Insight The Watch Collector / Enthusiast Dichotomy & Its Discontents – The Phenomenology of Watches as Spiritual Practice

Our Current Paradigm Is Divisive

Within the watch community we hear quite a lot about the distinction between watch enthusiasts and collectors. We consider enthusiasts to be on a lower order than collectors. Enthusiasts may own dozens of watches, but they are dilettantes who lack the focus, dedication and connoisseurship that characterize the collector. Collectors take a serious, academic, intellectual approach to watches, garnering expertise and carefully curating collections.

A third and lower tier also exists. Known vaguely as consumers by brands and more cleverly as civilians by watch enthusiasts and collectors, this is the vast consumer base that fails to achieve even dilettante status. Both enthusiasts and collectors will sometimes deride civilians, noting their lack of knowledge and often explaining away a watch that fails to rise to our own standards as existing for regular consumers, or as a mall watch, a predictable choice, and so on.

This three-tiered hierarchy replicates our broader socio-economic hierarchies. It places a small elite class (of collectors) atop a larger middle class (of enthusiasts) which sits above a vast common class (of consumers). 

Our tendency to stratify the watch community in this way belies an inability to imagine that – perhaps, here in the fun and truly harmless realm of watches – we might forego our common socio-economic strata and, instead, imagine a paradigm that not only aligns better with the benign and inclusive nature of our hobby but also empowers us to get more out of it. This rethinking of paradigms may also prove important for watch brands and the watch industry more broadly.

To assert a more benign and inclusive paradigm, we will need to shift our focus from people and watches onto the interaction between people and watches.

The Phenomenology of Watches

Over the past couple of years I’ve posited what I call a phenomenology of watches. This is a theoretical framework which focuses our attention on the real-time sensory interaction between a person and a watch. The phenomenology of watches doesn’t ask who is this person and what is this watch; it asks what’s really going on at the sensory level as this person interacts with this watch.

Working with this approach has led me to conclude that something akin to a spiritual experience sometimes arises when some of us behold certain wrist watches. I’ve concluded that this spiritual experience is not only the pinnacle of an emerging experience-centered paradigm, but is also an elusive yet powerful force driving the watch industry as a whole.

Phenomenology is an early 20th century philosophical position which, put simplistically, is all about beholding. Phenomenology dispenses with thinking about a subject (beholder) and an object (thing beheld), and instead investigates the beholding itself. Phenomenology homes in on perception and asks: What goes on as you behold something?

I took this basic phenomenological framework and simply made the object, the thing beheld, a wrist watch. I did this based on a hunch that, like me, most watch fans were, colloquially speaking, grooving, vibing, tripping, zoning out, and even getting high when beholding wrist watches. Any lover of watches can tell you that this horological high is self-evident, and thus no great insight in and of itself. 

However, if we investigate the horological high further, a far more compelling paradigm than the typical three-tiered hierarchy begins to emerge. This experience-centered paradigm can challenge the ways we currently tend to divide our community, and it can become a more inclusive paradigm that reveals much more about what motivates our fascination with watches. The phenomenology of watches moves away from rigid classifications of types of watch consumers toward a more inclusive description of types of horological experience.

Enthusiasm Belongs At The Top

It makes sense that so many of us call ourselves watch enthusiasts. The word enthusiasm originates in English during the 16th century from the Latin enthusiasmus, which means ‘inspiration, frenzy’ and from the Greek enthousiasmos, which means ‘to be inspired or possessed by a god’. Though we might not think of our watch enthusiasm in such lofty terms, as a group we do self-identify using a word that points to something like rapture. 

For so many watch enthusiasts, both the intellectual satisfaction of collecting and the material satisfaction of ownership are far less important than the aesthetic-emotional experiences (pleasure, joy, satisfaction) that arise as we interact with our watches. Watch enthusiasts who own dozens of watches may eschew collector status not because they lack the intellectual know-how, but because they are drawn to watches for the horological high and the social satisfaction of sharing that experience with other enthusiasts. This can include not wanting to take oneself too seriously, as that can stand in the way of the highs on offer. Similarly, watch enthusiasts elevate themselves above mere consumers because their relationship to watches has a spiritual, sensual, and /or emotional component that goes far beyond typical consumer satisfaction.

But probing, let alone understanding, these quasi-spiritual and rather personal dimensions of a person’s experience of watches proves to be quite difficult for a number of reasons.

The constant interaction with brands and the transactional nature of our hobby tends to narrow our focus onto the materialistic and intellectual aspects of watch ownership. With annual revenues in the tens of billions, the watch industry spends untold millions each year constructing narratives and experiences as individual brands compete for our loyalty and disposable income. Branded experiences can be informative, enjoyable – even meaningful – but branded experiences tend to fuel intellectual concerns and material consumption. This emphasis is partly due to the industry’s interest in cultivating those tendencies in us, but also because the direct sensory interaction we have with watches is elusive, ephemeral, private and, thus, very difficult for brands to intervene on.

