Monday, 15 February 2016

The Armin Strom Cognac Watch: wearing your wealth on your sleeve

The Armin Strom Cognac Watch: you can see the transparent capsule at the
5 o'clock position, containing a drop of 1762 Cognac
I’ve been contacted again by Wealth Solutions, those crazy Polish people behind the special 1953 Glenfarclas whisky bottling for the Queen’s Jubilee in 2012. This time they’ve bought themselves a bottle of 1762 Gautier Cognac, bottled in 1840 and believed to be the oldest bottle ever sold at public auction. Bonhams of New York presented the bottle with an estimate of $20,000–25,000, but in the end it went for a whopping $60,000.

When a wine or spirit is that old and that expensive, many purchasers will have no intention of drinking it, but will keep it intact as an investment. Wealth Solutions, however, opened the bottle at a special ceremony last November, and decanted it into flacons. I don’t know if any of this will get tasted, but their current project is much more bizarre. They have teamed up with high-end Swiss watch manufacturer Armin Strom to product a wristwatch that actually contains a drop of the 1762 Cognac.

The precious Gautier, the oldest authenticated bottle of Cognac
ever sold at auction
At this point I think we need to step back and think about what is going on here. I don’t know what these watches—due to be launched next month at watch show Baselworld 2016—will cost, as price is very much “on application” and ordinary Armin Strom timepieces seem to be in the $10,000+ arena. Yet the person who buys one will never know what this rare spirit tastes like. The drop is sealed in a sapphire crystal capsule*—which is just as well, of course, otherwise it would evaporate in a matter of hours. So you’ll never know its aroma either. (Although, again, having a watch that made you smell of brandy might raise a few eyebrows at that 9am board meeting.)

No, this is very much a matter of simply knowing the brandy is there. The whole high-end watch market has always been a bit mystifying to me. I like to wear vintage watches, simply because I like the idea that this thing was on someone’s wrist in the 1920s or 1930s and has been ticking away ever since. (I have a pocket watch that, from the engraved dedication inside, looks like it was presented as a gift to “R.B.S.” on 22nd July 1931, perhaps celebrating retirement: these are the sorts of human stories that you can muse upon.) They can be purchased on eBay for £40 and I’m not too bothered that they might not keep the best time and regularly break down altogether.

The underside of the watch, showing the
engraving of a bunch of grapes
On the other end of the scale are watches like Armin Strom’s. I’m sure they keep very good time, but then so does a cheap digital watch you can buy for a fiver from a petrol station. With these watches it is about the difficulty of making them mechanically, and Strom specialises in “skeleton” designs where everything is hollow and exposed so you can see the workings. To my eye this actually makes them rather hard to read, but that is not the point—the point is that it is difficult and expensive. In fact, with such watches I suspect that the asking price is far in excess of what is needed to reflect the cost of manufacture. Here we are in the realm of things that need to be expensive just so that rich people can conspicuously consume them. That is the Wealth Solution—as if wealth is a problem that needs to be solved. For some people nothing is intrinsically expensive enough: so they must agree that certain items will be designated as expensive so they can vie to own them. Walking around with a drop of the world’s oldest Cognac inside your watch feels a bit like adorning yourself with a crystal reliquary containing a relic of a saint—in the hope that you will be mystically healed by the patron saint of the Painfully Wealthy.

For the record, the watch has 117 components, 20 jewels, a manual-winding mechanism that will run for five days, and a hand-engraved image of a bunch of grapes on the underside. It is available in stainless steel, titanium and rose gold finishes and comes with a blue alligator strap. (And you thought blue alligators were extinct.)

It seems a shame for this spirit to be sealed away untasted, but of course only 40 of these watches are going to be made, so that is only 40 drops of the stuff that has been earmarked. We’ll have to wait and see that happens to the rest of it (unless the wags at Wealth Solutions flamed it over their Christmas pudding two months ago for a bet). It makes you wonder how far you could take this idea—limited edition designer trainers where the uppers are stitched together from a newly discovered canvas by Rembrandt? Or a novelty gear stick ornament for your sports car with a crystal dome containing your initials spelled out in illuminated letters cut from the Book of Kells? Or an iPhone case containing a fine slice of Einstein’s brain tissue?

In the meantime, I notice from the lush photos of the Armin Strom timepiece that the tiny phial of 1792 Cognac seems to have an air bubble in it, so at least your wristwatch has the bonus that it can double as a spirit level.

* The capsule is placed at the five o’clock position on the dial. I’m curious as to whether this was deliberate—are they suggesting that 5pm is the hour when a gentleman puts down his tools, calls it a day and relaxes with a bracing droplet of 250-year-old brandy?
The Wealth Solutions crew opening their bottle in November. You don't want to make these people angry.

1 comment:

  1. Clearly the chaps at Wealth Solutions know what they are doing. Apparently the Cognac Watch has proved such a hit that they are now planning a Rum Watch, incorporating a drop of Harewood rum from 1780—which they describe as the oldest rum in the world. International subscription opened on 26th April. See http://en.wealth.pl/promotion/spirit-watches.

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