Along with a new version of the iPhone, Apple has for the first time presented a wristwatch: the Apple Watch. If all goes to plan, sporting a so-called smartwatch could become a mass phenomenon some 500 years after the creation of the first wearable time device.

A reminder of just how much a wristwatch has to do with a contemporary person’s status was recently demonstrated when top German corporate manager Thomas Middelhoff’s 20,000-euro Piaget was seized among other possessions after he alleged amassed a massive debt. Stripping him of his watch was the ultimate humiliation — asking a business leader to give up his luxury time-piece is like stripping the last shirt off his back.

A wristwatch is not only a style statement, it symbolizes the economic turn man has taken that makes us all business people by showing that we are dependent on the measurable rhythm of time. Showier watches also give the impression that we have everything under control.

The very first painting in which a portable watch is depicted is not coincidentally one of the all-time most famous portraits of a merchant. It shows a man named Georg Gisze, and was painted by Hans Holbein the Younger in 1532, and hangs in Berlin’s Gemäldegalerie. The man is surrounded by money, accounting ledgers, sales contracts — and his new pocket watch, the must-have at the time, just as the Apple Watch may soon be.

The Merchant Georg Gisze by Hans Holbein the Younger

Since the Holbein was painted, wearable watches have always been depicted in two ways: firstly, in connection to the rhythm of business life — to production, dispatch and opening times, for example – and secondly in association with the transience of time, or "Vanitas."

And indeed, this new ballyhooed smartwatch attaches itself to both. Anybody with Facebook and Amazon on their wrist submits further to the rhythm of the digital economy and communication independently of the fact that whole new etiquette issues arise since looking at one’s watch in the presence of others has long been considered impolite.

At the same time, the smartwatch, just as traditional wristwatches do, brings our own mortality closer to home. Like other comparable devices, the Apple Watch also comes equipped with a heart rate monitor and motion sensor. As a countermovement to all this, one can expect the business of expensive mechanical watches to flourish. 

One of the best-loved songs of middle-class music culture was "Die Uhr" (The Clock) composed in 1852 by Carl Loewe. In it, the portable watch was a metaphor for individual life in relation to eternity. In one verse, the librettist imagines the clock stopping for good, and says that only God who created it could get it up and running again — which, as it happens, also pretty well sums up Apple’s product repair policy.