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  • Robert Farago

The Pursuit of Perfection

Don't let the good be the enemy of the perfect

Harry Houdini (above right) was a master magician and escapologist. Houdini was so good at his craft audiences were… underwhelmed. So he added “mistakes” to his performance to make his illusions look difficult and/or dangerous. What’s up with that?

One theory: people can’t relate to perfect people. They trigger self-loathing, leading to good old-fashioned loathing. They prefer people who seem like them: imperfect and, thus, human. Humility – whether real or simulated – establishes rapport. Then again…

People worship perfection. Literally. Since its inception, Christianity held that Jesus was perfect. 2 Corinthians 5:21: "God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God." The Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD affirmed Christ’s duality – divine and human – solidifying the belief in Jesus' perfection.

While I’m not on board with the concept of original sin, I’m down with the assertion that we’re all sinners. As in imperfect. We should all be ready, willing and able to acknowledge it. A little humility goes a long way.

That said, I believe in perfection. Things, not people. Case in point: Mondaine’s Swiss Railways watch.

The Railways Watch’s minimalist hour and minute indices are perfectly sized against a stark white background. The red “lollipop” second hand – modeled after the railway conductor’s baton – makes it possible to tell the exact seconds at a glance. The sans serif branding is the dictionary definition of unobtrusive. The case is a non-case, as it should be.

The Swiss timepiece reminds me of Italian composer and conductor Antonio Salieri’s description of Mozart’s music in the movie Amadeus.

"Displace one note and there would be diminishment. Displace one phrase and the structure would fall."

Nothing needs adding or subtracting to the Railways Watch. It is perfect.

“True icons are timeless,” Mondaine’s website proclaims. Just so. How do you improve on perfection? By introducing a cushion-case chronograph with white indices against a black background with three subdials and a date window? Oh hell no. Not to mention 113 models of various designs, sizes, cases and bands.

I know: you can’t make a living off of one product. Well, not as good a living as you can make offering something for everyone. Or so Coca-Cola would have you believe. The company that pretty much invented fizzy drinks now sells 43 different flavors.

If that’s not enough – and I think it is – their Freestyle Dispenser can spit out 200 Coca-Cola concoctions. I’ve railed against companies falling prey to over-choice before, for good reason.

According to The New York Times, “Over the last 20 years, sales of full-calorie soda in the United States have plummeted by more than 25 percent.” To combat the decline, the company began introducing variations, starting with Diet Coke in 1982. And? Excuse the pun, but Coca-Cola’s fizzy drink market share has remained flat.

Brand gurus point out that Coke forgot to consistently advertise the joys of… wait for it… Coca-Cola. Perhaps the bottler got a guilty conscience about their core beverage’s health implications.

Sugar drinks are the new tobacco, after all. Just as a Swiss Railways watch can’t compete for cool with the Apple Watch.

Brand extensions are a well-known and, let’s face it, successful survival strategy. Porsche would have died if it hadn’t introduced its sports-car-on-stilts Cayenne.

The goodwill indeed love engendered by an original perfect product gives companies a chance to jump on trends that threaten to leave the original in the dust. Same as it ever was?

In 1983, the coffee table book Quintessence chronicled 75 objects the authors considered quintessential, from the original Mont Blanc pen to the Oreo cookie. They’ve all fallen prey to the same product creep as Coke.

Mont Blanc now sells a Starwalker Metal Ballpoint. OREO offers Golden Double Stuff, gluten-free OREOS and more. At the same time, Reece’s peanut butter cups have evolved into 100 different candies. Formerly plastic fantastic BIC makes a metal pen.

It’s the way of such things – from singular perfection to bastardized variations on a theme. You can’t blame manufacturers for creating brand extensions to chase the almighty dollar. Nor can you blame consumers for chasing the thrill of the new. But there is joy to be had from choosing timeless quality over ephemera.

Thankfully, companies continue cater to this urge by honoring their heritage. Steinway still makes a Model D Concert Grand. Gucci still sells the 1953 Horsebit loafer. Mont Blanc still offers the Meisterstück Platinum-Coated 149 Fountain Pen.

Less expensively, you can still buy a traditional OREO, Reese’s peanut butter cup or see-through BIC pen. And Mondaine still manufactures their classic Swiss Railways watch.

You’re not perfect, but perfection can be had. It can inspire you to greatness. When spending your hard-earned money, don’t let the good be the enemy of the perfect.

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