hunched over his antique bench with a microscopic eye glass assembling a fine precision timepiece. It’s as if the manufacturing monolith called China does not exist and millions of watches emerge magically from Pinocchiostyle village workshops.

And now to a small corner of Confoederatio Helvetica in Hong Kong and a wristwatch conglomerate where I ventured with my ancient timepiece, only to squeal like a branded hog when I heard that ‘guaranteed water resistant to a depth of 200 metres’ did not mean ‘can be worn in the shower’. Earnest men in white lab coats work behind the interior windows, suggesting they fix busted watches while you wait. Well, they might – if they had time. My watch would take eight weeks to repair, as a part the size of a Tanzanian wasp’s prostate gland had to be ordered from Switzerland.

In eight weeks, Airbus Industries makes and delivers 104 very large passenger planes. Fifty-six days: exactly the number it took me to walk the 1,600 kilometres from central France to the west coast of Spain. I picture the miniscule item taken by horse and cart to the port of Trieste, where it’s loaded on to a clipper sailing round Cape Horn, stopping at every South American port before journeying across the vastness of the Pacific to Hong Kong Island. If I’m not too old by then I’ll collect my watch. If I have time.

Peter Sherwood has lived in DB for 17 years. The former head of an international public relations firm, Peter is the author of 15 books and he has written around 400 satirical columns for the South China Morning Post.

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