I Joined the Cult of Luxury Watches and This Is Where I Wound Up
There’s a school of thought which holds that forty-something men who purchase luxury items aren’t necessarily going through a “midlife crisis”—buying youthful accessories in an attempt to not seem old—but are instead buying things they’ve alwayswanted, yet are only now, in middle age, able to afford. I wanted a powerful muscle car when I was 16, for example, but was 39 before I could responsibly get one. A similar arc has followed in my life for indulgences like traveling regularly and eating at four-star restaurants on days that aren’t my birthday.
But watches are different. Sixteen-year-old me entertained no fantasies of one day sporting a Patek or Panerai. My descent into timepieces is not the result of embers tended carefully over decades until I could finally afford to fuel that fire. Instead, it is an unexpected and quick-onset disease, seemingly contracted out of the blue.
I’m painfully aware that, at the age of 41, I have “caught watches.”
If there is any solace to be taken, it is that I am, apparently, not alone. The sickness afflicts many a middle-aged man. (Gary Shteyngart is a prominent recent example.)
I travelled to Manhattan to attend WatchTime New York in Gotham Hall, the biggest high-end watch show in the United States, to be around others who had acquired this strange condition. Perhaps, I thought, viewing a group of some 1,400 who had been infected en massewould allow me to make a correct self-diagnosis. What, exactly, is going on with me? Is there a cure? And, if not, are there at least ways to manage the symptoms?
When you clean out the dwelling chambers of a relative who has died, it becomes bracingly clear that 95% of the physical items you accumulate over a lifetime—the things you obsess-over, maintain, iron, oil, and/or dust—are meaningless to anyone else. Worthless. Nothing anybody wants. Clothing—except for maybe that novelty necktie with the burlesque dancers on it—goes immediately into the trash. Whole libraries of books, after a cursory picking over (if you are even fortunate enough to have relatives who read), will go straight to Half Price Books. Sentimental do-dads, trinkets, and trophies might be regarded for a moment as puzzling oddities—like religious paraphernalia from a faith no longer practiced—before they too are placed in the garbage.
But watches are an exception. They almost always land in the 5% of possessions that get kept by survivors. You have to look for a reason to throw a watch away, as opposed to a reason to retain it.
In my father’s desk, my brother finds a Movado from the early 1970s. It is gold and inscribed to him from our mother on the occasion of their wedding anniversary. (My mother’s growing dementia leaves her, on a good day, just able to remember who I am. Any further backstory on a 45-year-old wristwatch has left her long ago.) The Movado’s automatic movement is broken. My brother wants to have it fixed and wear it. I bring it back from Indianapolis to Chicago, where there are more and better-reputed watch repair shops. The Movado is very small by today’s standards. Special parts will have to be ordered, I am told. It will take weeks or months. We resolve to wait.
Viewed one way, WatchTime New York is a celebration of something rendered unnecessary by modern technology. It might as well be a gathering of people who light their homes with candles, or churn their own butter. Smartphones, which everybody has, tell you the time with great accuracy. They are also computers. You can use them to take photos, trade stocks, and browse the web. And, oh yes, to make phone calls. Yet despite their ever-increasing capabilities, phones remain disposable. Every few years (or even annually), the owner throws it in the trash and gets a new one. No phone, however smart, is passed from father to son. The rise of technology has not brought the rise of physical permanence. If anything, the world is more disposable.
For a few hours during WatchTime—maybe as a joke, maybe as something else—I don a replica Rolex Milgauss purchased on the “dark web” for about $300. It is the only thing I own that says “Rolex” on it, and is, of course, not a Rolex.
Or is it?
My brother is a bicycle mechanic—“bike tech,” he would correct me—and I have heard him speak at length on the problem of forgeries in the bicycle industry. There are (in the parlance of the techs) “fake-fakes” and “real-fakes.”
A fake-fake happens when a forger (usually in China) configures his or her factory to create a passable imitation of, say, the newest Trek bicycle. These imitations are then sold on the black market and on sites like Craigslist. Their existence upsets bike techs because most fake-fakes are shoddily built and present serious safety hazards.
But then there are the real-fakes. These occur when a factory—also usually in China—is hired by Trek to make their real, actual bikes, which are shipped to the United States and sold legitimately by Trek dealers. But after an order for 10,000 bikes has been filled, a factory may discover that it has enough raw material left over to make 100 additional bikes. And so, using the same equipment that made the true Trek bikes, the factory illegally produces a further hundred. They are “fakes” because they have not gone through Trek and lack legitimate serial numbers, but they are “real” in the sense that they are indistinguishable from the legitimate bikes—down to the very circumstances of their forging.
How was my “Rolex” made, and by whom? I will never know.
Does it effectively fool people when I wear it? Without fail.
But this crowd is not regular people.
Firstly, the attendees at WatchTime New York are overwhelmingly male. The women who do not work for watch companies or watch magazines are few and far between, and appear mostly to have been brought as dates. (A few have zoned-out entirely, sporting the stupefied glare of a significant other dragged to a Rush concert. Others do their best to feign interest in the timepieces on display.) The men wear jackets, and—at the opening night reception, at least—wield enormous Bill Brasky scotches. But the audience is not entirely homogenous. There are some surprises. At one point, five-time New York Golden Gloves champion Brian Ceballo makes an appearance. There are a couple of teenagers too, and a few women on their own, but—undeniably—almost everybody is an older man.
It is also a crowd that knows watches. Like, really knows watches. Terms that earlier this year would have been Greek to me—like tourbillon, bezel, and Grand Sonnerie—are thrown around rapid-fire as knowing glances are exchanged. The manufacturers displaying their wares presume a level of knowledge that means they can get right to the good parts. I am shown a watch with two tourbillions. I am shown a watch with the largest tourbillion in the world. (A tourbillion, I should say at this point, is a largely unnecessary and extremely complicated mechanism that prevents a watch from losing time when it is held at an angle for an extended period.) I am shown a watch that costs $850,000.
Yet, disappointingly, no one’s laser-eye spots my fake. Nobody cries “IMPOSTOR!!!” and insists I be shown the door.
All the same, I have the sense that I am certainly the only person here wearing a replica. For, to sport a fake in these circumstances somehow misses the point.
The crowd at WatchTime are not men who wear watches to impress members of the general public who have only a cursory knowledge of watches. (Though 35 top brands are represented, Rolex is conspicuously absent. Ahem.) No. I realize immediately that a big part of why these men are here is the search for something authentic and real. Not something for others. Something for themselves. Something they can know is true.
In a world of fakes, we crave the real. And paying a premium for authenticity is not going to go away anytime soon. If anything, there is reason to believe the trend will escalate in the decades ahead. American consumers will soon have a choice between lab-grown meat and something that once mooed or clucked. Brothels will offer silicone sex dolls that resemble realhumans more and more with each passing year. Personal assistants are increasingly impersonal, and liable to be entirely robotic before the end of the century.
In Philip K. Dick’s prophetic novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?—in a sequence omitted from the Blade Runner film adaptation—the protagonist Rick Deckard keeps a pet sheep on the roof of his building. Most of his neighbors likewise keep animals on display. Some of the pets are genuine, but many are realistic androids. We learn that Deckard once owned an actual sheep, but it died and he was forced to replace it with a robot simulacra. Though his ersatz sheep is good enough to fool most people, Deckard secretly pines for the financial means to once again display an authentic animal.
In the 1960’s—the same decade when Dick was writing his ovine masterwork—traditional Swiss watchmaking underwent a harrowing transition known as the “quartz crisis.” Technology pioneered by Japanese companies like Seiko had finally allowed watches to be powered by small quartz batteries. Not only were these quartz watches much cheaper to produce, but they kept time more accurately than their hand-wound or self-winding counterparts from Switzerland. For a time, it seemed traditional watchmaking might go the way of the buggy whip. Then—after a decade of floundering and false starts—traditional watchmakers hit upon a tactic that not only rescued their endangered industry, but propelled it to new heights of success and profitability.
The tactic? Simply this. Repositioning Swiss watches as luxury items and doubling prices.
The ostensible reason behind this promotion to “luxury” was authenticity. Quartz watches were the robot-versions. The androids. The fakes. Swiss watches—powered and wound by the movement of an actual human wrist? Those were the real. The true. The actual. (A few Swiss watchmakers who had rushed to produce their own quartz movements during the crisis now look back on those models sheepishly, as a country might acknowledge a period of Vichy collaboration.)
And so watchmaking was saved. Or, rather, bifurcated. For there are now watches anyone can afford, and watches only middle-aged men with white collar jobs can afford. (Even Seiko, the great disruptor, has sought to cash in on the booming luxury market. It recently introduced its own high-end brand, Grand Seiko, featuring handmade movements—and price points—to rival the Swiss.)
Before I left Chicago for WatchTime New York, the mysterious Russian repairman with the exceedingly good Yelp reviews called to say my father’s watch was ready. He apologized again for the delay. The watch was so small and unusual, he reminded me. Replacement parts had had to be ordered more than once.
But it works.
A device once powered by my father’s wrist will now be powered by my brother’s.
Until he has a brain aneurysm. Or slips into dementia. And 95% of his possessions are grimly disposed of by relatives.
My brother will die. I will die. My father has died.
But the watch. It has a chance to be kept around. To make the cut. To retain worthiness in someone’s eyes at some future date. It has a chance. Because it is, somehow, real.
In the final hours of WatchTime, I slip on my father’s tiny gold Movado and take it for a spin around the room. It is forty years out of fashion, has a scratched face, and its gold has gone to dull. And I couldn’t care less.
This is not for you.
This is for me.
The way it makes me feel is real.
Tags: Fashion + Shopping
Great story, bro!
Good account of the watch world. I feel like I’ve been to the NYC watch expo… easy to read…. I’m 61 and haven’t worn jewelry of any kind for years. I was excited back when I could buy a watch for $7.95 that kept good time.
Scott, as a brain aneurysm survivor, I just want to ask if you or any of your siblings have been checked for a brain aneurysm as it is hereditary. Better err on the side of caution.