I think I can speak for all of us and say that we all share a common sensibility for objects that have a soul and a story. A pair of vintage glasses, a japanese blade, a timeworn leather travel bag or, of course, a timepiece. We can feel and perceive the growing beauty for certain objects as time passes, but we can’t always explain it.
Few societies pondered this subject as well as the Japanese. With them, two words, two notions translate the complexity and subtleness of the concepts that we will try to grasp today, to perhaps better understand our attraction to these vintage pieces or our love for “eggshell-tinted” tritium.
Because objects do have a soul, and I’m not talking about the design or where an object came from, but of the patina, the decoloration, and all the changes brought about by time that make all the difference. I’m talking about an attraction comparable to that of a wrinkle-worn face or a deep gaze that comes with the experience of age.
First of all, even if many Western authors often talk about a unique “Wabi-Sabi” concept, let’s not go too fast. We’re talking about two distinct concepts here which equally deserve our full attention. Be careful however, as we will not simply try to give these notions a simplistic definition or understand them with our intellect, but approach them with our sensibility, our instinct and our emotions. Are you ready?
In the beginning: The tea ceremony
We owe part of the truth about Wabi and Sabi to Sen Soéki (1522-1591), also known as Rikyu. By rethinking the art of tea, he developed the foundation of Japanese aesthetics we all know today, illustrating the value of the ephemeral, of the sublime moment that cannot be reproduced. The value of the “Ichigo Ichie”, a unique encounter within a unique life.
What is Sabi?
In our Western culture, we often prefer the new, the clean, even if a very small number of us have a passion for antiques, most of us will unconsciously proceed to polish an old bronze to make it shiny again, or clean a dial or polish a watch case, many times completely overdoing it.
For the Japanese, this is a crime. It is precisely this trace of time that has priceless value. It is this trace of time that translates the ephemeral character of all things, which evokes tenderness and serenity, but also a feeling of nostalgia and solitude.
What is Wabi?
Wabi is much more difficult to define, but we’ll try our best. It covers two complementary ideas which are the “poverty” of the means used to create the object, and its evocative character.
In principle, the notion of poverty of the methods and materials used does not apply as well to a timepiece than it would to ceramics, but it is present nonetheless. The choice of steel on gold or platinum, an entirely brushed watch case, painted indexes, are all aesthetic and technical choices related to “Wabi”. A simple and refined design whose apparent simplicity, although beautiful, also evokes a feeling of sadness.
Applied to watchmaking, the Wabi of a watch can be related to the simplicity and rejection of any and all useless frill. The Wabi of a watch is channeled through the stories it tells. Refined military watches and tool watches come to mind, whose design and functional construction reveal unique beauty, devoid of the superfluous.
Two notions that not only give new meaning to aesthetic qualities, but also to the emotions that result from them.
Just as the sight of a heron flapping its wings next to a willow tree brings us momentary freshness on a hot summer day, the tropical patina of a dial or the aged hue of an index is able to transport us twenty thousand leagues under the sea, back to a time when everything was still yet to be discovered…
Let us hope that some will now understand a bit better what we feel whenever our gaze is captured by these timepieces that make us dream… No, it’s not always simply about watch hands and dials…