Ice on My Wrist a Masterpiece or a Sham? Why you Should (or Shouldn’t) Care

What qualifies as Art? A definition too narrow, and Great Works of history and today become excluded. A definition too broad, however, can begin to define everything as Art. Even with the right definition though, what is Art and what it is not is subject to what society as a whole considers as Art. Which is to say, what Art is and isn’t in up to the eyes of the beholder. What is Art for one may not be Art for another. A definition will help guide us into recognizing things that are out of the public eye and be able to better appreciate Art for ourselves. My personal favorite working definition of Art is anything created in which the primary purpose is to elicit a response in the viewer.

With this in mind, the object I am considering is watches. Surely not all watches are Art: a ten-dollar Casio or Timex is mass-produced with cheap materials using the cheapest and simplest movement, a battery, for the sole purpose of being purchased by someone who wants the ability to check the time conveniently on their wrist. Its primary purpose is not to elicit a response, but to serve a function. However, all a watch does is tell time. In our digital age, that is not a function that is worth anymore then $10, if it is worth that much. The time is on every phone, computer, and smart device screen. Public places often have TVs playing the news, with the time displayed perpetually in the corner. It is not a stretch to assume that almost everyone has a cell phone, which, if the purpose of a watch is to tell the time, would make watches obsolete. Instead, the watch market is booming bigger than its ever been, and 1-off pocket watches can sell for as much as 24 million dollars. So, how do brands like Patek Philippe sell watches for millions of dollars if Casio can sell one that looks strikingly similar for under $50? First, of course, the Brand name and luxury materials it was made with. The real reason though is the movement. Patek designs watch movements that function the same way they did before electricity was invented: through a spring that can be wound up at the top. However, they make their movement looks beautiful, crafted by hand, and needlessly complex, requiring tons of man-hours to make. This movement does a task so simple but makes it so expensive and needlessly complicated. Rolexes are not purchased for $4000 so their owners can tell the time. Their primary function is to elicit a response from the wearing and any who view it. Watches become Art.

How is Art stolen? While the idea of a “painting heist”, akin to National Treasure, is an exciting one to read, it is rare that Art is physically stolen. However, exaggerated by the rise of the internet, Art is stolen all the time in the form of plagiarism. People steal works from others and claim it as their own and even profit off of it. The consumer still derives the same benefit as before, the reaction from the piece, but they only pay a fraction of what they would’ve. In the case of watches, where the thing that distinguishes an art piece from a functional one (the movement) is not seen when worn, fakes and replicas have become a huge problem.

The Art vs functional debate plays role in the legality of faking watches. As a functional product, watches are only protected under patents, and since the appeal of movements is their outdated complex solution to a simple problem, almost all movement patents have expired, meaning that technically, companies can copy one another’s designs. “Homage” is an often-used technique in the industry when one company designs a watch that has similar or identical features or with watches from other brands. This is commonly accepted, and these homage pieces are popular and give people an opportunity to find a watch that has all of their favorite details. However, fakes and replicas are illegal for misrepresenting the brand that they are faking. It is a common joke in the industry that high rates of seizures of replica watches mean that a brand is doing particularly well. Behind the humor, it is estimated that fakes cost the industry over 1 billion dollars a year. The motivating factor that drives these fake sales is the status that comes with wearing a particular watch brand, which can show taste, wealth, and class.

For replicas, if the primary function is to have other people think better of you, then the watch is no longer Art. And, if they were still considered Art, then the replicas are bringing Art from the hands of the elite to the common. In summary, we have argued ourselves in a circle. Whether or not watches are Art is up to you, the beholder. And while the Swiss authorities have pretty clearly defined fakes as a crime, it is up to you, the beholder, to decide whether or not that is a crime that deserves societal shame.

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Jacob Obujen

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