Oris has found a novel and compelling way to celebrate the exchange between East and West without succumbing to the lame Eurocentrism and reductive new-year-celebration strategies deployed by so many Swiss watch brands.
When West Meets East (and Offers a Watch)
In the 21st century, mechanical watches are unnecessary, and the significance of watches has accordingly been reduced solely to economic and cultural concerns. Sadly, we remain fascinated with the economic concerns at the expense of understanding the cultural significance of watches.
The economic significance we care about ranges from tracking market trends across vast regions (e.g. Apple claims to outsell all of Switzerland in watches) to the salesperson goading a consumer to part with chunks of wealth to possess a status symbol (e.g. one person blows $17.2-million on Paul Newman’s Rolex Daytona). Economic significance makes headlines, while cultural significance of these exchanges goes largely ignored. Such is the sad myopia of today’s capitalist fascinations.
For centuries, the economic and cultural significance of exchanges between The West and The East has been similarly myopic, with the economic implications overshadowing the cultural significance of East-West trade (e.g. regular headlines comparing China’s and the USA’s GDPs). We forget that the very idea of luxury goods didn’t exist in Europe prior to the exchange with Asia of silks, spices, tea, and fine porcelain (including cloisonné enamel). We forget that major contributions to elevated Italian cuisine arose from exchange with the East. We forget that the Queen of England still interrupts every single one of her very busy days to participate in a ritualistically reflective tea ceremony.
But if we stop and consider this cultural exchange, there’s a great deal we can come to understand about our typically diverse and always multi-cultural experiences that arise from such exchange.
Unfortunately, we watch enthusiasts (and journalists) tend to reduce our interest in East-West exchange to percentages of Swiss exports to Asia, and especially China. We allow careless cultural generalizations from Grand Seiko to flood our Western concepts of what Japan is all about (Nature, snow and old stones!) while obsessing over the impressive quality-per-dollar ratio on offer, forever compared to Rolex as the world’s Eurocentric standard. We belittle Chinese manufacturing as if robotized watchmaking hadn’t long ago taken fruitful root in Switzerland, or – gasp! – hadn’t been outsourced to Chinese factories decades ago and hidden via sly laws governing that all too valuable phrase “Swiss Made.” And we embrace thoughtless and ridiculous tributes to Asian culture that pour out of Switzerland in the form of annual Year of The Animal watch releases that mostly amuse, and sometimes insult, my Asian watch family.
All this to say that when it comes to the significance of exchanging watches across the East-West divide, we so often make a horrible mess of what could be a nuanced, interesting and culturally significant exchange; and because we are so inept at this we deploy willful myopia and focus on meaningless economic statistics instead. The glossy Eurocentrism and thoughtless Capitalism of it all kind of turns my stomach, and I tend to roll my eyes when the Swiss aim to woo their Asian customers with thematic watches.
Oris As Independent Thinkers
A couple years ago Oris released a lovely green-dialed Aquis dive watch that supported the effort to clean up the Hangang River in South Korea. It was a compelling release because it supported the brand’s Change for Good campaign, with its ongoing focus on healthy waterways. This watch tied preservationist efforts in North America to strikingly similar efforts in Asia, an inherently important message in uniting the East and West as concerned environmentalists. The release of the Hungang Aquis signaled meaningful human commonality over reductive cultural difference.
I wrote about this watch because Oris had drawn attention to common human concerns over our basic right to a healthy planet, and because Oris had managed to do so across the East-West divide without appearing to have offended anyone or falling back on the lazy tropes that plague so many Asian-focused Swiss watch releases.
Further, the Hangnang Aquis release didn’t feel like corporate green-washing or shallow righteousness signaling either. The Hunang release felt like yet another way to advocate for environmental, social and economic sustainability, which – as Rolf Studer explained in Vail recently – is one of the three pillars of the Oris corporate ethos (along with independence and common sense).
How Best To Celebrate Chinese Culture with a Swiss Watch?
But what would the very Swiss brand Oris do vis-a-vis Asia in the absence of a righteous cause that so clearly transcends the boundary between East and West? I hadn’t even thought of this question when Rolf Studor dropped the Sun Wukong Artist Edition Aquis on us altitude-weary journalists in Vail Colorado last month and effectively showed the Swiss watch industry a possible new path forward for Asian-focused releases.
