No, I’m not talking about that damn diamond ring which is eventually gonna cost you at least half your net worth (more if you don’t get divorced). I’m talking about the one thing that every man needs to own – a damn nice watch.
Growing up, my dream was to own one of these Casio calculator watches. The primary reason was to cheat on math tests, but also because I was fascinated by the ability for a computer to live on something so small.
I never got one of these – they were too expensive back then (probably around $100-$200 if memory serves me correctly), and I always looked on with envy at the other kids in my class who had one. A quick eBay search revealed that you can now get one for about $15. Sigh.
Soon, another model came out that made the calculator look like amateur hour (see what I did there?). The Casio remote control watch. This thing had an infrared emitter on it and the ability to learn codes to just about any TV, giving you the power to change the channel on a TV without anyone knowing how. Oh, how I wanted one of these glorious devices, but once again, we couldn’t afford one.
So for most of my childhood, I wore those cheap $15 watches that you could buy at K-Mart. The blue and green illumination light watches had stolen my heart. There was nothing I wanted more than a watch that would light up in the dark and let me read the time – I thought that was absolutely amazing. I would buy fake G-Shocks at the stolen goods bazars in India, and dream of the day when I could finally own a real one.
By the time I graduated high school, I had decided that it was time to grow up and be a man. I wanted an an analog watch (I didn’t know the difference between quartz and mechanical at the time). I managed to convince my dad that I was going off to college and I needed to own a nice watch. So I ended up with a Timex piece that at the time was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. Plus it had a chronograph, which blew me away.
This watch got me through 2 years of college at Penn, by which time it had gotten pretty beat up by all the things it had probably banged into thanks to my drunken stupor (I no longer drink alcohol). Around this time (2006), Casio had started making some pretty hi-tech watches, and being a gadget guy, I was captivated by this new “atomic sync” technology that kept your watch magically synced with an atomic clock somewhere in the US. So I scraped together some money from my eBay store, and bought one of these bad boys.
This watch lasted me until Thanksgiving of my senior year at Penn, at which point I ended up at Macy’s on Black Friday along with a couple of girls I was trying to impress. Long story short, I bought a watch. Still a quartz piece, but pretty good looking. A Movado Series 800 Sport watch with a stainless steel bracelet. This was a hefty watch that really made me feel like I had something on my wrist. It was great. And it cost me $1000. My first triple 0 watch. I’m pretty sure some of that semester’s financial aid ended up in Macy’s bank account.
I wore the Movado from 2007 till 2011 – it’s still with me, although I haven’t worn it even once since then. The battery died and I’ve never taken it in to get replaced. I also don’t think it looks so good these days, compared to my newer taste in watches.
Around 2010, I read an article on some asinine online list of the “top 50” somethings. On that list was the most incredible feat of engineering that I had ever seen. A Zenith Tourbillion. I remember looking at this watch and being absolutely stunned. Not only was this one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen, I couldn’t believe that watches like this even existed in the world. To top it off, I couldn’t believe that people would spend $200K on a device to tell time! But truly, this is the watch that kicked off my obsession with mechanical watches.
I had always been the type to tinker with things as a kid. I also had an eye for design. I think what drew me to watches was the general symmetry of most dials, the polish on the stainless steel, the engineering feat of fitting so much, in a box so small, and of course the function – watches tell time. They are essentially what lets us know how long we’ve been alive. There’s something magical about a device that is counting the seconds since man kind has been around.
Anyways, I digress. Obviously I couldn’t afford a Zenith Academy Tourbillion, but I became obsessed with the brand. Their open dials mesmerized me, and to be able to see the movement of a watch – a beating heart if you will, well, I knew I must have one. Which is how I found myself in Italy in the summer of 2011, on a work visit to watch the World 3×3 games. I had mapped out every watch store in Rome, and set out one morning to find myself a Zenith watch. 10+ stores later, nobody had even heard of Zenith. I had given up, and was walking back to my hotel, when I happened upon a jewelry store that had a few watches in the window, but none that interested me. It was hot, I was tired, and I figured it wouldn’t hurt to go in and spend a few minutes in the air conditioning. You can probably guess what happened next.
