While wrist watches, on average, have certainly grown in size over the past two decades, their presentation boxes have taken on even larger proportions, which gives me rather mixed feelings. Part of me understands it as a design to satisfy the conspicuous side of buying a luxury product; brands will tell you that it is part of the purchasing experience, a way of emphasising the value of such a treasure. A significantly better part of me thinks it is unnecessary for packaging to have become this substantial. Carrying the box back home can even be considered strenuous, especially if the boutique staff deem that the heft of the box warrants a double bag, just in case. There have even been instances where the box was so large that a bespoke bag had to be provided.
Admittedly, the box, or the packaging for the watch, in general, is part of what the brand takes into consideration for the best purchasing experience. Indeed, it is often a luxurious wooden box lined with soft leather and the watch looks even more handsome in it. But such gratification generally happens only once for every owner and the associated sense of lavishness, excitement of unboxing, or re-unboxing gradually fades as the collecting journey progresses. And until then, they will inevitably snowball into a storage problem because that is also where most people would store the paperwork and accessories, preventing them from getting lost on the move or inside that storage closet in the basement, not to mention that the boxes themselves need to be in an environmentally controlled space, as the aforementioned wood and leather does not take kindly to heat and humidity.
It is great to see brands allocate the budget and effort into designing these boxes that not only look and feel great, but also incorporate alternate functions such as ones that double as a winding box (although there is also some debate on the usefulness of such devices). But at the same time, I could not resist imagining if the budget went into the watch instead, or simply to just shave off a fraction of the price. Many collectors, from my observation, tend to think a watch box should be part of what justifies the price of a watch, and while that holds true when it comes to completeness in collecting, it should not be part of the benchmark reflecting the quality of the watch per se. I once heard a salesperson pitching the box that came with the watch could go for a certain amount of money on eBay, which was simply mind boggling to be honest, not for how someone was selling the box on the internet, but the fact that the salesperson using the box of the watch as an enticement was perhaps a bit classless.
Another thing to consider is perhaps how watches are transported or stored before and after they are bought. For which the “before” part, where the watch is transferred from the manufacturer to local boutiques, remains hidden for most consumers. Perhaps it decreases one’s appetite to see a five or six figure watch to be wrapped with styrofoam, plastic and papers, but it is also safe to assume, excluding watches that sit in the safe, that most of them would not be stored inside the fancy box ever again, which has also led to the popularity of all sorts of travel sleeves and storage cases for a much quicker, less clumsy access when organising even a small collection of watches.
Although this debate on watch boxes, and what to do with them as a collection grows, has been ongoing, brands have been spurred into action by the topic of environmental sustainability. While watches from Panerai, Ulysse Nardin and Kari Voutilainen are now exploring recycled or upcycled materials on certain components of the watch, they are also turning their attention to the boxes themselves. Breitling, for example, have taken a great initiative in revising their watch box into one that is about half the size of their original design (which, admittedly, was already more rationally proportioned). The new design is now composed of a hundred per cent upcycled plastic bottles, in a more compact form, consists of fewer components, and most importantly, foldable. It creates not only an easier carriage to consumers, but also optimises the logistic flow by shipping the box unfolded and flat, in turn saving over 60% of CO2 emission when compared to the original box (although the client does have the option of taking a “traditional” box instead). Panerai has also moved away from their well-known wooden boxes and are transitioning, in relevant collections, to boxes made of recycled plastic.
If we look back at the delivery of watches from the past, packaging was often compact and had much less visual emphasis than the watch itself, while still being well-made in wood and leather. They were perhaps more effective in subliminally suggesting the appreciation of watchmaking rather than accentuating the lavishness from today’s large boxes. While it is not to say industry today should just copy and paste from their historical packaging, they are certainly a great starting point for brands to rethink the size, format, and proposition of watch boxes, especially in light of today’s challenges brought on by environmental sustainability. The younger clientele in particular, those that the brands have been so keen to entice into the luxury world and to plant the seed that will make them future collectors, will be very aware of such steps and will likely favour such an approach.