Sun Wukong translates to The Monkey King in English.
There are two versions of the Sun Wukong watch: one with a clever standard Aquis dial ($2600) and the Artist Edition ($27,500) that I want to focus on here. Both watches commemorate the 1961 animated film Sun Wukong, a marvel of hand-painted animation (a la vintage Disney) in which an old Chinese legend is retold. The ancient legend was codified in the novel titled Journey to the West from the 1500s, pointing directly to the moment when East-West exchange routes were established, thus giving rise to the first European luxury markets.
It’s a savvy choice for Oris to have centered on the legend of The Monkey King, and even more savvy to have focused on the stereotype-defying film that retold this story during the mostly stilted modernization of Maoist / Cold War China.
There are subtle Buddhist-Taoist tensions explored in the legend of The Monkey King, but most who enjoy the film forego that subtext in favor of what is essentially an underdog hero with more superpowers than the Marvel team combined. And we Westerners will recognize a lot of the film’s themes. There are significant lifts from the Sun Wukong legend in The Wizard of Oz, for example, like the dreamed reality, the toppling of evil by a childlike wanderer, the woodcutter, and more. We in the West have unknowingly absorbed parts of the Sun Wukong legend through undocumented East-West pop cultural exchange.
In my conversations with Rolf Studer, Oris’ Swiss CEO, he clearly understands the rich cultural vein the brand has tapped into here, though Studer tends to downplay the layered meanings, as anyone would when crafting succinct marketing messages. Get the man in a bar after a day of skiing, however, and the complexity flows.
One thing Studer said to the gathered journalists that struck me was the parallel of the hand-craft of the animated film cells (tens of thousands were drawn) to that of the cloisonné enamel dial on the Sun Wukong Artist Edition Aquis. The cell from the film depicted on the dial is of the entrance to the cave where The Monkey King barges in and demands a weapon from The Dragon King. Unhappy with the offerings, The Monkey King takes a golden staff that holds up the four seas above: thus the choice of Oris’ most popular dive watch in Asia, the Aquis, for the Sun Wukong Artist Edition.
When not in use, the Monkey King shrinks down his staff to the size of a needle and tucks it behind his ear. This staff is replicated on the seconds hand of the standard edition of the Sun Wukong Aquis. It’s a great looking watch with a cool story, but the Sun Wukong Artist Edition is obviously the more remarkable tribute.
During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) the Chinese had mastered the cloisonné enamel technique in which small metal walls are constructed and filled with layer upon layer of enamel repeatedly fired in a kiln. Enamel became popular on European watches during the Enlightenment, and the use of cloisonné enamel in Western decorative arts most certainly has its roots in the East-West trade exchanges during the Colonial Era.
Linking all of this layered history together, we find that Oris has found a novel and compelling way to celebrate the exchange between East and West without succumbing to the lame Eurocentrism and reductive new-year-celebration strategies deployed ad nauseum by so many Swiss watch brands every twelve months.
Color Me Impressed
I’m not brand-blinkered enough to miss that Oris is wooing their Asian customer base with this watch. Nor am I unable to do the literal and figurative math and see that profits and prestige are the end game for this brand that has traditionally not slugged it out in the five-figure ring (the solid gold Aquis of 2020 a rare exception). But here we are in the 21st century, amid an unbelievable golden moment for the mechanical watch coupled to cresting individual wealth in China, and so it is good business to woo this base with a very special edition of the most popular model Oris sells in Asia. The moment is right for this rather expensive, upmarket Oris.
But let’s not allow economic myopia to obscure what is probably the most refreshing and nuanced Asian watch release of this century so far, and perhaps ever? I can’t claim to have seen every Swiss watch offered to the Asian markets, or to China specifically, but I’ve seen enough to know that they’re typically simplistic and lazy, and almost always just the year’s animal on the case back.
There are only 72 of the Sun Wukong Artist Edition available, and my hunch is that these watches will eventually find their way onto the auction blocks among the big dogs of Swiss horology. If and when that happens, perhaps some of us will celebrate the cultural significance of this watch over the monetary achievement of the auction.