Near the end of October, the online horology world was in uproar over a bit of news that seemingly came out of nowhere: Kari Voutilainen is apparently making mobile phones for luxury company 8848. As a natural response to this, the timepiece wizards over at the major journalism sites began frantically typing away at their desks to give their views on the matter.
The problem at hand is that the nature of the news was extremely short notice and as a result there really wasn’t much information circulating around. But boy was it a topic that would generate headlines. The fact that a lot of the information available was speculation didn’t stop the online world from blasting Sarpaneva, who was also commissioned by 8848 and Voutilainen with criticism. Hodinkee managing editor Stephen Pulvirent wrote a pretty damning article that expressed how “disappointed” he was with the venture. I have to admit, I was also lulled into the hysteria following sensationalised articles and Instagram posts.
The dust has since settled, and a lot of new facts have emerged. The idea of someone with an upstanding reputation such as Kari Voutilainen potentially “cheapening” his brand by putting his name on a shoddy Chinese phone has mostly subsided. What has now come to light is the fact that Voutilainen and Sarpaneva will only be producing a limited run of bespoke sim card covers (using the dial/bezel making techniques the duo are famous for) that essentially act as an additional accessory to a luxury phone. The craftsmanship and quality of the covers will be the very same as you’d expect to see on both of their timepieces. Apart from that, there isn’t any further relation between the horology masters and the phone company.
The whole ordeal took place during my school half term so I had a bit of free time to follow up on things. I was actually quite fascinated by it all. I initially asked the question: “Why are people riled up over this?”
It’s fair to say that following the world of watches is quite a niche interest. We’re talking about a community that finds it ‘controversial’ if a particular watch label moves the positioning of a subdial by a fraction of a millimetre. It can be said that any sudden sparks of news in the volatile industry can start a fire. I took this in mind and began trying to come up with an answer. My initial approach was to use the model of ‘Food Truck Economics’. The idea being that, a well established small business with a loyal fan base seems to work on the sole basis it’s a simple thing to appreciate.
A person drives around in a van selling food in a street corner, whilst customers happily queue in line to get a bite to eat. There’s a strong direct relationship between the person making/serving the food, and the customers, which is what makes this unique. The model is broken however, when the presence of ‘big business’ gets involved. All of a sudden the interactions between the customer and food truck owner are lost, as the business begins to expand and making profit is the highest priority. Suddenly the food truck has lost its intangible value and people begin to point fingers and accusations of being a “sell out” begin to emerge.
I suspect this is the main reason people had strong emotions over the news that Voutilainen was associating his name alongside a Chinese phone company. Voutilainen is a leader in independent horology, something that is deemed beloved for its “purity” in an overall industry that often gets riddled with criticism over cheap marketing tricks, superficial exploits and pointless gimmicks. Not to mention the fact that the product in question is a smartphone, which I remember describing as a bit of an antagonist to the realm of traditional watches in my first ever article.
Let’s not forget the fact that there are some clear cultural biases involved. The whole idea of “made in China” already provokes negative sentiment. Any immediate thoughts of luxury in China often stir up images of poor quality items or outright fakes. It definitely plays a part in the reason some might claim the relationship cheapens the brand. I can imagine that there would be less emotion involved, had a well established British luxury label such as Vertu approached Voutilainen instead.
After breaking down the question “why are people annoyed?” the next question is “Does it even matter?”.
It was pointed out to me that Voutilainen isn’t someone who is just “selling food out of a truck” but he is in fact the face of his brand and the owner of a business. Choosing to look at independent watchmaking solely through the window of its “purity” is quite naive. There is a bigger picture to be painted.
What has to be understood is that in a market where the taste of a client can change at a moment’s notice or a sudden dive in the economy will drastically affect buying habits, the prospect of making sales is uncertain. Traditional watchmaking is very resource intensive. The cost of labour and materials runs high. Buying a block of Gold and training a craftsman for several years to tinker away at tiny bits of metal doesn’t come cheap. An opportunity to open doors to a new market of Chinese collectors by showcasing what the watchmaker is capable of producing, especially during financially difficult times is always welcome. If anything it opens a door to ‘insourcing’ and harbouring talent in a well established field.
As Ian Skellern from Quill and Pad stated: “There’s irony in the fact while many Swiss suppliers have been threatened by manufacturing moving to China, here is at least one instance of a Chinese manufacture sourcing from Switzerland.”
I personally played around with the phone myself, belonging to Voutilainen. Whilst the phone was originally marketed using Voutilainen’s name; with the Sim card cover off, you wouldn’t have the slightest clue that it was associated with a watchmaker. It’s really well made and feels quite good to hold. The performance is snappy and I even took a selfie with it. The Sim card cover added a bespoke feel to the device, something that is sought after in luxury items. Voutilainen seemed like an ideal craftsman to approach for the matter. If anyone is personally familiar with his work, you’ll know how much he values the human interaction with objects. Each of his watches are lettered with “Hand Made” on the dial, to really drive home the emotion. I can see why Voutilainen agreed to work alongside the 8848, and more importantly, why his partners and existing client base had no problem with it whatsoever.
It appears that the people who were stirred up the most emotionally, were those who skimmed through headlines and Instagram, without taking a moment to really look into things. To the snotty Hodinkee fanboys crying about entitlement to opinions, I’d like to kindly say let’s not worry about how the value of your outlook has devolved, but rather look at how a pair of watchmakers are going out of their comfort zone with the intention of achieving more than just their own personal gain. The business of creating is about being free and bold. Let us not forget how the innovators of the past were criticised for their (then seen as) outlandish actions, only to be praised thereafter.