Symposium: A Meditation on the Best

  • Thomas Mao, Psy.D.

The most accurate wristwatch. The Fastest Sports Car. The Most Powerful Amp.

An elusive quarry that has challenged and inspired enthusiasts, the Best has become a holy grail of sorts. For this Purist, who has spent much of his life seeking perfection in an imperfect world, the Best is more than any single category of performance, more than any lone superlative. The Best is not a finished, static state, but rather the representation of a process—a process that occurs not just in the mind of the creator, but also in his relationship to the connoisseur. The quest for excellence, in fact, is a sort of tango between the two—the one striving to approach that impossible perfection, to become the Best, the other inspiring, demanding, critiquing, but ultimately appreciating, the end result.

The state of being the Best, like this relationship between connoisseur and creator, is both integrative and transcendent, objective and subjective. Take the Philippe Dufour Simplicity watch. In its own way, this fine example integrates the qualities we associate with a great watch, and yet, in its unique manifestation, the Simplicity transcends these particulars. The case, the hands, the shape of the bridges and plates, the hand-applied anglage all embody for the connoisseur nuances of beauty and meaning beyond those the watchmaker originally intended. This—not the branding or marketing—is what inspires the seasoned connoisseur to covet the Simplicity, a basic time-only wristwatch that is sold at $20,000 (no discount), and for which one must wait a full year from payment of deposit to receive.

Yet the relationship between the connoisseur and the creator can subvert the pursuit of the Best as well. In commercial terms, if the connoisseur-as-consumer begins to dictate the standards of quality, quality (and certainly originality) are lost. In the world of fine wine, for example, there exists the "Robert Parker syndrome." Mr. Parker’s approval has become so pivotal, so crucial to the commercial success of a vintage and a label that many have taken to "crafting" wines to Parker’s standards.

This encroachment on the creative process is symptomatic of the commercial tendency to find a formula. The goal now in the corporate sphere is largely to maximize profit, rather than appreciation of craft. This reality has lead to rationalized consumer behavior and rationalized customer service. A recent study, for instance, concluded that consumer perception of service quality was highest when there was a problem, and the problem was well handled. Consumer appreciation was greater in this case than when flawless service was offered from beginning to end, thus reinforcing the idea that reactive steps to compensate for lower standards of service are more mission-critical than the proactive establishment of high standards in the first place. The result: engineered mediocrity, failure by design.

There are exceptions, of course. Though a successful and flourishing company, Audemars Piguet has managed to reconcile groundbreaking technical and design excellence with successful business management principles. It is no surprise that a healthy respect for heritage and patrimony are guiding philosophies of the company. The Best often honors heritage, while channeling the weight of tradition into an impetus for living up to (and preferably exceeding) that tradition. Put succinctly, the Best "raises the bar."

Companies such as Audemars are benefiting from the backlash among the cognoscenti against institutionalized inferiority. And no wonder. In an era in which measurements and scales tend to the extreme, we humans search for the comfort of the tangible, the sensual, the real: the silky feel of the finest Super 100's; the delicate precision of a fine wristwatch.

Attaining the Best is not about money, though more often than not, it costs dearly. At the beginning and in the middle, much of it’s about comparing, benchmarking, competing. But at the end of the day, the final benchmark, the final competition, is with oneself.

Dr. Thomas Mao holds a doctorate in psychology, but his passion lies in fine wines and watches. He hosts a Web site for wine and watch purists, www.thepurists.com.

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