Watch Me Now: Developing an Appreciation for Timepieces
Blame it all on me forgetting to bring my Fitbit charger to China.
During a week’s business trip to Beijing earlier this year, by day three the well-worn wrist computer had gone dark and I spent the next few days gazing, expectantly, at the mole at the base of my left hand, coming away at least as uninformed as I was the second before, but maybe with a greater sense of myself.
Well, that took the better part of a week to develop.
By the time I headed home, a bit sick of fishing the iPhone from my pants whenever I needed a time-check, I’d started to miss the reliability — and beauty — of analog watches. All the glittering displays in the PEK airport mall, from basic, department store brands (Armani, Fossil, Swatch, Michael Kors, to reliable Swiss (Tissot, Omega, Longines, Montblanc), to anniversary-caliber, annual-bonus-wallet-depleting (IWC, Glashutte, Jaeger-LeCoultre, BlancPain ow!) left me gaping as I killed a few hours before my flight, and left me certain that, as a career-minded man of a certain age, I should be sporting something a bit more substantive on my wrist than that mole.
Though I flirted with setting down a chunk of bucks — or, in this case, remaining yuan — on some blingy wrist candy, the better to get to know my new timepiece on the 16-hour return trip, I knew I was looking for a deeper commitment. And that meant research. So, where to start?
My recent wrist history had been dominated by digital, fitness essentials. The Fitbit Surge was a bit of an impulse buy. Got one for my wife, too. And though I’d started out diligently recording every 8-ounce glass of water, and every component of every meal on the connected iPhone app, most days it was a gloomy reminder of all I had failed to do in my well-planned fitness transformation. And who wants that weight hanging at the end of their arm each day?
Preceding the Fitbit was a 2010 Timex GPS: huge face, multiple inputs, its own connected laptop app (read: obsolescence), constantly searching for satellite linkup, great for bolting to my bike on a long ride, but requiring a full charge after every workout. I think the included chest sensor strap still glides around in my sock drawer, but the watch and charger had remained blank and dead in a kitchen change bowl for months, going on years.
I could count one dressy analog watch in my collection. In 2009 my lovely wife had gotten me a solid, steel-braceleted Armani Exchange with a big, 44mm silver face. Quartz-powered and available in the jewelry counters at the mall, maybe it wouldn’t bear mentioning by hard-bitten horologists, but I loved its everyday practicality and its sleek looks. But I guess I’d grown a little used to it after almost 10 years, and it sat in my top dresser drawer long enough to outlive its battery and for my wrist to fill out to the limit of the links I’d once had to remove on it. I figured we could get reacquainted, after a battery change and a home polish.
Before that, I had a couple budget, everyday Citizens and Timexes I wore to disintegration. Now I sought a timepiece that could stand up to my weekday desk jockeying, keep me grounded in my constant travel, and give as well as it got on my active weekends. And bringing a little bling, too, wouldn’t hurt.
It was time to explore new options.
Ticking Through Options in the Watch World
With most of a full day to kill on my trans-oceanic trek home, including a five-hour layover in the comfort of the United lounge at O’Hare, I endeavored to bridge a decades-long gap in my horological knowledge. This meant consuming dozens and dozens of watch guides, articles, reviews, etc. — a process that has continued pretty much through today, but which gave me a solid foundation and some well-reviewed favorites by the time I got my weary, naked wrist home.
What to Buy
My first searches centered on watch styles, what I should look to acquire to fill out a watch box. Sources vary — as they are wont to do — but if you set aside the glitzy (Esquire’s watches for every stage of life), the ritzy (Robb Report’s classic timepieces you should own, assuming you can get them) and the simplistic (everything boiled down to three styles, ala GQ), the five types broken down by Business Insider and Effortless Gent made the most sense to me.
Dressy Watches will come with a slim profile, on a brown or black leather band (count one type for each), with an uncluttered, easy-to-read face.
Metal Dive Watches are among the most popular styles, most commonly found on stainless steel link bracelets, but often changed out for rubber or nylon straps, with screw-down crowns, rotating bezels and luminous dials and hands, the better to see them in the deep. And, natch, they should be water resistant, to at least 100 meters/330 feet, often much deeper.
