Hublot and Blancpain, Audemars Piguet and Jaeger-LeCoultre and Panerai: names that men murmur lovingly in their sleep.
Many men yearn for a beautiful watch, and covertly check each other’s wrists. A murmured “Nice watch” is the equivalent of a dog’s bottom-sniff, a sign of the desire to be friends. To admire a man’s watch is to admire his essence, not because it tells a story to others, but to the wearer himself.
I, for example, wear an old steel IWC Mk XII pilot watch. But I wear it not to pretend to you that I’m a pilot, but as shorthand for a certain set of skills and attitudes I admire (and to remind myself that I actually know how to fly aeroplanes, which I’m proud of).
The architect with his great big Panerai doesn’t want you to think he’s secretly a diver in the Italian navy, circa 1943. He wants to tell himself that that’s the sort of man he is. He knows he’s no more a diver than the middle-aged semioticist who wears a TAG Heuer Monaco wants you to mistake him for Steve McQueen. Rather, we’re acknowledging, to ourselves, certain values we admire. Such is the miracle of branding.
But, branding or not, the wristwatch is also, for many men, the last remaining opportunity to encounter, daily, an impeccable piece of precision engineering. Everything else is now motionless, like a computer, or inaccessible, like a modern engine. On our wrists, though, we can still carry a set of values, and an identity.
For women, it seems subtly different, even though 100 years ago, the wristwatch—or wristlet as it was known—was the preserve of women. A gentleman carried a pocket watch and would rather have worn a skirt than a wristlet. (In the 17th century, Blaise Pascal tied his pocket watch to his arm with string, thus arguably becoming the first man to wear a wristwatch, and the first geek.) It all changed with the first world war: leather wristcases for pocket watches, then purpose-built wristwatches.
The wafer of platinum invites admiration for its precision engineering just as much as the diver’s watch with its pressure-relief valve, the aviator’s watch with its time and distance calculator in the bezel, or the $1.5m Patek Phillipe Sky Moon Tourbillon.
Women’s watches have evolved too, becoming more than simply a branch of jewellery, ornate with precious stones or so delicate as to be almost impossible to tell the time by. Their watches have become bigger, chunkier, but there remains one difference: no man I’ve ever known would make a judgement about a woman based on her watch.
Since the invention of cheap quartz movements in the 1970s, the death of the mechanical has been regularly predicted. Now it’s the whole idea of the watch. Young people don’t have watches. But nor do they have any money. When they do, it’ll be different. Any iPhone looks like any other iPhone. And what would you rather have: a £55,000 Vertu Signature Diamond mobile with round-the-clock Concièrge button, or something 10 per cent of the price which will still be ticking 200 years from now?