Which watch? And why?
AWHILE AGO, as I perused the wristwatch ads in the New York Times, something within me agitated–something that once in a decade, or maybe a lifetime, causes you to wonder about what you do measured comprehensively; like, oh, What percentage of your lifetime do you spend asleep? Or eating? Or–your mind, when roguish, will take you to antic lengths–defecating?
It happened to me at that moment, on the spot. I asked myself, How many hours (weeks? months?) of my life have I already spent looking at watch ads? The question fascinated me in part because my persistent habit hasn’t been motivated by any search for the Perfect Watch. This is so because quite by accident, a few years ago, I discovered the perfect watch; so that all the time I spend looking at the displays of watches for sale is entirely platonic. It’s just that there is something, for me, simply irresistible in watch ads.
Which watch And why
I thought this an entirely personal idiosyncrasy until I devoted a newspaper column to a single Sunday’s watch ads. I was astonished by the number of people who wrote to me, or told me to my face, that they suffer from the same addiction. “Suffer” may be the wrong word, because manifestly our fraternity relishes the pastime. Granted, some voyeurs are engaged in the practical pursuit of awatch preferable to the watch they wear, but they would presumably expect that their curiosity would be extinguished upon finding their quarry.
Now, all watch-watchers are given to examining primarily two basic things. The first, of course, is the appearance of the watch; the second, its price. I found that my correspondents share with me the stupefaction provoked by manifest paradoxes–the very expensive watch that appears mundane in appearance, modest in its accomplishments; and, on the other hand, the preposterously inexpensivewatch that appears to accomplish as much as models costing one hundred times as much.
The mind wanders … What are watch-fanciers looking for? By what criteria are they guided? How much of the whole business is sheer guile? Or flighty, evanescent fashion-chasing? Some watch-buyers, of course, are conned, but that is true in every situation. But how many of us? Like 9 per cent? Or more like 90 per cent? What is the force of the guiding hand of fashion?
I had in my mail, reacting to my column, a wonderfully querulous letter from William Manchester, the learned, stylish, peppery historian and biographer. He wrote from his fastness at Wesleyan University. I quote from memory: “I wear a Rolex, but have decided to get rid of it because it is Politically Correct. Please let me know what is the watch you are so pleased with. Yours, Bill Manchester, Eurocentrist, Heterosexual.” I decided to pursue more meticulously the questions I had posed in my column.
The front section of the New York Times on that Sunday carried ads for forty watches, leading off with a Van Cleef & Arpels selection, two elegantly plain watches, the primary visual difference between them being that one had a sweep second hand, the other a miniature second hand. “Gentlemen’s Quartz Leather Strap Watches. On left with steel, $1,500, and on right with 18 kt. gold, $4,950.”
Now that’s the kind of thing that causes the gnashing of teeth among us watch-watchers, because of course you ask yourself: How much gold do you consume to make up the $3,450 difference between Model A, non-gold, and Model B, gold? It is a happy coincidence that you recall that an ounce of gold sells for $345, more or less; so that, at the raw gold price, it would take ten ounces of gold to account for that price differential. Come on! I doubt the whole watch weighs more than ten ounces. Those bloodsuckers, huh!
Your eye catches, a few pages ahead, a Mickey Mouse watch. You smile. Walt Disney lives! The eternal benefactor of little children, with their heady little appetites for sprightly, inexpensive, utilitarian adornments! You read on and come upon–stumble over–get floored by–the price. $5,750. Your eye races to the explanation. Could it be that inside each of these watches there is a relic? Maybe a toenail of the original Mickey Mouse? But all the reader gets is: “A $5,750 Mickey–for innovators, watch collectors, and friends of Mickey. Completely hand-crafted in Switzerland.” Very close friends of Mickey, one has to assume.