Sport Watches on a rubber or silicone band combine tough cases of the Casio or G-Shock (or, for that matter, Timex Marathon or Fitbit) variety with features useful for an active lifestyle — lap timers, alarms, compasses, lights, what-have-you. I figured I had this category covered for now.
Everyday Watches, or, if you will, weekend beaters, are the watches you can wear around the house or running errands, lounging at the beach or pool, usually on a nylon band, probably water resistant for whatever may splash your way, and not terribly high-priced or hard to replace if things get a little dicey.
The overview by Real Men Real Style is handy, too, and features diagrams (what’s not to love in a good schematic), though you can probably skip the 65-page e-book download. They manage to re-inflate GQ’s all-encompassing Tool Watch category to recognize dive, race, field and aviator varieties — useful, since the Sport category can range from a $100 quartz lap timer to a several-thousand-dollar Omega or Breitling or Tag Heuer.
Which to Buy
Some of the more useful watch style overviews also included example watches, and brands started to stand out. But to give myself a good immersion, I started to follow the watches reviewed by the industry’s leading blogs, including A Blog To Watch and Hodinkee.
Both of these publications feature enough close-up and on-the-wrist photos of timepieces to get you ogling, but they don’t focus exclusively on $20,000 tool watches or $1.2 million tourbillons. They cover everything from high-end quartz and the latest startup finds to the state of the industry. They recognize that not everyone is at the same stage or wallet capacity of watch worship — since they were once neophytes themselves. Some of the best ways to begin to recognize the timepieces that move you is to review watch-buying guides geared to different buyer types.
Here, A Blog to Watch particularly excels with guides for watches priced from $300 to $1,000, from $1,000 to $20,000, and from $20,000 and up. I also appreciate their series on entry-level watches for the most popular brands and affordable watches that earn a nod from watch snobs.
Also worth reading as you learn to separate brands of value from those not worth the risk are the comment threads in each site’s daily entries. Often entertaining, sometimes vicious, it’s relatively painless to be a bystander and begin to get a feel for where you agree and where you don’t. I also appreciate combing the reviews for watches I search on Amazon to sort out real experiences with brands and models vs. self-serving spam. The forums at WatchUSeek are brimming with knowledge and firsthand tales of remorse and warning.
The lesson? Before purchasing, do some searches, consult the trusted sources. This is what will save you from brands like Invicta and Stuhrling and Vincero whose looks and steeply-discounted prices entice, but whose substance is lacking; help you admire stalwarts like Rolex, Tudor, Seiko, Omega and Victorinox; and help you discover boutique brands like Mr. Jones, Undone, Klokers, Shinola and Weiss.
Finding What I Like
As I combed through dozens of guides and hundreds of reviews, I started to assemble a wishlist of watch types and brands I admired. This forms my shopping list — one that I don’t expect to fulfill for many years, and that I also expect to amend many times over. But here it is.
For watch styles, I was thinking colors and materials as well as shapes and the types of activity they’d support.
Watch Styles —
- brown leather band, light face
- brown leather band, dark face
- black leather band, white face
- black leather band, dark face
- canvas/nylon band
- steel band, light face
- steel band, dark face
- rubber-banded sport or dive watch
- square or rectangle faced
- automatic movement
- solar movement (Citizen)
- quality quartz (Bulova)
- ordinary quartz daily
- world time
For watch brands, I was thinking of activities they were best known for or suited to, as well as developing an appreciation for manufacturers from different regions and countries, including my own.
- Timex (weekend wear) (U.S. ties)
- Bulova (U.S. ties)
- Skagen (Danish) (fashion)
- Mr Jones (British) (unusual) (fashion)
- Sinn (German) (tool)
- Citizen (Japanese) (Swiss) (solar-powered)
- Seiko (Japanese) (quality) (tool) (affordability)
- Breitling Colt (Swiss) (tool) (COLT!)
- Victorinox Swiss Army (Swiss) (durable, affordable)
- Nixon (USA) (affordable) (trendy)
- Omega (Swiss) (quality) (luxury)
- Armani Exchange (fashion) (affordable)
- Rolex (luxury) (quality)
- Nomos Glaschutte (luxury) (active)
- Wempe (German) (boutique) (quality)
- Oris (Swiss)
- Tudor (Swiss) (luxury) (affordable)
- Hamilton (quality) (Swiss with U.S. ties) (affordable)
I’ll share more in a future post on how I picked some of my favorites in each brand to set my eye on, but for now, I’ll share my collection so far.
