The illicit tourbillon

The illicit tourbillon
                      Photo of the Philippe Patek watch that was allegedly bought for a Turkish minister.

I came to be aware of this watch thanks to the ongoing corruption probe involving at least four ministers. It is a Swiss watch by Patek Philippe & Co. and it costs $395,000. On another website, I found it for just $317,000. (Your savings $78,000.00 (19.7 percent), the retailer exclaimed.)

The existence of this watchand its manufacturer, Patek Philippe, was brought to my attention by a story published this week in the newspaper Taraf, regarding graft allegations against Turkish Economy Minister Zafer Çağlayan. In the story, it is alleged that Çağlayan asked Azeri businessman Reza Zarrab, also detained as part of the corruption investigation, to get him one of these watches (a Patek Philippe 5101G to be exact) after seeing and falling in love with it during a trip to Switzerland. These allegations are based on transcripts of phone conversations that were recorded by the investigators over the course of the 14-month graft investigation. The conversations, held mostly between the “minister’s people,” and “Zarrab’s people,” indicate that the businessman sent a man to Geneva specifically go grab the watch. A person flew to Geneva for a day to buy this watch, probably an absurd mission even for a minion working for a shady businessman, comical even, in a Tarantino-esque way. All of these are allegations of course.

I know what you are thinking. There is so much to say about this corruption probe. For example, many Turkish columnists wrote about how the stance of some Justice and Development Party (AK Party) supporters, who have actually said if the ministers took bribes, they did so for the good of the country, is indicative of the fact that corruption and stealing (not that I am saying the suspects in this investigation did any of those things) are acceptable and normal for many in our society. Some others warned those who emphasize the political backdrop to the corruption investigation that they may be unwittingly saying that stealing our green land plots, forests, oxygen, ponds, water and future and selling them to greedy contractors in return for kickbacks, bribes and absurdly priced Swiss watches is no big deal. Many others lamented that due to a lack of both the culture of and mechanisms to ensure transparency (not to mention the recently introduced restrictions such as the changes made to the Court of Accounts auditing procedures), we should actually not be complaining that the allegations emerged due to political rivalry, given that otherwise they wouldn’t have surfaced at all. And I agree with these points, wholeheartedly.

Yet, here I am hung up on a wristwatch… I think it stands as the most important symbol in this entire debate. It comes with a box and papers of authenticity.  It has a leather strap. The website says it has “tandem mainspring barrels for a power reserve of 10 days as well as a tourbillon that rotates about its axis once a minute and can be viewed through the sapphire crystal caseback.” I am not sure what that means, but it sounds like these are highly desirable qualities in a watch. But $300,000? It is surreal.

Perhaps it is an embarrassing case of me overtly displaying my middle-class taste and ethics here but of all the things one could wish for, why would anyone want a Patek Philippe 5101G? If he really wanted this watch, what was he thinking? Did he think it would make a good investment? Did he imagine it would be more difficult to trace as a bribe? Or, did he, as Taraf seems to claim, really like this watch? I doubt the answer to this will come out in any part of the investigation or the trial phase. It all will remain an excruciating mystery till the end of time.

I think the reason why I fail to appreciate this watch as an item to seek is the same reason I fail to understand why ministers who are being targeted by these allegations have yet not resigned — or been sacked. Instead, officials who probed them have gotten in trouble. And honestly, let’s face it, everyone in Turkey knows that corruption is an indelible part of big politics (particularly urban planning), yet we have people who are fervently defending the alleged thieves. Yes, like the penguin said, it is all a pile of crazy. The watch is a manifestation of that craziness.

It is not a luxury watch. A luxury watch would cost, say, $20,000. With its sheer attitude of shamelessly costing $300,000 — it is like saying, “in your face” to the homeless dwellers driven from recently gentrified neighborhoods of İstanbul, or to the starving people of the world, even — it captures most of the pathologies of humankind today. It also beautifully captures, in its second and minute hands, Turkey’s pathetic condition as a banana republic in its inability to deal with widespread corruption.

As such, it surely looks like a watch you would want to buy (if you must) with somebody else’s money. Too bad it doesn’t come with the metaphorical compass for all the money it is worth.

This article was originally published under Today’s Zaman blog section: