Perfectly Imperfect

Two of my hobbies are collecting watches and guitars (collecting hobbies is another). Both involve items that are pretty expensive and easily damaged, and it’s hard not to beat yourself up when the inevitable eventually happens. But the Japanese have a concept that’s helped me learn to love the little accidents that caused me to shout and swear at the time – Wabi-Sabi.

The concept of Wabi-sabi is that nothing is permanent, and that there is a beauty to imperfection. With any physical item, all of the nicks, scrapes, dents and chips it accrues throughout its life tell a story, adding to the uniqueness of the object. 

Now, realistically this concept will only take you so far in accepting life’s little accidents. A sports car with a large scrape along the side is not going to be beautiful in anybody’s eyes, and a painting by one of the great masters with a hole in the middle is not going to attract a crowd. But for smaller items, especially old ones, wear and tear can actually be seen as highly desirable.

Any guitarist will know that there is a very popular trend right now for ‘relicing’. For the uninitiated, this is essentially the practice of taking a brand new guitar from the production line and smashing it around until it looks old and worn. Now, to be fair there’s actually quite an art to relicing a guitar properly, and a good relic job can, perhaps counterintuitively, add hundreds to the price tag. The purpose as far as I can tell is to give a new guitar a little ‘soul’; To make if look and feel like it’s been worn-in through years of play and has many stories of smokey bars and legendary gigs to tell. As you can imagine, it’s a decisive subject. Some people view them as deceptive fakery – trying to fool you into believing that it’s something it’s not. Others however can’t get enough of this battered look, and the trend is showing no sign of going anywhere anytime soon. 

Where do I sit on the subject? To be honest, I’m a little torn. I really dig the beaten-up look of a vintage guitar for all of the reasons described above, but I also can’t help but feel that such battle scars should be earned, not crafted in a workshop. I bought my main guitar, a Fender Jaguar designed by The Smith’s legendary guitarist, Johnny Marr, because it has a type of varnish that will chip and wear far more easily than most modern finishes, in the hope that I could speed up the ageing process. Is this any better than workshop relicing? Who knows.

Wabi-Sabi comes into its own in the world of vintage watches. There’s something about a well worn watch that just looks good – but at the same time a pristine watch with a single scratch just looks unfortunate. As with guitars, it’s the natural accumulation of wear that gives a watch that authentic worn-in feel. ‘Patina’ as it’s often referred to, completely changes how a watch is perceived. It distinguishes it from something fresh off the shelf and allows the wearer to feel like they’re wearing something entirely unique. Of course there’s a balance here. Damage must be only be aesthetic in nature for it to become attractive.  A broken watch is just a heavy bracelet after all.

In some ways I find it a relief when I damage something perfect (not that I’d agree at the time), as from that point forward any additional scrapes or scratches are just one of many. In fact, the more there are, the less obvious any particular one appears. It’s almost like there’s a critical mass of imperfection that transforms the item into something entirely new.

This concept has also carried across to our allotment. The rough, tumble-down appearance of the greenhouse, beds and compost bins that were all cobbled together from scrap wood, give it some rustic charm. Anything too perfect would just look odd up there with the mud and broken tools. It’s also something that comes into play when cooking. A great tasting meal doesn’t have to look perfect. I suppose baking and patisserie might be exceptions here, but I’ll leave that fiddly stuff to Tess.

Perhaps Wabi-Sabi isn’t for everyone, but it’s certainly helped me to get over my need for everything to be perfect. Imperfections add character. In many ways this stands true for people as well

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