Starting a Collection
In the three months since my Beijing naked wrist I’ve added five new pieces to my Armani Exchange starting point.
Not only is it fun to have a choice of six watches to mark time with each day, but the ones I started with were chosen to start checking off the boxes in my big list of watch styles and brands.
So, now I’ve got a couple watches to take swimming or on the weekend camping trip. A couple more that go better with a suit or in a business presentation. And some that, because of their functions, whether it’s showing time on a 24-hour scale around the world, or keeping a clear date, or counting out fractions of seconds on a chronograph, manage to straddle active and formal activities, and add to their versatility and malleable style with a simple switch of the strap.
In order to build a small collection quickly, I’ve tended to focus on watches in the $100 to $600 range at first. But I didn’t sacrifice on quality. Each came highly regarded and reviewed. And most boast the type of good materials and solid brand backing that will mean they won’t be falling out of rotation any time soon.
I have my eyes set on glitzier prizes in the months and years to come. But this is the foundation so far.
Armani Exchange AX2016 Stainless Steel Bracelet
A birthday gift from my wife going on 9 years ago, I’ve only had to change the battery once. It’s a hard-working quartz everyday watch that’s well-suited for the office and comes with the 40+ mm case width that I like and that is solidly in fashion these days. I love the golf-ball dimples on the silver face and the multiple dials that show time, day and date with simple, black highlights. The chunky, stainless steel bracelet is still the first and only watch I have with that type of strap, but it’s held up well and doesn’t show a lot of scratches on its polished surfaces. AX may be a department store brand for the younger set — younger than me, perhaps — but they still sign the dial, bracelet clasp and crown with pride. The watch has held up well.
Bulova Lunor Pilot Chronograph
I loved the story behind Bulova’s homage to its 1970s NASA-issue Apollo moon watch, but I loved its looks even more. The monochromatic face just oozed 1960s space race vibe, with details in the chronograph dials that reveal themselves the closer in you get. When it catches the light, at times, there’s blue to the tint, or the gold edging behind the hour markers and indicators comes through. Of course, its non-coincidental resemblance to its much more expensive and well-known Omega counterpart doesn’t hurt either. Bulova didn’t skimp on the bones here. The watch features its high-beat quartz movement, accurate to within seconds over the course of a year; surgical-grade stainless steel in the case; sapphire crystal with anti-reflective coating; and high-luminosity hands and markers that give off a vintage glow in the dark. This was my first splurge to build a collection, and I wanted something versatile for business and casual wear. It helped that just about everywhere it was well-reviewed — A Blog To Watch, Worn & Wound, Gear Patrol, Hodinkee. I appreciated the look of the black alligator-style strap and the added black nylon commemorative strap with the 1971 mission information. Those are sitting in the solid display case at the moment as the watch rides around this summer on a Bond-style quick-release nylon strap from Blu Shark. I enjoy it every time I wear it, and I can see myself wearing it for a long time to come.
Skagen Melbye Orange Dial Titanium and Steel Mesh
Several entries from Skagen feature on best-watches-of-the-year lists, usually in the under $200 category. The Melbye always stood out to me with its minimalist/modernist aesthetic — that 12 and 6 anchoring the dial, with the orange ring counting out the minutes and putting a bit of zing into its silver and gray. Whereas the watch pubs loved this piece, customer reviews were mixed, with lower-star accounts usually involving some sort of banging the watch around. But with its slim, 7.6 mm profile and understated — compared to today’s wrist clocks — 40 mm case, this beauty fits best under shirt and suit cuffs. To me, the titanium and mesh feel solid, and though the crown could use some knurling to get a better grip when adjusting the day, date and time, that’s an issue with other dress watches, too. The mesh wears comfortably, and I appreciate the adjustable, double-locking clasp (hook-snap-clasp) as another mark of its solidity. Though there’s only a touch of lume in the hands, this isn’t a watch I’m going to need to check on the other side of midnight during a scout campout. For once-or-twice-a-week work wear, or for a formal occasion, the Melbye works well, and I get a kick out of its looks every time I glance at that gray and orange dial.
