“I want an official Red Ryder, carbine-action; two hundred shot range model air rifle, with a compass in the stock and this thing which tells time!” – Ralphie, A Christmas Story (1983)
If you have ever seen this Christmas classic, you have heard this line … at least 28 times. If you haven’t: Ralphie, played by a young Peter Billingsley, delivers the line 28 times in the one hour and 34 minutes runtime of the film. And at no point in any of these 28 times, anywhere in the movie, does Ralphie learn the name of the “thing which tells time.” Not even when writing a theme for his teacher, whom he thinks might be so enraptured with his essay that she will advocate his need for the Red Ryder in the face of all the “you’ll shoot your eye out” haters.
The clock on the BB gun was the most insignificant detail to Ralphie. Worth mentioning, but not as important as the compass or the stock – what did a kid in 1940, when the movie was set, need with keeping time? He could, as the cliché goes, take time completely for granted.
In 2018 we can’t afford to take time for granted, but we definitely take timepieces for granted – because almost everything is a “thing which tells time.” The average adult spends around 11 hours a day looking at screens, and every single one of them tells them what time it is. Look up from this article: that’s what time it is. You don’t have to crane your neck ten more degrees and twist your wrist to know. And if you don’t want to move your eyes, just ask Alexa, or whichever robotic assistant is in range.
And yet, even now, when we literally can strap computers to our wrists in everyday life, there is a strong, thriving community of fine watch enthusiasts who will travel hundreds of miles just to hold an old watch with a dinged, discolored face. Who make small judgments about one another based on how quickly the second hand ticks. Who geek out over all of the gears and crystals and bezels and bracelets, trading secrets and stories with one another in their continued quest to uphold this incredible industry, rich with craftsmanship, history and sentimentality.
The closest comparison could be people who like old cars even when the new ones heat your seats and park themselves. But car companies don’t still make the old cars. The value is only in the age and the level and effort that goes into the preservation of these relics, much like with most things that people collect.
But with watches the makers still make them, and the collectors still wear them. Fine watches don’t sit in a garage shined and gleaming. Or in a box untorn. Or in a book unread. This product, whose primary function is one of the most basic, accessible functions among our technology (telling time), is painstakingly created, maintained, loved and used.
There is something special that connects consumers with this product and watchmakers with generations of watch wearers and generations of watch wearers with generations of watch wearers. True relationships are forged among all of them, but how?
The most complicated fine watch to date has 2,800 components and 57 complications, including six time measurement functions, seven perpetual calendars, eight Hebrew calendars, nine astronomical calendars, one lunar calendar, one religious calendar, four chronographs, seven alarms, eight Westminster carillon striking functions and six other miscellaneous complications. Another car comparison often comes up when addressing the complexity of this tech: with supercars.
Like the multi-faceted machinery behind supercars, these complications sound incredibly, well, complicated, but unlike with the mechanics of supercars, all of these fine watch functions can most definitely be replicated by an Apple watch; there either is or could easily be an app for that.
However, with smartwatches, one app is created and programmed into every watch. With fine watches, even those that are factory-made must be maintained and repaired with human hands creating, navigating and placing the parts. And many of the most valuable watches among collectors include hundreds, if not thousands, of small, hand-crafted components, pieced together by watchmakers who have passed on knowledge and skill between one another for generations.
Dan White, the magician in “Magician at the Nomad” in New York and watch enthusiast, compares fine watches to magic:
Magic at the end of the day is this big puzzle that people don’t see ... they see that front, that end result, but there’s so much stuff that goes behind it, and it’s that same thing with the watch.
You might also compare watches to people in the same way.
As for those among them who wear these watches – they must also maintain them, feel them, and interact with them – lovingly restore them when pieces or functions fall away. The watch is part of their daily lives. Automatic or self-winding watches literally run on the energy of their wearers.
Please do wear your watch. It is meant to be enjoyed. A fine watch should not be relegated to a locked safe, but is meant to be worn. In fact, wearing it helps it work: it allows the watch to stay wound and for the lubricants to work.
“I don’t buy anything, whether it is a home or a watch, that I don’t plan on using.” – David Robinson, two-time NBA Champion & watch enthusiast
As noted above, watches are made to be worn and shown off, and not just because they are pretty to look at, or a symbol of status, but because the technology itself runs best when it is worn and maintained regularly.