However, by developing a different paradigm (and a vocabulary with which to explore it), we can begin to understand watch enthusiasm not as a lower form of an intellectual endeavor (collecting) or a higher form of a materialistic one (consuming), but as a qualitatively different type of experience altogether. 

A Fluid & Inclusive Paradigm

We watch enthusiasts don’t talk about our enthusiasm that much. We are reticent for many reasons, including social pressure to vest our inner lives, but largely we don’t talk about our enthusiasm because we lack a framework and vocabulary by which to understand and express it. This is true of so many sensory/spiritual indulgences (e.g. art, music, love, nature, etc), which tells us that watches can occupy a rarified place in our lives, not as commodities, but as meaningful objects with what anthropologist Gregory Bateson called an “affecting presence.” And so, as with most sensory/spiritual experiences, we stumble and often surrender with vagaries like: “I don’t know, I just really like it.” or “It just speaks to me.” and so on.

That may not be such a loss in and of itself, but because we are so limited in our abilities to meaningfully discuss our enthusiasm we end up overemphasizing the materialistic and intellectual dimensions which, in turn, leads us to (I think needlessly) replicate the stratified hierarchies we experience in our broader socio-economic experience. This is a communal failure to better understand and express essential aspects of our enthusiasm, and thus ourselves individually and as a community.

This is where the phenomenology of watches comes into play; it can provide a framework by which to investigate our enthusiasm, and from there we might develop a vocabulary with which to engage in more meaningful discussions of our enthusiasm itself.

In my proposed restructuring of the paradigm around a phenomenology of watches, we first must move from thinking about watches and people (as nouns, things, objects, and subjects) and instead begin to think in terms of experiences and their satisfactions. In this reordering, I have stratified three levels of what I’ll call horological experience: the material satisfaction of consuming watches, the intellectual satisfaction of collecting watches, and at the very top the sensory-spiritual satisfaction of experiencing watch enthusiasm (which I also have called the horological high).

Note that these levels of experience require one to report on what they’re experiencing. This reporting forms the basis of phenomenological investigation. When one buys a watch, one often experiences a high of sorts, a rush, the so-called “thrill of the hunt.” We will call this a material satisfaction, for which there is abundant research into dopamine rushes and so on that can even cause addiction. When one collects watches, one indulges a deeper investigation that involves taxonomy, technical understanding, historical records, market analysis, and so on, all of which provides intellectual satisfaction. When one experiences enthusiasmus, one is having a direct, real-time sensory experience of a watch, and the satisfaction that comes from that can be said to exist on the aesthetic, sensory and even spiritual planes.

The reason that I have stratified these experiences in this way is that as we move from the material satisfaction up through the intellectual to the aesthetic experience, we are mirroring what is largely considered increasingly higher levels of experience. This stratification is mirrored in nearly all religions, within almost all cultures, and certainly within modern psychological paradigms that put a premium on self-realization, often culminating in peak experiences, states of grace, spiritual satisfaction and so on.

The Benefits of an Experiential Paradigm

Paradigmatically, this is a radical departure from the socio-economic hierarchy with which we are currently saddled. In the experiential paradigm, it’s possible to occupy all three levels at once, to move between them, to invite people into and out of different types of experiences during social interaction. It’s possible to break down spurious boundaries that result from focusing on access to knowledge and wealth and instead find commonalities across those boundaries.

Further, by understanding enthusiasm as a state of rapture, pleasure, joy, or elevation, we come to understand our personal aesthetics better, which can very much enrich both collecting and purchasing. One need not supplant material and intellectual satisfactions with real-time aesthetic experiences, but rather allow our aesthetic experiences to take their proper place at the top of a hierarchy of experience where becoming enraptured becomes a guiding principle in – perhaps the the very reason for – building a collection (and, subsequently, making individual purchases for that collection). 

In this way, we can not only better understand what motivates our curatorial and consumer decisions, but also build watch collections that are more reliably satisfying. Further, these satisfactions of the higher order are also more durable than the intellectual and material satisfactions, which so quickly dissipate. You only buy a watch once, whereas interacting with a watch delivers the horological high again and again.

My goals in reordering the paradigm are: 1) to better reveal the elevated level at which the interaction between humans and watches already operates; 2) to promote a more inclusive way to view and engage with the broader watch community; 3) to help the watch industry better refine their approach to consumers and, thus, to watchmaking more generally; and 4), most importantly, to empower individuals to get more out of the watch hobby.

By understanding how and why watches enrapture us, we can come to know ourselves better. We can come to know who we are as aesthetes, as sensual creatures who constantly process sensory input and, in our better moments, come to experience pleasure and joy – the stuff that makes life worth living. And if we gain insight into our individual sensuality, we can, ultimately, become better enthusiasts because we will be more in tune with what exactly enraptures us. By better enthusiasts, I mean better beholders of beauty: something like divine grace, what most religions call god. I realize how lofty that sounds, especially in regards to a hobby generally considered materialistic and somewhat shallow, and yet I’m convinced that our interactions with watches can and do enrapture us in a manner that is all too rare, and far too important to be obscured by a lazy and inaccurate paradigm.

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