Ah, yes, and we come to: “hand-crafted.” You are a grownup reader and so you know that “hand-crafted” usually means, very simply: more expensive. You have idly wondered, over the years, why customers should want “hand-crafted” goods. If it’s a painting by van Gogh, you most certainly wish it to be hand-crafted. But what is it, you allow yourself to wonder, that makes a hand-crafted watchpreferable to a machine-crafted watch? Isn’t it likelier that a hand-crafted watch will err, than that a computer-crafted watch will do so? And if that is the case, aren’t you being asked to pay a lot more money for a watch that is likelier to contain an imperfection, probably invisible to the eye of the craftsman, that the computer-laser would detect?
You conclude that you are being manipulated.
And then you focus on an interesting anomaly, which is that the very expensive watches are almost uniformly driven not by a simple quartz battery, but by the motion of the wrist, or even by hand winding. You permit yourself to dwell on the possibility that a watch driven by a battery is less accurate than a watch perpetually animated by the wrist movement of a non-comatose wearer. Might this be so because every day the battery loses just a tiny degree of potency? And before you know it you are, oh, 30 seconds, maybe a couple of minutes, behind true watch time? You make a note to look into that question, because you can’t believe that anybody who has the choice of replacing a $3 battery every couple of years would prefer perpetual wrist motion as the propulsive life-force alternative. If you depend on the latter, you have a watch that goes dead on you if it should happen that you left it at your son’s house, on your last visit, and didn’t get around to reuniting with it for a week or so; or else you needed to call your son and ask him please to remember to jiggle yourwatch every day until he takes it to the post office. Yes, something to look into.
You explore then the watch as a status symbol, and ogle on the next page something labeled “IWC International Watch Company, Da Vinci.” The object is described in that genteel, exclusivist voice designed to inspire: covetousness. “This unique timepiece shows signs of genius. Completely handmade in Switzerland, the automatic perpetual calendar moonphase chronograph even shows the year for at least the next 209 years without resetting the watch.” Such a watch as this has got to be exclusive, and sure enough, “Limited Edition. A masterpiece in 18K, $19,995.” I love that “$995.” You are at this point so indignant that you feel the time you have spent on your idle pursuit has been mysteriously justified: you have exposed sin, and how can sins be purged without first being identified as such?
TO ANSWER some of my questions, I made a date with Alfredo Lopez. He is a salesman for Tourneau Inc., which is the flossiest watch emporium in the country, with six stores in California, Florida, and New York. I have known him for many years, as I go to him to buy watches (gifts), and occasionally to seek horological advice.
He advises me that the watch business is pretty much “Switzerland–and Japan.” The way he says it reminds me of the great Spanish matador, Juan Belmonte, early in this century. Asked what was his opinion of the prowess of the young Joselito, a rising star, Belmonte sniffed: “Primero, Belmonte. Despues nadie. Despues Joselito.” First Switzerland. Then nobody. Then Japan.
There was an era, Mr. Lopez reminded me, when the United States was a live contender. Our Hamilton chronometers were considered the very best, indeed were standard for our and others’ navies for a generation and more. But Hamilton was bought by the Swiss; Elgin went out of business. For a while we tried to build tariff walls around our watches. As ever, human ingenuity found ways around this silly impediment. Our tariffs were written to apply if more than one-half of thewatch was assembled outside the United States. This law put the Swiss to the bother of shipping their watches to the Virgin Islands and assembling them there. Even now, when Swiss watchesreach the United States they are labeled as “unadjusted,” thus lowering whatever tariffs still apply.
So I got to the first question, the business of winding versus quartz. Mr. Lopez was mystified by the naivete of my question. He explained that to buy a very good watch propelled by quartz was on the order of “buying a Porsche with an automatic transmission.”
But is there something about self-winding that affects accuracy?
Yes: the self-winding watch is actually less accurate than the quartz watch. So what? was the sound that came from Mr. Lopez’s shrugged shoulders.