An old woman who barely spoke English let me into the store, and asked me what I wanted. I asked her if she had any Zenith watches. She said she had no idea what that was, but she had a few watches in her safe, which she would bring out. Out came a little velvet case, and inside was the very watch and model that I had spent all day roaming the streets of Rome for! A Zenith El Primero Chronograph with an open dial! I pressed the watch up to my ear, and I could hear the movement beating! After 30 minutes of haggling, walking out, coming back in, and pretending to not like the watch, I pulled the trigger on my very first mechanical wrist watch.
Amazingly, this watch quenched my thirst for watches for a while. I had a really nice watch, I wore it every single day, and I didn’t really feel the need to buy another one. Until a trip to Turkey in 2013 that is. My friend George Raveling had told me that I had to spend some time at the Four Seasons Istanbul on the Bosphorus River, and so I checked in there in the fall of 2013 for a week of R&R. Unfortunately for me, the hotel had a couple of boutiques in the lobby that were directly on the path from the elevators to the restaurant. The first morning on the way to breakfast, I fell in love all over again. There before me was the most elegantly designed watch I had ever seen. Any guesses?
I had no idea what this brand was, but I spent hours staring at this watch in the window, and felt compelled to learn more. Thus began the week in Istanbul that turned me into a true watch enthusiast, and collector. I read blogs, did Google image searches, went to online forums, and got introduced to Hodinkee. For the first time, I realized that there was an incredibly passionate community of watch aficionados around the world, brought together by their love for these beautiful feats of engineering.
Over the course of the next year, I became obsessed with learning about watches. I attended events, subscribed to blogs, and visited boutiques in every city I travelled to – from LA to Manila. I learned most importantly, to pronounce the names of the brands correctly. I learned about complications, and the history of some of the brands. People I’m closed to said that I was crazy, but there was something about these magical little devices that captivated me.
In 2014, I won a contest through Hodinkee – an all expense paid trip to Schaffhausen to visit the IWC Manufacture. You can read all about my trip here. That was definitely the tipping point for me – to see how these watches were made, and to meet the actual people that had put together hundreds of these pieces, I was humbled and honored. It also gave me an opportunity to really look at the vintage side of collecting, as I was up close and personal with watches that were 50+ years old in the IWC museum.
The thing about vintage watches that enthralls me is not just how good they look, but that they were manufactured at a time devoid of computers. There was no CAD drawing software. There were no hi-tech manufacturing processes. All these watches were designed and built, 100% by hand. There’s something special about these watches from the 40s to the 70s, that we will never see again. While I like gaudy modern time pieces just as much as the next Chinese tycoon, I have developed a real passion for vintage watches, as they are a piece of history, from a time before I was born. Ben Clymer and Hodinkee have definitely been a big source of my education on vintage time pieces. As have the auction houses like Christies and Auctionata. Much like I always have sports on in the background, I tend to keep watch auctions open in a small window on my computer, just to follow along. I’ve placed a couple of bids on some watches, but never won any.
The chase of that perfect vintage watch is also what adds to the charm. You can walk into a watch boutique and buy any new watch you want, without so much as a thought. But much like that day I spent in Rome, it’s not that hard to spend hours scouring the forums (and these days, Instagram) in search for your grail piece. Oh, and did I mention that most vintage watches cost A LOT less than a new watch on Madison Avenue? I’ve managed to collect a few neat vintage pieces from the 40s – 70s at pretty good prices. I actually expect many of these to be a pretty solid investment based on the price I bought them at, and how difficult it is starting to become to find quality pieces anywhere. Universal Geneve is probably my favorite vintage brand. I don’t own any Patek, Audemars Piguet, or Rolex watches. It’s not that I don’t want them (if I had $$$$ to blow, I’d probably be in the market), but on a fairly limited budget, it’s nice to have a collection of some very handsome watches that make for fantastic conversation pieces.
Incredibly, in a fairly short period of time, I’ve become the go-to watch guy for almost everyone who knows me. While I haven’t quite gotten to the point where I can rattle off details about movements and their caliber numbers, I do feel like I have a pretty good grasp on the basics. It’s amazing what a few blogs and videos on the internet can teach you these days.