Why Pay More?

PRINCETON – When Radosław Sikorski, Poland’s foreign minister, went to Ukraine for talks last month, his Ukrainian counterparts reportedly laughed at him because he was wearing a Japanese quartz watch that cost only $165. A Ukrainian newspaper reported on the preferences of Ukrainian ministers, several of whom have watches that cost more than $30,000. Even a Communist member of Ukraine’s parliament, the Rada, was shown wearing a watch that retails for more than $6,000.

The laughter should have gone in the opposite direction. Wouldn’t you laugh (maybe in private, to avoid being impolite) at someone who pays more than 200 times as much as you do, and ends up with an inferior product?

That is what the Ukrainians have done. They could have bought an accurate, lightweight, maintenance-free quartz watch that can run for five years, keeping virtually perfect time, without ever being moved or wound. Instead, they paid far more for clunkier watches that can lose minutes every month, and that will stop if you forget to wind them for a day or two (if they have an automatic mechanism, they will stop if you don’t move them). In addition, the quartz watches also have integrated alarm, stopwatch, and timer functions that the other watches either lack, or that serve only as a design-spoiling, hard-to-read effort to keep up with the competition.

Why would any wise shopper accept such a bad bargain? Out of nostalgia, perhaps? A full-page ad for Patek Philippe has Thierry Stern, the president of the company, saying that he listens to the chime of every watch with a minute repeater that his company makes, as his father and grandfather did before him. That’s all very nice, but since the days of Stern’s grandfather, we have made progress in time-keeping. Why reject the improvements that human ingenuity has provided to us? I have an old fountain pen that belonged to my grandmother; it’s a nice memento of her, but I wouldn’t dream of using it to write this column.