The first "serious" watch I ever had is on my wrist as I write this, and looking down at it provokes some reflection: It stood up incredibly well to my years of ignorant abuse, and even though my appreciation of watches has deepened many fold since it first snapped onto my wrist, I still can't find anything to criticize about its quality or design. Most of all, though, it causes me to reflect on how my understanding of it and of watches has changed.
It's a TAG Heuer Carrera Twin Time Calibre 7 Automatic with a steel bracelet, silver dial and a turquoise-arrow-tipped GMT hand. My incredibly generous stepfather gave it to me at a restaurant on my birthday after having just finished graduate school abroad, hence the choice of a GMT.
I opened the box and said something oblivious like, "oh, a watch!" and "thanks!" Someone at the table said, "he doesn't get it." How true that was. They showed me how it doesn't use batteries and advised me not to throw away the box. My stepfather demonstrated how the sapphire crystal wouldn't scratch by taking a fork to it. "Oh, cool," I probably said.
On my wrist at that moment was a Calvin Klein "CK" quartz watch with a minimalist design and a very thin case. With a "brand name" and costing around $100 (certainly more than you need to spend), this was a "luxury watch" in my mind, and I liked it a lot. The CK was the second watch I can specifically remember owning.
It followed a very cool digital Casio which a girlfriend bought me for my 20th birthday (or thereabouts) and took me out to choose. I remember that the volume and variety of options in the display cases and the little differences between them overwhelmed me. Before that first watch-shopping experience, I had never really even noticed watches. Afterwards, I always noticed watches in passing and wanted to look closer, but never actually learned about them.
A lot of people who today consider themselves "watch guys" grew up around watches or inherited one early on; I was a comparative latecomer. I wore that TAG Heuer for a while before I even got around to researching its price. And when I did, I was shocked: at that time it was, I believe, around $3,000.
How could anybody ever spend that kind of money on a watch? And why? It was baffling, made me feel guilty and a little nauseated, and selling it was the first thing that came to mind. I couldn't do that, of course, so I decided to forget how expensive it was and keep wearing it — since that's what it was meant for, after all.
I wore that TAG all day, every day for several years and beat the hell out of it. One time while helping out at a friend's bar I demonstrated the sapphire crystal to a customer by pounding it with an icepick (to screams of "no!"). "Not a scratch, see?" It was a dumb thing to do, and I very well might have scratched the bezel, but the watch and crystal were fine.
In the back of my mind, I wanted to understand what it was all about and why it cost so much goddamn money. Finally, it was a persistent cold and doctor's orders to stay home that gave me the time and excuse to start Googling "why is my watch so expensive?" A couple hours in and no closer to an answer, I stopped to ask myself whether this was a project worth my time and a subject worth understanding in greater depth. (Yes.)
Now many years later, I find myself deeply involved in watches, researching and writing about them daily. I've had chances to see and wear watches of all kinds and all price levels, speak to CEOs of major Swiss watch companies, meet some of the most skilled watchmakers in the world, see production facilities in Switzerland — and to more carefully consider questions like why mechanical watches can be so expensive. This Carrera helps me keep it all in perspective.
Having worn it for years in ignorance even of how it worked, today it's strange to look at it from the perspective of a "watch guy." I now know that its movement is an ETA 2893 which TAG rebranded as "Calibre 7." It's a movement that's well respected for its quality and thinness, but such movements sourced from ETA are mass-produced and considered less prestigious by collectors than "in-house" movements companies make themselves — much less high-end, hand-finished ones.
I also belatedly understand that the Carrera line derives from the brand's 1960s motorsport-oriented chronographs — reflected in the design of the Twin Time's handset and dial, but most notably in its angular lugs. This particular watch comes from the early 2000s, an era of TAG design at which many enthusiasts turn their noses up. But none of those things really affect how I view it.
Collectors and pundits debate and dissect all esoteric manner of watch nuances, but the scratched-up little machine on my wrist has been ticking elegantly since long before I grasped how it fit into the greater context of watches. To me, it represents the nature of watches as practical items meant to be worn, to last and to do their job reliably. These remain the qualities by which a good watch should be judged first.