Last year, during a layover in Paris after attending the annual Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie watch trade show in Geneva, I passed a group of American tourists outside the Ritz Hotel at the Place Vendome.
They were admiring an Aston Martin DB5, the same model driven by Sean Connery in his James Bond movies, and taking pictures – with their phones, of course. One of them said to another: “Dude, this is an Instagrammable moment.”
Instagrammable moments have come to define many aspects of life, and have even influenced the world of collectibles, including watches. Photogenic watches become especially popular on Instagram – the photo-sharing smartphone app – because they jump out at you from your phone.
Contrasting colours with striking details are especially appealing. Perhaps that’s one reason for the popularity of particular vintage Rolex watches like the “Paul Newman” Daytona or the “tropical” Submariner – their contrasting colours look good on the small screen.
Watch brands have cottoned on to this trend, with many jumping headlong into the world of social media.
Even middle-aged chief executives of watchmaking companies have signed up for social media, not just to follow friends and family, but also to keep tabs on the horological social-media landscape or even boost the brands they lead. The bosses of IWC, Jaeger-LeCoultre and Omega are all notably active on Instagram.
Of all classes of collectibles, watches are among the most portable and personal, which makes them particularly suited to social media.
A wristwatch, on or off the wrist, can be subtly inserted into the foreground of a picture, providing a peek into the life of the person wearing the watch. The insight is on two levels – both the watch and the setting say something about the wearer.
Because of that, shrewd social-media users carefully stage their photos. Smart users of such channels, most notably Instagram, have become minor celebrities, but solely on that platform.
A middling or anonymous collector of watches in the real world can become a titan on Instagram with a carefully curated selection of regular photos with the right hashtags. Yet, it should look effortless, an electronic equivalent of sprezzatura, the Italian word for studied nonchalance.
An extreme example is American professional poker player Dan Bilzerian, whose father was a well-known 1980s corporate raider. As at mid- 2016, Bilzerian’s eponymous Instagram account has more than 17 million followers, making it part of the social-media zeitgeist.
His seemingly casual and fortuitous snaps of a life of expensive cars, scantily clad women and chunky watches are emblematic of the Instagram celebrity. But because social media is fleeting and appetisingly byte-sized, it is near impossible to convey much information on it. As a result, little that is substantive can be learnt from platforms like Instagram.
Watches, however, are complex technical objects that deserve to be understood and appreciated as such, so social media risks diminishing the brilliance and genius of their mechanics, and even dumbing down the education of clients and the public at large.
For all their popularity and reach, platforms like Instagram and the like should be consumed like dessert – in small quantities.
Read more of Su Jia Xian’s incisive commentary at his website, WatchesbySJX.com.