One has the feeling that accuracy isn’t any longer a question of price, given that, after all, the Casio quartz watches, which sell for approximately $50, are phenomenally accurate. When what the historians call the Search for Longitude was undertaken, halfway into the eighteenth century, accuracy meant everything. If aboard your ship you knew exactly what time it was, one-half the navigator’s problem was solved. The latitude had been available for centuries, a mere deduction from either the North Star, or the sun when at the highest point in its daily arc. The astronomers had long since established exactly where each navigational star, the planets, the sun, and the moon were “located” (i.e., at what point on the surface of the earth a line between the center of the earth and the star would fall). But unless you knew exactly what time it was, you did not know where in the tables to look for the correlative longitude. Conversely, if you know that at the moment you fetched down an angle of 33 degrees, 33 minutes, 33 seconds on Spica on January 1, 1994, Greenwich Mean Time was 02:34:56, then you know your longitude.
In laying down the rules for watch accuracy, the Royal Commission didn’t require that the time on thewatch face be exact, but it did require that the rate of acceleration, or of deceleration, be constant. If your chronometer gains 3 seconds every day, what do you care? Just add 3 seconds for every day you have been at sea.
The wrist-held “chronometer” sold by Tourneau needs to pass exacting standards to qualify as such. After years of experience with several brands, I give it as a secular observation that if your watchgains or loses less than 1 second every day, you can think of it as a chronometer, and set sail, under your own devices, for Bermuda, confident you will find it.
Mr. Lopez confirms my suspicion, which is that there are watch-buyers who care terribly to know exactly what the time is and will not settle, e.g., for one of those nonchalant non-quartz Rolexes that can lose a minute or more per week. But then as we mount the ladder of expectations, we find ourselves asking the watch to do more for us than merely give us the time. Yes, there are evenwatches for sale that reckon with the exact length of a year, so that when time comes for Leap Year, they will take you from February 28-to February 29.
I remarked to Mr. Lopez that he was talking about pretty fancy stuff. It was then that I thought to ask him: What is the most expensive watch you have on hand?
Well, he said, that would be the Vacheron Constantin.
How much? I asked.
Three hundred and sixty thousand dollars.
My reaction could not have surprised him. One has the feeling that, at Tourneau training schools, there must be somebody who explains to salesmen-on-the-firing-line that potential customers are going to go through such contortions as I went through on being told the price of some watches.
Of course, the first thing I did was to ask to see one. And, of course, it was brought out in a quite beautiful wooden case. I opened it–and found myself staring at a watch that had no gold on it, with a plain leather watchband. The face was fine in appearance, and had the usual three dials, and the moon-marker. It is by no means arresting in appearance. If you happened to notice it on your friend’s wrist, you would not bother to ask to examine it. What, I asked, are the special features of the Vacheron Constantin?
Well, it has a “minute repeater.” What that is, I learned, is a device that can be triggered by a finger of your other hand. Let’s imagine … You wake up at night. YOU DO NOT KNOW WHAT TIME IT IS! Must you switch on the light? Look up at the illuminated dial on your clock radio? None of the above. You need only twiddle a tiny nipple on your Vacheron Constantin and you will hear a bell pitched at, say, Vacheron Constantin and you will hear a bell pitched at, say, A. As it sings out, you count: One ring, two rings, three rings … Silence.
It is three o’clock.
Then the pitch changes to, say, F, and the bell goes back to work. Again you count. One two three four five six seven eight nine ten eleven twelve thirteen fourteen fifteen sixteen seventeen … Silence.
It is seventeen minutes past three.
And you should by now be wide awake, is all I can say; but I wouldn’t hurt Mr. Lopez’s feelings, not for anything. The other special feature is that the back of the watch is made of a material that permits you to observe the insides.
Mr. Lopez was joined by an older companion. “That watch,” he said pointing to it, still in my hands, “will be worth more ten years from now than it is now. The number of people in Switzerland equipped to make a watch like that is maybe seven, and they are dying off.” How many of this model, I asked, are they making? Eight, at the rate of about two every year. There is a waiting list of five customers.
