Robin Ashenden

Watches satisfy a strange masculine urge

They’re nerdy, obsessional and thoroughly pointless

  • From Spectator Life

A year or two ago I got my first expensive watch, a Longines Conquest Heritage. It wasn’t quite my dream timepiece – that was a 1960s Omega Seamaster automatic (think Bond films at the Sean Connery stage) but these are priced off the scale and need plenty of specialist upkeep. The Longines Conquest, very much out of the same retro stable (it’s a copy of a 1954 model) was selling at a discount before they upped the prices and released a new model in a much bigger size, and as I have wrists more or less the width of fettucine, it was clearly time to act.

We must, if possible, get exactly what we want in life, if only to find out how vapid it all is

My Longines, with its silver dial and golden hands, came in a splendid, polished wooden box and no acquisition, since I was a child, had given more excitement. It was my first ever automatic too – I’d grown snobbish about the jerky second-hand (a dead giveaway) of quartz watches and there was something delightful about seeing the Conquest’s narrow arm make, under my urging, its first smooth circuit of the watch-face.

Many men, I think, take the purchase of a decent watch quite seriously. It’s not only one of the few times we’ll buy ourselves anything like jewellery (since the advent of the mobile phone no one can honestly claim they need a wristwatch to tell the time) but part of that masculine self-assembly we remember from observing our fathers. The watch, the lighter, the cufflinks, the pen, the shaving brush, the eau de cologne – these are the ways many men put themselves together and are a lot cheaper than buying an Aston Martin or an 80ft yacht.

In the scheme of things, my needs were fairly modest. I couldn’t see the point of a Rolex or a modern Omega – someone sooner or later would covet it and give me the evil eye or rip it off my wrist, and the insurance bills would be taxing. Besides, why pretend to be much richer than you are? Many women say they always look at a man’s watch and shoes (Patek Philippe or Church’s should use this as a slogan) and we men can understand this, but slow disillusionment is an unpleasant thing to see on a lady’s face and you can’t keep up the pretence for ever. On the other hand, though, a nice, analogue heirloom under £1,000 that my daughter could inherit – why not? Researching it gave me something completely non-cerebral to do with my spare time – consumer porn, in fact – and soon I was burrowing down the horological rabbit-hole.

It was as fascinating and complex as any other subject you plunge into, and there were YouTube stars to walk you through it – ‘watchologists’ like the American Teddy Baldassare or Scottish Chisholm Hunter (splendid names both if they’re real or even if they’re not) men for whom wristwatches are the alpha and (sorry) omega in life. There were areas of watch-buying that had never occurred to me and technical terms aplenty: bezels, bevels and lug-lengths, jewels (which essentially lubricate the mechanism, I’m told), framed date windows, sunburst effects and so on. Soon I grew more discerning. This one looked marvellous but was only water resistant to 30 metres. The other didn’t cut it on the style front but had a ‘Nivachron balance spring’ to see off outside magnetism (yes, indeed) and a virtually unbreakable sapphire scratch resistant glass. In the end it all got too brain-scrambling and I bought the watch I wanted in the first place – that Longines – on hire-purchase.

Since then, I’ve left the subject alone. As with so many things, wristwatch research was a crash-course in learning to despise things which in blissful ignorance you’d have been quite content with. I don’t want to know too much about the workings of my Longines Conquest automatic – I might well get a disappointment. Good-looking watches, like beautiful people, are perhaps not to be probed too deeply. Whether or not it has a ‘silicon hair spring’ – another desirable feature, apparently – I still haven’t found out, nor what such a spring is or does, and now I’m no longer watching the YouTube posts, like any normal person I don’t care. It’s an automatic watch, that’s all I know, and it looks very pleasant on my wrist.

But is an automatic watch worth it anyway? Once you’ve gotten over the snob-factor, it’s actually a bit of a letdown. Unless you’re very organised, you’re probably going to forget to put your watch on for a day or two now and again, and if you don’t own one of those special watch-vibrating cases (another thing to plug in) you’re going to have a stopped clock at the end of it. Tissot do some 80-hour automatics (giving you at least a three-day grace period) but with my Longines, I find myself constantly picking up a watch which has stopped and which needs to be reset. Then there’s the date, which needs fixing too each time and so is always wrong – I never know what day of the month it is and who can honestly be bothered? As a friend of mine’s pointed out, automatic watches are heavier on the wrist as well.  But still, there’s a Bond thing about automatics that won’t quite let me go. Long experience has taught me that if you buy the cheaper version of something, you still want the expensive version afterwards, and in your desire to pinch the pennies have effectively cast those pennies (or pounds) to the wind. We must, if possible, get exactly what we want in life, if only to find out how vapid it all is and how misguided we were to wish for it in first place.

Of course, whatever you buy, however cock-a-hoop you feel with your new timepiece, there will always be someone around to screw up your dream. I recently taught a Dutch student (Johanna or something) who is marrying a Swiss banker. She told me all about the watch he’d bought her as an engagement gift. ‘Something I can wear casually,’ she said. ‘That I don’t have to worry too much about losing.’ How much, I asked her, had it cost? ‘Oh, the price really wasn’t too high,’ she said breezily. ‘About £20,000.’

I thought better of carrying on the conversation. Consulting my now-pathetic high street Longines, I made my excuses and left. I may have my faults, timekeeping perhaps among them, but I do know when I’m out-bevelled.  

Written by
Robin Ashenden
Robin Ashenden is founder and ex-editor of the Central and Eastern European London Review. He is currently writing a novel about Solzhenitsyn, Khrushchev’s Thaw and the Hungarian Uprising.

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