There is a certain amount of romanticism inherently associated with collecting watches. Broadly, watch collecting can be seen as a link to the past — a time without a constant connection to the outside world at your fingertips. Individually, it is a different story. Perhaps it is the mystery of small engraving on a vintage watch that tells part of a story that you’ll never actually hear, or the chocolaty patina that can only come from decades of sunlight exposure that keeps you coming back for more. Maybe it is as simple as the overwhelming appreciation of the skill required to craft a micro-mechanical masterpiece that makes watches speak to you. There are any number of reasons a watch can be considered special, but I wonder: Are some of us diluting what makes watches special by trying to impart our own whimsical connection to an object?
Avid consumers of watch media, advertising, and marketing who regularly purchase these luxury items have been pushed to create a unique story of their own while simultaneously stepping into the shoes of someone else when they put on a watch. From mid-century watch ads to new watch releases, and celebrity biographies that accompanied legendary watches at auction, each comes with a story of adventure, love, and travel. These stories of defying death to set personal and historical milestones are designed to entice you to buy the watch and feel the gravity of the achievements of those who have also worn the same watch. While my Omega Speedmaster has never been more than a few stories off the ground, I still get a bit of a dopamine spike knowing that this watch was worn in space and on the moon whenever I strap it on for “Speedy Tuesday.” So, how can I impart my own story on this watch, and what about all my other watches? Does every watch in my collection need its own special meaning? The ever-enticing urge to apply an arbitrary meaning to an inanimate object is almost like a virus that afflicts the hobby. Frankly, it is one of my favorite parts, but perhaps it needs to be done sparingly.
This “special meaning” is something I have grappled with for a few years, and I can trace it back to the exact moment I poked my head over the edge of the watch collecting rabbit hole into which I’ve been falling ever since. When my grandfather passed away, he left behind a few watches, some jewelry, Army dog tags, and even gold and silver tooth fillings, in a weathered jewelry box. One of the watches was an Omega Constellation. It had a cracked crystal, a weathered dial, and a bent lug — all signs of a life well lived, in my book — with a caseback loose enough to unscrew with one finger. Sitting at my dining room table, I unthreaded the caseback and saw what I know now as a filthy movement.
With a magnifying glass, I explored this mechanical marvel and eventually noticed some small marks inside the caseback. Upon closer inspection, scratched into the surface I found M WITKIN, my grandmother, who died well before I was born, alongside the dates that she had my grandfather’s watch serviced. It hit me like a ton of bricks; through the decades, I felt an entirely new connection with a woman whom I had never met but whose blood runs through my veins — all from a crude engraving in my late grandfather’s watch.
If I am being honest, I feel like I have been chasing this feeling ever since, all while knowing it’s not truly possible to recreate. But perhaps I can recreate it for another. I’ve perused plenty of forum threads Instagram posts, read many columns, and have watched enough interviews to know that this is a somewhat shared experience. However, I never questioned how my intentions may be diminishing my collecting experience, until recently.
In a small group of very good friends, all of whom had come together through this hobby, the topic of selling a special watch came up. I started to wonder, are we bound to these objects simply because we have assigned a meaning that we alone understand? In turn, are these watches less special if we apply some extra meaning to all of them? If the answer is yes, how can we still enjoy the watch-collecting hobby without tarnishing the romanticism that comes along with having that special watch?
I won’t pretend the answer I have is the end-all-be-all, or that I will always agree with it. But I have decided that this personal connection doesn’t have to define you or your collection. When the time comes to add a watch to the collection — a special one — don’t skirt the system just to save a few bucks. Celebrate the achievement, celebrate the occasion. Go all out and don’t look back. You can make up for the minor additional expense in any number of ways, but you cannot recreate the experience.
I am speaking from experience in this case. I recently followed my own (we’ll call it sage) advice and purchased a new watch on my honeymoon with the intention of it being passed down to my children if we are lucky enough to have some. The purchase experience was the full shebang from a gloved unveiling to celebratory champagne. It is a memory I’d rather have the opportunity to share when I pass the watch along than the knowledge I saved a couple hundred bucks online. Some collectors may be used to this kind of special treatment, but as someone who normally searches for the right deal and buys pre-owned when possible, the special flare added to mark my special occasion really put a bow on it.
The boutique experience — often painted in a negative light — may not be for everyone and that’s perfectly okay. But when you intend on making something special, why not go the extra mile and pull out the confetti? This also draws a bolder line between the watches that mean something to you and all the other watches that you enjoy without any romantic baggage that we have come to add to our watches. It makes the special ones unique in a way only you, or another collector, will someday understand.