Case Backs – A perception of luxury?

by Dave Laichtman 0


Case Backs – A perception of luxury?

Luxury’s definition epitomizes subjectivity. The perception of overwrought parents finding luxury in an evening of delegating responsibility to an in-law or sitter for the duration of a meal is no less accurate than, nor is their pleasure necessarily inferior to, that of a palanquin-borne Doge relishing the falsetto of castrati. A horological analog of this dichotomy being that an ingénue’s rapture upon the purchase of a first luxury Swiss automatic watch, say five large or thereabouts, is no more genuine, nor does it hold any greater intrinsic worth, than the supercilious glee of a tycoon who can, at will, choose from among the hoard in his strongbox a paveéd Gauthier, an exclusive masterpiece, a carpal diadem.

It follows that this breadth of perception would be reflected in the luxury goods market, especially that uniquely intimate luxury item: the personal timepiece. And so it was for the preponderance of the history of that market. The method of purchasing such an item involved more than selecting from a finite list of model reference numbers, wherein every facet of the watch is preordained: from caliber to bracelet these codes define and limit the specifications of the watches available for purchase. Nay, Edwardian pocket watch seekers were tasked with designing various aspects of their watches themselves. Choosing wisely between hunter and half hunter took careful consideration of the watches’ intended owners and uses. Deciding whether noble or base metal ought be used for the case demanded regard for purse and prestige. The multitude of combinations for chain and fob permitted a covert inclusion of either the eccentric or practical, whichever best befitted the wearer. The crowning touch however, was the case back. At once the most visible and least practical of additions to a pocket watch, decorated case backs put owners’ tastes conspicuously on display.



With silver or gold, those so wishing might flaunt affluence. Monograms endowed ownership without ostentation. Engravings of locomotives or oil derricks for men of industry indicated that every tick of their Waltham might be equated to yards of track or barrels of crude. For an Elgin worn during leisure or sport, appropriate hunting motifs or thoroughbreds could be seen thereupon. Even the most parsimonious might make a statement by deliberately eschewing such dissipation in favor of one bereft of adornment.

This rite of choice is now an all-but-extinct anachronism.  Already on the wane due to streamlined production and sale methods of the interbellum period, the introduction of mindful matching of purpose-built cases, backs, and movements joined in such a way as to compliment the attributes of all components tolled the death knell of individual consumer involvement in such decisions. Altering the eminently functional combination of Hans Wildorf’s crown and Francois Borgel’s threaded case would have been the height of folly, obliterating the functionality of a then revolutionary watch. Ninety years later this sacrament of non-alteration is still scrupulously observed. No members of the Swiss, German, or Japanese pantheons facilitate such a choice. Rolex obstinately demands that their casebacks remain sterile, hearkening to the utilitarian heritage of the brand, disregarding that deafening dissonance between the extravagence of platinum Daytonas and the pure utility of the brand’s Jazz Age hermetics. At the contrary apogee, the Omegan Hippocampus none-too-subtly proclaims the brand’s water resistance prowess, accompanied often as not by a sans-serif boast regarding that particular model’s association with institutions ranging from NASA to the British SAS. However nowhere in these antipodal designs, nor anywhere on the spectrum that lies between them, is there an option for the consumer to make the case back’s design uniquely personal! The closest opportunity being the option for inscription; a Calatrava’s case back might spring ajar on masterfully-wrought hinges to permit the unworthy public to have “Épater le Bourgeois” pithily scriven therein, but no greater personalization is permitted.

Dufour decrees that a Simplicity must have as its case back naught but a limpid aperture. Only thus might his virtuosity be directly inspected and appreciated. His wishes have thus far been heeded absolutely. As a hoary-headed patriarch of the craft, he may go to his reward without ever seeing his magnificent objets’ obverses sullied by the influence of unwashed philistines whom he grudgingly permits to exchange the price of a modest home for the privilege of wearing a watch. Yet the day of horological mustache Petes such as he may be on the wane.



Increasingly, watch buyers are possessed of two predilections that, in synergistic combination, may spell the end of the contemporary case back non-choice paradigm. The first is a taste for adornment. Preoccupation with watch ornament is no new obsession, to wit: the premium placed upon storied superficialities such as delicately blued screws and hypnotizing Côtes de Genève. However, as the taste for exotic obverses is progressively whetted by the meticulous detail of certain current, obligatory case backs, the natural metastasization of desire will be to demand access to bespoke designs. With vignettes such as Fiyta’s spacewalking taikonaut, IWC’s Antoine de Saint-Expury astronomical chart, and Ball’s bas-relief tronie of a YF-12 pilot becoming increasingly sought-after, there is already blood in the water. The second is a penchant for customizability. Third party modification has slipped deftly from fringe hobbysim to lucrative marketshare. Watch modification is replete with its own savants: the achingly hip Nick Harris and the enigmatic Yobokies ar two such insurgents. These enablers, as well as every yokel with access to internet DIY channels, allow every cosmetic aspect of a watch to be a conscious choice. Crowdfunded microbrands have read these auguries very clearly; nascent watchmakers such as WatchOtaku and Eoniq tout their willingness to build to suit as a primary selling point. This healthy modding scene adds chum to the already crimson wake. In this increasingly tortured metaphor, the shark of case back choice is near.

Enjoy for perhaps the remaining balance of our current decade what may one day be recalled as a quaint backwards era, one in which those who chose to drop a cool quarter million on a Hublot LaFerrari got a display case back whether they liked it or not. In this brave new age a Timex, a modest digital Casio, or perhaps a Seiko 5 will be able to get away without facilitating a custom caseback choice, but not those watches that aspire to “luxury”, whatever that means.

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