I was thinking about my grandfather the other day, my dad’s dad. He died more than 20 years ago when I was a teenager, and so I never knew him as an adult. Had I, I’ve always wondered whether I would have had the courage to ask him about his experiences from the war.
At 20, my grandfather was captured by the Germans in Greece. He escaped a prisoner of war camp, and then spent six and a half months in hiding, only finding safe passage home after stripping down and rebuilding a boat engine with his bare hands. While he was gone and unaccounted for, it was assumed he was dead.
Not long after he returned to England – we’re not sure when – his parents gave him a Rolex Air-King, possibly for his 21st birthday. Some 70 years later, I still have that watch. Every time I look at it, I think of him and wonder at his bravery and ingenuity. Every time I wear it, I marvel at the fact I’m alive.
Now, I can’t really begin to imagine the thought that went into that Rolex. I never knew my great-grandparents to ask them, but I’d bet that watch was far more than a token of their congratulations on his coming of age. It was, I expect, a potent symbol of how grateful they were for his safe return, knowing how close they’d come to losing him.
Much has changed in seven decades, as we know. I consider myself extraordinarily fortunate never to have had to fight in a war, for starters. But at the same time, much is still the same. The giving of a watch, particularly one bearing the words “Swiss Made” on the dial, remains a signifier of intense feeling, more often than not — yes, chaps — of love.
It’s tempting mawkishness to say so, but the point is there’s little to compete with a watch, complete with its future-proofed mechanical inner workings, as a gift to show someone just how glad you are they’re alive. Failure to recognize this is the reason why many have incorrectly predicted the demise of the traditional watch industry. Nothing says “I love you” like a Samsung Gear S3 smartwatch? I don’t think so.
The giving of a watch, particularly one bearing the words “Swiss Made” on the dial, remains a signifier of intense feeling, more often than not – yes, chaps – of love.
Just last month I advised a young friend of mine on the purchase of a vintage Breitling. Turning 21, he had been invited by his family to choose a timepiece to mark the milestone. He had set his heart on a 1960s Top Time, a fine-looking piece and a surprising choice in one so callow. So intent were he and his father on finding the right watch that they drove 100 miles to Birmingham to find it, a shared experience I’d venture they’ll both cherish for the rest of their lives. It’s unlikely my young friend will have had time to fully appreciate this yet, but no doubt his father wears the look of a man who knows these moments will now become fewer and farther between as his son slips inexorably into a state of self-reliance.
Is there a better seal of approval with which a father can stamp his son’s graduation into adulthood? Signet rings are for fat-fingered aristocrats; cars are simultaneously overindulgent and short-termist; trust funds carry the emotional intensity of a cinderblock. So the answer is no.
If you’re expecting me to tell you which of today’s crop of watches fulfills the brief if you’re buying a watch for someone for Christmas, you’re going to be disappointed. You know your budget and you know the person you’re buying for, and as I know neither of those things, I wouldn’t pretend to advise you.
But what I would say is don’t be afraid to do it. Just as long as the watch is mechanical, and not du jour. After all, there’s every chance that in 70 years’ time there’ll be someone related to you or the person you’re giving it to who fancies wearing it.