Collector Guide – How To See Past Marketing & Popular Opinion

There are probably thousands of ways to observe a watch. The most passive and unengaged mode of observation we can call “looking at.” To “look” is to cast your eyes upon something. To “see” is to become aware of what you’re looking at, from which point we form impressions. However, this distinction between looking and seeing shouldn’t imply that looking is simple and seeing is complex. Rather, how we look at a watch will determine how we see it. This guide aims to help you hone both looking and seeing as a means to taking personal control of the narratives we carry about watches.

Looking and seeing skillfully can become a powerful antidote to marketing and popular opinion, both in overabundance now that the Information Age is in full swing. As a passion-driven publication, we want to help you learn to minimize external influences so that the “story about the watch” is yours, even if you do incorporate elements of the external narratives into your stories. The goal of this guide is not to produce counter-narratives, but to assure that whatever stories you end up with are your own and, thus, authentic and personal. For those of us who engage in Horological Intimacy, it’s paramount that we form authentic and personal relationships to watches. That can be hard to do when Horology Inc. is spending untold millions annually on feeding us their narratives. In this sense, an element of medial literacy runs through this guide.

The Medium of Observation – Our Mind’s Eye

A majority of the watches we observe are going to be in photographs. Specifically, photographs online, and likely on our phones, and likely on Instagram, a blog, or a brand’s and/or retailer’s website. Video is also a likely medium, though less common than still photos. Of course, those watches that aren’t in images are “in the metal” as we like to say (sorry carbon watches). Obviously there’s a huge difference between a photo and seeing the real thing in person, but I’ll argue that the difference isn’t as important as we might think.

We ourselves are cameras. We use a lens (the eye), a sophisticated rendering mechanism (our perceptual apparatus), and a storage device (our memories). Even with editing software, a camera’s image is far less mutable than our memories, which are regularly inaccurate because our brains don’t waste energy remembering needless details; instead, we form impressions made up of highly filtered, foggy memories. Further, while a camera “remembers” the watch itself (or, more accurately, the light reflecting off of the watch), our memories record images, but also emotional and aesthetic reactions – or, more generally, our feelings about the watch. That packet of information (image + reaction) forms our memory of a watch.

When seeing a photograph of a watch we are also using our human camera to form a memory of that photograph, so in this regard looking at a photo and looking at a watch in the metal have a lot in common. The combination of a remembered photograph and the accompanying feelings it engendered get tucked into our memory banks alongside memories of watches we’ve handled in person. Our memory banks don’t make consistently clear distinctions between mediated and live images.

Further complicating matters, our memories are foggy and protean. It matters not whether you pull the watch out of a box or call it up on Instagram; these observations go into a memory bank to become another part of the broad, foggy, mashed-up, and mutable impression of the watch. In the paradigm I’m promoting here, watches are ultimately subjective phenomena. If this weren’t true, then Horology Inc. wouldn’t spend millions every year creating images and stories for you to cast your eyes upon so that you will see their brand and its products a specific way. We aren’t always in control of what we look at, but – with some new skills and practice – we can gain greater authority over what we see, which is a potent defense against the onslaught of external influence that can – it bears repeating – rob us of the freedom to form our own impressions and stories about watches.

We will focus on a number of looking skills that can help increase the autonomy and freedom to see watches as you want to see them, and not as others want you to see them..

Decoding Context

When we see a watch (either in photos or in person), the context is everything surrounding the watch. The context can do so much to shape our impressions of a watch. Consider the two images below.

In the first image, we have an idealized photo studio study of the Casioak, and in the second image we have a more realistic, though still idealized, image of the watch. In the first image we might find ourselves entering into the idealized white LEGO world I created, and in the second image we might imagine the watch on our own wrists, or attached to our own passions (mine being Italian motorcycles; that’s a Moto Guzzi). Another strong difference between these images is that in the LEGO image we are considering the watch as a rather abstract object within a highly abstracted context; in the second image we are considering the watch as an everyday object, one that’s in our lives and mashed up among the other objects we encounter.

Consider the next two images:

The context in which we find the Rolex 41mm Sub will change how we see the watch. The first image, underwater, is a Rolex image, one that is idealized and suggestive of the watch’s role as a tool for SCUBA diving. In the second image, surrounded by the Rolex-green packaging, the Sub becomes a luxury item, one that is likely going to cost a lot of money and be hard to get. The context changes how we see the Sub by changing what we are looking at around it.

From a marketing perspective, by placing the Sub underwater Rolex wants you to see the Sub as an incredible underwater tool that can withstand all kinds of adventuring, while in the second image a reseller wants you to see the Sub as a luxury item for sale. Rolex is marketing their brand via the Sub more generally, and the reseller is marketing the specific watch they’re looking to unload. 

I would argue, however, that we can build up some “media literacy” chops and not fall for the contextual cues these image-makers want us to react to. Instead, we can assert our own POV onto the image of the watch. Some might call this “going meta,” but I just call it decoding the contextual messages so that we can decide proactively what to make of the watch, rather than simply reacting and letting the image-maker have the lion’s share of authority. Reading context in images is a key aspect of media literacy, and it can be accomplished by asking two simple questions:

What does the image maker seem to want me to see when I look at this image?

What do I want to see when I look at this image?

That’s really all it takes to decode the context and come to your own way of seeing these images. If you practice asking these two questions regularly enough, eventually you’ll have a lot more say about what goes into your memory banks, and that means the impression you form of the watch overtime ought to be closer to your own POV than that of the image-makers. Of course, we can also apply this critical technique to looking at a watch in the metal, accounting for the contextual factors that may be influencing how we see the thing in the real world. For example, boutique pin-lighting, sparkly glass cases, and beige backgrounds everywhere constitute a Rolex AD’s well-crafted context, which you can also decode by asking the two questions above.