What kind of people would buy such a watch, I mean, other, obviously, than very rich people?
Answer: those who want to know that they have on their wrist the best watch made. “Anything more expensive than this either is an antique, or else is full of diamonds,” I am told. Men buy the more expensive watches, though women buy the most expensive; but they are really buying diamond bracelets with watches in them. “You cannot imagine the feeling the true connoisseur gets when winding his Vacheron Constantin.” In fact I can certainly imagine the feeling I’d get; but I dropped it, and said something about how I was sure people who bought Rolls Royces feel that way when they put their foot on the pedal.
IASKED ABOUT the “Tellurium Johannes Kepler,” which I had spotted in Switzerland during the winter. I was given the brochure. The Tellurium is a product of Ulysse Nardin, a company founded in 1846 and rescued from bankruptcy in 1983 by an enterprising Swiss who lives much of the year in Malaysia, which he now calls home. The Tellurium and the Astrolabium are the two major triumphs of Ulysse Nardin’s shop in the little valley town of Le Locle, in the Jura.
How to describe the Tellurium? Well, it is ahead of its older sister, the Astrolabium Galileo Galilei, which, in addition to giving you the time of day, gives you also the local time and month; the signs of the zodiac; the height and direction of the sun, the moon, and the fixed stars; the time of sunrise and sunset, dawn and dusk; phases of the moon; moonrise and moonset; as well as the eclipse of the sun and the moon. The Tellurium adds to the above the display of Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. The prices of the two watches are, respectively, sixty and eighty thousand dollars.
The Tellurium and the Astrolabium are both tantalizingly beautiful to look at, but there is one problem. Most of us would need refresher courses every month or so to be reminded how exactly to read the arcana they give you. The brochure on the Tellurium Johannes Kepler reminds you how indebted is the watch industry to the findings of Kepler, whereupon a 43-year-old nightmare revisits the memory. I sat down for the semester exam in Physics 10ab at college and confronted the very first question: “State Kepler’s Third Law.” People who have no problem stating Kepler’s Third Law can readily cope with the Tellurium. That law tells us that the squares of the orbital times of the planets are proportional to the cubes of their mean distance from the sun.
SO WHAT does the affluent purchaser want in a watch? The answer, of course, is that it depends– which is why there are so many watch designs. My own Rule Number One is that when it is not necessary to do so, don’t buy something that is ugly. (Why do so many people have ugly dogs?) If in order to get the exact time, or the moon phase–if you insist on it–the watch simply has to be cumbersome, then okay, but only then.
My Rule Number Two is: My watch must be accurate, within 5 seconds per month. Number Three: It must be capable of giving me two readings. If I am sailing, one of them will be set to Greenwich Mean Time, the second to local time. If I am away from my home but on dry land, one of them will be set to New York time. Number Four: It should have a stopwatch function. And–controversial Number Five–it must be readable in digital as well as analogue form.
For a while, Mr. Lopez said–about five years–digital displays took over the watch industry. That was the low point of Swiss watchmaking, because non-Americans didn’t take to those liquid-crystal grey numbers that uglify any watch face. Still, for years I put up with my BMW watch, because it gave me both digital and analogue.
It was four years ago that I spotted the watch of my dreams. It is an Omega Seamaster. Its face is black, the hour-points are dots of luminescent green. Stretching in a graceful unobtrusive arc from the eight o’clock point to the four o’clock point is a digital readout; discreet gold against black. You don’t notice it unless you are looking for it, but when you are looking for it, it is unambiguously there. Giving you, to the second, the time in New York. Or in Greenwich. Or acting as a chronometer. Or reminding you what day it is, what month.
It is the most beautiful thing in the whole watch-making world, and William Manchester and I own one. The cost of it? Closer to a Timex than to a Vacheron Constantin.