Happy New Year!
Every year we have our "new year's resolutions", but given the holiday season has just ended, which is always filled with the standard commercialism and retail therapy, I thought it might be worthwhile to give my perspective on the subject. Specifically when we refer to a certain type of spending as "materialism" - this ties in nicely with the watch world, since 2016 was officially the worst year on record since the early 80's!
First, what is materialism?
As Webster defines it, materialism is:
1. a theory that physical matter is the only or fundamental reality and that all being and processes and phenomena can be explained as manifestations or results of matter.
2. a doctrine that the only or the highest values or objectives lie in material well-being and in the furtherance of material progress.
3. a doctrine that economic or social change is materially caused.
But there is a more contemporary definition used, and I'd say it's the definition most people associate with the word:
A tendency to consider material possessions and physical comfort as more important than spiritual values.
Surprisingly, it is not in our current times that this definition was most used or most applied. Materialism as most commonly used today hit its peak in the late 1950's and early 1960's, and today, we are actually at the same levels as we were back in the 1910's (1911 to be precise). In fact, since it's absolute peak in 1956, after plateauing through 1967, we've been on a steady decline to where we are now and the trend is to continue downward.
The reason why I mention all of this is because it's my opinion that as a society overall we are not as materialistic as we once were, but I also think those that are, are in many ways far more materialistic than ever. Furthermore, I'd argue those same individuals are also the ones who say they are not, or think they're not because of their lack of depth in understanding either of the definitions above.
As noted, the peak of materialism was in the mid 50's through mid 60's. These were the decades after WW2 where there was a big boom in human progress and accomplishments. Technology really took a big leap during those decades. Advancements in space exploration, electronics, even the internet was invented in the late 60's.
This was also the era where the term "keeping up with the Jones'" was coined (more or less). That type of materialism was one based on luxury. You buy a Rolex, your neighbor buys a Patek. You buy a Ferrari, your neighbor buys a custom one-off Ferrari, etc. In other words, using our new found wealth, we all showed it off through luxurious material possessions such as luxury cars, watches, houses, etc.
I'd even suggest that the "luxury" type of materialism ended at the end of the 1980's, where we as a society really defined the whole "life in the fast lane" lifestyle. We worked hard, played harder, made tons of money and had tons of fun, but inevitably we burnt ourselves out too.
This led to the 1990s where materialism changed. In fact, everything changed. No longer were we all polished and pretty, we went grunge. No longer was our music (mostly) all happy and bright, it went dark and "alternative". And no longer were we materialistic via luxury items, etc., we were now showing off whatever wealth we had with experience.
Our neighbor bought a new vacation in the Bahamas, so we went to Bali. In turn, they climbed the Himalayas, so we paid top dollar to be thrown in the middle of the Amazon to fight our way out and to see if we could actually "survive", etc., and this "experience" type of materialism lasted about a decade, which culminated with a new century, Y2K.
Y2K started with a threat! I remember it clearly because I was smack dabbed in the middle of it. For those who don't remember, the threat was whether or not computers would work once the date changed to the year 2000 because 00 could also be interpreted as 1900. Microsoft and Apple and others rushed to make updates, etc., and many professionals (like myself), were hired to ensure networks in companies would be fine come midnight 2000. Long story short, all went well and there was no catastrophic computer meltdown.
Having said that, however, it was an ominous situation to ring in the new year/decade/century. Almost prophetic considering a short year later, 9-11 happened, and terrorism and threats, in general, evolved into technological threats. Not just as a way of attacking or causing harm, but even as a way to fund terrorist organizations. In fact, here is an interesting article about how fake luxury items, such as watches actually does this.
All of this fear, which is what terrorizing others is all about led to a more austere conservative outlook and it affected how we were materialistic as well. This is where we find ourselves today, especially after the 2008 worldwide crisis. I like to call it the "outlet generation". So, instead of buying that expensive (but high quality), pair of jeans at a proper local store for $250, you find your size at a discount chain for $50, and your neighbor does you one better finding them for $25, etc.
The problem with all of these types of materialism is that the focus in each is money, not the item or experience bought. This is how we became the "outlet generation", i.e. we lost the quality part of materialism, and we think that if we don't spend a lot of money on something, we're not being materialistic. Not only is that total horseshit, but we're shooting ourselves in the foot in the process.
Because at least when we were buying up Rolex's in the 80's for all the wrong reasons, we ended up with a damn good watch. When we bought that dream vacation around the world in the 90s, also for the all the wrong reasons, at least we ended up with some pretty cool memories. But, when we go to the outlet mall to buy that cheap pair of jeans, not only did we end up with crap (because the whole concept of outlet malls is sell products that were defective or left over and that could not be sold in the proper "official" retail boutiques), but we're probably perpetuating the exploitation in some way of some poor country somewhere in the developing world. In essence, we give huge incentives for big corporations to continue their shady practices because the goal has become lower and lower prices, not quality.
Oddly enough this is why the vintage watch hobby is not a materialistic hobby at all. This doesn't mean that there aren't people who participate in watch collecting that don't have more money than brains, there are and I've written extensively about this here and here (among other places), but that isn't what being a true watch enthusiast is all about, or what drives the hobby in general.
What drives us is the joy that these little mechanical miracles gives us each time we handle them, wind them, look at them. The focus and appreciation has nothing to do with the money it cost us to attain them, on the contrary, money was simply a means to an end, and once it's spent, we literally forget about the money. Our focus goes straight to the watch. We are fascinated with the craftsmanship it took to make, we marvel at the fact that the basic concept behind a mechanical watch has not changed in hundreds of years. How can that be?
Then we take it up a notch as we cherish the relationships we build with like-minded people, often times from around the world who have the same level of excitement and appreciation that we do. And at its best, after wearing a particular watch for however long, maybe a watch that our children saw us wear throughout their childhood, we get to pass the watch on to them, and they wear it until they pass it on, etc. The watch became an heirloom, a kind of vessel where the memory of us gets to live on a little longer.
There's a lesson in that. There's a depth in this point of view that is not materialistic at all. It doesn't belong in any of the categories I mentioned above and does not fit any of the definitions mentioned above either. Yet, we're talking about an inanimate object with actualy physical matter.
So, my hope and wishes for 2017 are that we don't make it just about the money. That's what we've been doing these past few years and in a poetic justice kind of way, the watch industry as a whole is paying for it now.
Let's make 2017 and beyond about true substance, not just in watches, but in everything that we do and I guarantee we'll all enjoy our day to day a heck of a lot more.