Mr. Jones Time Traveler
I’d already heard a bit about boutique brand Mr. Jones from the industry blogs I followed, and admired their creative, irreverent take on timepieces, before a fortuitous work trip to London this spring. So I couldn’t resist the opportunity to visit their shop. There was something exciting, anyway, about taking the Underground to Blackfriars station, walking across the Thames via the Blackfriars bridge and seeking out their second-story, corner space in a little enclave at Oxo Tower Wharf for craftsmen and artists just off the scenic Queen’s walk. Like the sign outside declares, Mr. Jones offers watches that “do more than just tell the time.” They know we can just glance at our phones or — ugh — our ever-present computer monitors to know when we are. Their artistic dials make us think twice about who we are, featuring playful ways of reading the time — looking into a skull’s teeth, anyone? Or, deciphering a hand of cards? — and commissioned artwork to create one-of-a-kind timepieces. A watch that perfectly encapsulates the Mr. Jones vibe is its piece with a simple, mirrored face and hands that spell out “remember you will die.” Called, aptly, “The Accurate,” it’s a nod to memento mori, a tradition of carrying objects that remind us life is brief and we should seize the day. OK, so I’d stored up a lot of brand love here, but which watch did I choose? Befitting what brought me to their doorstep, I selected Time Traveler. Ticking off my own requirements for a dressy watch with a black leather band and light face, as well as a 24-hour dial, the face features an array of the most prominent landmarks in time zones around the world, with minutes being marked by a wayward, red pigeon (flying backwards — another titter of charm). The 37 mm face is a tad smaller than I like, but it works for dressy or casual occasions, and just pops on the wrist. What’s more, I didn’t limit myself to just this purchase — for me, anyway. I brought home a Blowball model to delight my wife — and earn points to fund my watch insanity — and gifted the Queen to my mom, who I discovered had a collection of dozens of pieces fitting her vision as an artist herself. Great spirit, delightful local brand.
Timex Expedition Field Chronograph
With all of my sudden investment in dressy watches, I knew I had to anchor the collection with a watch I wouldn’t be afraid to get dirty. It was time to reacquaint myself with Timex, a brand that, like countless others in the U.S., I’d grown up with. Though I could barely remember those watched I’d mentioned that had “disintegrated” with use, I do recall having one of the early “Indiglo” models and carting it along to a camp work weekend in Boy Scouts. Lying exhausted in the dark in my bunk after a day of sweaty outdoors work, I found a little comfort in flashing the Indiglo feature. But I wondered, like the snarkiest of comments in watch forums, whether Timex was just a “kids’ brand.” Well, let’s deep-six that notion right here. The brand has made a big comeback of late, with nods to its heritage in its vintage-vibed Waterbury and Fairfield collections. I mean, if you’ve got the history, flaunt it, right? I’d read enough reviews and best-of lists to know that Timex brought a serious mind to materials and durability. Very important in my “weekend beater” watch. And they offer a virtually limitless range of choices for straps and colors. I decided on the TW4B10200 model Field Chronograph, with black face and beige nylon strap. It just screamed Boy Scouts to me. The case is made of brass and measures 43 mm. I strap this one on for hikes and campouts, while timing for substitutes in youth soccer games, while mowing the lawn or just lounging around the house. It’s durable and versatile and packs a lot of power for under $60.
Undone Custom Aqua Diver
The newest addition to my collection is a watch unlike any other in the world. Because I designed it myself. It’s worth a story of its own, so I’ll save the details for a future blog. But long story short, the watch pros at Undone, based in Hong Kong, have hit on a winning formula of quality materials, in-the-know aesthetics and online, do-it-yourself customization that bridge the gap not only in making ordering from Asia quick and secure, but in being able to acquire an eye-catching, high-quality timepiece whose looks will always captivate its creator — you.
It’s this journey of discovery that ensnares me the most when it comes to watch collecting. Of being responsible for nitty gritty details, of learning to appreciate the craftsmanship and artistry and story of a watch’s function and design, and of writing my own story in discovering it, and of all the places and experiences it will accompany me through, marking time, living out the years.