This year I fell in love. The object of my affection wasn’t a boy — rather a gift from one. And that gift was a wristwatch: a beautiful, tiny, late 1950s piece by Ingersoll that I didn’t know how much I needed until I put him on my wrist for the first time. I always refer to the watch as ‘him’. For whatever reason, watches feel inherently masculine, in the same way that ships are always feminine.
Unlike the boy in question (a proud horologist who owns 17 of the things), I was never that keen on watches. Something about them always made me feel claustrophobic; that strange feeling of having a machine strapped to your person. I owned just one — a simple plastic Casio with a temper mental stopwatch — that I would use to time my running and then take off as soon as I got home.
My lack of a good watch bothered him. He found it incompatible with my love for other analogue and delicate things: fountain pens, good stationery, 35mm cameras. When he gave him to me, it was love at first sight. With his delicate 20mm white face, gold markers to denote numbers, and that stirring elegant tick, he seemed like something from a wartime drama. And there he was, on my wrist.
Now we can barely be parted. I make an exception for riding — horses and delicate mechanics don’t mix — but put him back on as soon as I’m done. He has a 14mm alligator strap which goes with everything: cashmere jumpers, shirts, tea dresses, cocktail dresses, wax jackets. But the most extraordinary thing of all is that now, after 25 years of being anti-watch, I am now a watch person. It’s amazing what love can do.
If I leave the house without him, I feel bare. The commitment isn’t just to wearing him, it’s to making sure he works, every day — like any relationship. Being an old watch, he requires daily winding, 15 gentle backwards motions. ‘When you start to feel resistance, stop winding,’ I was told when I was given him. Once, he stopped in the middle of the day and I panicked. No bother; a gentle wind did the trick.
My eyes are newly opened. In recent weeks, I’ve been to the horology exhibition at the Science Museum (free entry — literally well worth your time), and I now see jewellery shop windows in a different light. When I’m out people-watching, I now examine my subjects’ watches instead of just their shoes.
Is it fair to judge someone by their watch? I’d say so. Unlike shoes, wearing a watch isn’t compulsory, so it’s always a statement. A month or so ago, interviewing one of the richest men in the country, I was perturbed to notice absolutely nothing remarkable about his watch at all. The wristwatch may not define who we are, but it offers a clue.
As odd as it might sound, wearing a good watch turns the everyday task of telling the time into a joy. When your brain is forced to really engage with the task — by figuring out the position of two spindly hands — it is more likely to remember what it has seen. Even though it might not always be correct: I usually have to add five minutes to whatever the face shows me, and am surprised when it turns out to be right.
It sounds bizarre — the notion of having fallen in love with telling the time. But it is a revelation. Time is what powers the universe, however abstract a concept it is. Clocks are what keep us going. Without them, we would be nowhere. The watch is a complex, clever object. Truly, it is the gift that keeps on giving.