Decoding Distance

The distance from which we look at a watch is going to greatly impact how we see it. In my favorite example, I believe that the red text on a Rolex Red Sub is just incredible (no idea why). When I look at it through a loupe or via a macro-photo, that red text looms large and really gets me excited. However, even at arm’s length that red text isn’t terribly impactful, and from across the room it’s not even visible, especially if it’s a dark room, like at a cocktail party. Let’s consider two images of the Red Sub, one from Bulang & Sons, the other from a dive I did with a loaner from Bob’s Watches.

ALAN Record Carbonio Campagnolo Rolex 1680 Red Submariner
Image: Bulang & Sons.

In the first image, we are asked by the image-maker to consider the Rolex Red Sub as a lifestyle item, and the red text is nearly invisible, and thus of little importance to the image. In the second image, we are of course closer to the watch, and the red text becomes the single element of warm color in the filtered blue light of the ocean. When an image-maker presents a watch close up, they are asking us to consider the watch’s minute features, and when they present the watch from a distance, they’re asking us to see the watch as a whole.

Becoming aware of this distinction between looking at the watch as a whole from some distance and looking closely enough that individual details are featured is a rather fascinating distinction. I learned as a music producer that one goes through three stages of developing one’s ear, and these stages apply to developing one’s eye, too. In stage one, we are excited to just be seeing the watch; in stage two we learn to pull the watch apart into pieces and consider the design in detail; in stage three we learn to put the whole back together again and take in what I call “the vibe” of the watch. If you’ve ever heard anyone say, “Maybe you’re a little to close to really see it,” they’re suggesting that it’s time to go from stage two’s microscopic concerns to stage three’s broader concerns.

Let’s consider another pair of images.

This is the Tockr Air Defender, a watch with incredible finishing and design. In the fist image, my eye is drawn to the camo hydro-drip case, because that’s the most unique and rather loud feature of the watch. By cropping in on the subdial in the second image, I’ve eliminated the hydro-drip case and we become keenly aware of the triangle running seconds hand, which is just as interesting and unique as the camo case. In the first image we see how well integrated that hand is into the whole design, and we don’t pull that triangle hand out and examine it so readily, while in the second image we have almost no choice but to consider that hand individually.

As we capture and store these images in our memories, it’s hard to say which image will dominate our impression of the watch, and I’d wager that two people seeing these images will form rather different impressions of the Tockr Air Defender. Either way, as time passes, our impressions become increasingly foggy and subject to mutation. By becoming just a little aware of the viewing distance when we’re looking we can take some measure of control over how we see the watch. In my estimation, we can “tag” an image as it’s being stored in our memories simply by “going meta” a bit and asking ourselves the same two questions:

What does the image maker seem to want me to see when I look at this image?

What do I want to see when I look at this image?

I believe that by asking those questions when looking at a watch (either in the metal or in a photo), we can add these “meta tags” to our memories, just as meta-data is embedded in digital files as a kind of mental post-it-note. What you write on that post-it-note is up to you. That’s really all it takes to gain some authority over your own impressions of the watch.

Decoding Angle

I’ve purposely chose two very similar shots of this Moser Streamliner 40mm Centre Seconds. We don’t need to spend too much time on the angle, because you can apply the same two questions. What’s clear (literally) in the first image is the Moser logo, as our eye tends to go to the dial, which was my intention when making this image. In the second image I bring your eye onto the bracelet, which was also my intention. Any “meta tags” you can intentionally tack onto your looking will help you take authority over the seeing. In this way, you – instead of me – become the author of the impression you’re forming.

Accounting for Moods

I’ll admit to being a moody mofo and that my moods have way to much power over how I see watches. I remember being in a particularly shitty mood when I first saw a Vero watch in person, and my impression was that it was (I’ll be frank) a dumb exercise in hipster chic. When I saw a Vero in person the second time, I was in a pretty good mood and, as you’d expect, I was really impressed and liked the Vero a lot. There’s no question that I was recording an emotional reaction to the watch in both instances, but in the first instance my shitty mood unintentionally layered negative emotions into my memory banks. In aesthetics, we call this associative distortions, and if we don’t account for those distortions, then our impressions are distorted.

The only way this playful watch would bum you out is if you were already bummed out when you looked at it.

Become the Author of Your Own Narratives

It’s difficult in the Information Age to not be sent off track by the headwinds of marketing, of other people’s opinions, and of what we call “popular opinion,” which is basically what we believe most people believe. I believe it’s entirely fine to incorporate marketing, opinions, and what we imagine popular opinion is into our narratives about a watch, but we are going to have much more authority over our narratives if we are aware that we are incorporating external influence and influencers.

As one who is sometimes paid to be an influencer, I can tell you that it is a very intentional enterprise set on nothing less than writing our narratives into your memory. On some level, that’s pretty fucked up, and I’ve struggled with the ethical dimensions of playing the role of influencer. I know from first hand accounts from my readers and listeners that I have steered people toward purchases, and I’ve even introduced a whole brand successfully into publications that didn’t previously cover those brands, only to find that the readership has “gone over” to that brand because of my efforts.

If one thing comes out of having read this guide, I hope it is that you are aware of not only the fact that “we” are out to shape how you see a watch and the narratives you remember about it, but of some of the techniques we use to accomplish such a monumental invasion of your mental privacy. Media literacy is a way of empowering those who absorb images and narratives (the two always intermingled) to become the authors of our impressions of watches and, by extension I hope, of just about anything that you might encounter in the shit storm of impressions endlessly jammed into our brains 24/7/365 in the Information Age. It’s not that hard to do. Just ask these question:

What does the image maker seem to want me to see when I look at this watch?

What do I want to see when I look at this watch?