My father recently gave me one of his dress watches, one I’d never seen him wear other than in photographs taken in the 1980s. It’s small — as watches used to be — and simple. It has a white enamel bezel with inky blue roman numerals, and a thin gold case on a faded, fraying alligator strap.
My mother had given him this Cartiermasterpiece nearly 30 years earlier. It meansa great deal to me; in part because of the torch-passing symbolism involved, but also because it represents a link between my two parents, who subsequently divorced. For me, the watch is a sort of manifestation of their romance, of which very little remains. The watch and my brother and I, of course.
Certain watches have an emotional resonance that eclipses their function: watches that exist in memory like a father’s watch, for example, or your first watch; the watch that he or she gave you. For men they can take on an almost femininesentimentality that is normally associatedwith romantic jewellery.
For me, modern watches can lack romance. They seem to put technical function first; any elegance or romance seems secondary. Plus, given that our mobile phones display the time, wearing a watch is not the necessity it once was. It has become an indulgence, and given how men are expected to dress in the business world, it is one of the few forms of aesthetic expression available to us. No feathered hats or delicate lingerie for us — well, most of us.
Men use watches to tell the world who they are, to send a message in both bars and boardrooms. A large chronograph suggests sportiness or adventurousness; a diamond-encrusted dial is meant to tell a story of wealth and success but ends up suggesting the man doth protest too much.
Yet the watches I like most areoften the simplest ones, the classicsthat stand the test of time. Patek Philippe has recently reissued its famousNautilus watch, first designed by thelegendary Gerald Genta in 1976. This watch has dated in the best possible way: it has become timeless, which is thelitmus test of all good design. It reminds us of the era in which it was made whilesimultaneously resonating with thecontemporary consumer.
Similarly, Vacheron Constantin’sHistoriques Ultra-fine 1968 watch remains in production nearly 50 years after it was first created. The face is barely more than two millimetres thick. At a time when watches seem to be getting bigger and bigger and the complications greater, this elegant watch is wonderfully straightforward. Its beauty lies in its lack of complexity — it’s just a watch, albeit a particularly perfect one.
These are watches that are made to be kept and then given away. Like aChristopher Dresser toast rack or an Eames chair, they have become modern design classics. But more importantly they are blank slates on which we can write our own personal histories, histories that no one but the man wearing it and thoseclosest to him can know.