That said, fine watches are certainly a symbol of status and pretty to look at. In this article from the New York Times, Instagram is credited with reviving the waning fine watch community due largely to stylized “wrist shots”:
“Watch collecting is a very tactile hobby, and if it can’t be tactile, it is visual,” said James Lamdin, the 33-year-old founder of Analog/Shift, a high-end Manhattan vintage watch boutique with more than 72,000 Instagram followers.
Popular watch enthusiast site, Hodinkee, actually reviews watches in a series titled “A Week on the Wrist.” As the name implies, the reviews are written based on the practical use, feeling and experience of a watch while the reviewer wears it in the contexts the watch was made for.
For example, in this review of the Breitling Navitimer 8B01 Chronograph, reviewer Jack Forster considers the perspective of those who would wear the watch “on the ground,” and those who would actually use it in the air, like it was made for – he wore it in a flight simulator for this insight:
You become aware very quickly that there's a lot going on and a lot that requires your undivided attention. That means that if you want to keep track of the time, you probably want a watch that's extremely easy to read and that doesn't have any unnecessary frills. In this respect the Navitimer 8 B01 might actually be a more practical choice than the original flight-bezel Navitimer. A larger watch in the context of a busy cockpit is a blessing – it takes only a glance to read the time, and although there are other timers built into the glass cockpit touchscreen displays, if you did want to use the watch for keeping track of flight time as well, you'd find it a rock-solid backup to modern avionics.
Unlike some other collectors, watch enthusiasts aren’t just comparing notes at conventions and subreddits (not that they don’t do those things, too) – they are going out with their watches in their daily lives, interacting with others while wearing them, finding other watch enthusiasts or inspiring more people to learn about fine watches.
And in doing so, they are forging relationships with one another and with the watches themselves.
History is a constant theme in the fine watch community, which is appropriate for a product that centers around time. Many fine watch brands have been around for centuries. Watches themselves, as the Timex slogan goes, “take a lickin’ and keep on tickin’” and are therefore handed down through generations.
Watches are also extremely visible throughout popular history, once again because they are worn in public. Jackie O’s Cartier Tank, Buzz Aldrin’s Omega Speedmaster, Paul Newman’s Paul Newman Daytona – these watches are collectibles not just as memorabilia, but because they were a part of history through the wearers who used them.
History is so ingrained in watch culture that signs of aging, wear and use can actually increase the value of a watch. For example, tropical dial Rolexes:
For vintage Rolex watches, signs of aging and imperfections can result in enormous premiums at auction. Generally speaking, Rolex rarely makes mistakes; when they do, collectors take notice.
These imperfections would be seen as miscalculations or shortcomings had they been made by almost any other manufacturer; however because it is Rolex that has made these mistakes, examples of such are considered exceptional rarities and attain a cult following.
Much like a patina on an old, bronze sculpture, true Rolex “tropical” dials on vintage Rolex watches are something that can only truly be earned through extended exposure to specific conditions. Due to a slight chemical imperfection in the finish of certain dials, the very top layer will change color after extended exposure to sunlight. These tropical dials become symmetrically damaged, fading and changing into rich and unique colors.
In this episode of Hodinkee’s Talking Watches, culinary show-business powerhouse Alton Brown describes how he reconnected with the watch his father wore up to the day he died. The watch was stolen from Brown’s college apartment, and he found it on Ebay nearly 20 years later:
The feeling that I had online – and it was like I had my records, and I am reading the numbers, and I’m looking at the photos, and I am realizing that this is actually my dad’s watch...I was...I-I was overcome...I would never let this watch go.
In another episode of Hodinkee’s series featuring Navy SEAL veteran Moki Martin, Martin shows off the NATO-borne Tudor Sub that was issued to him after graduating the Underwater Demolition Team in 1965 and tells several stories through his time with SEAL Team 1 and HALO jumps that all include this watch. At one point he explains that the watch anchored him in his dives:
It was so dark – the only thing you could see down there is barely see the gauges on your SEV, and then, you could see the watch.
No one has these stories about their iPhones or their microwaves or any other of the many “things which tell time.” While we use those machines as much, we do not strap them to our bodies and physically live with them the way watch enthusiasts do with fine watches. They are keeping time, but they are also time capsules that can extend well beyond our lifetimes. We are part of the watch’s life, not the other way around.
"You never actually own a Patek Philippe. You merely take care of it for the next generation."