Not long ago I realized I am surrounded by collectors. They are everywhere and nothing is off-limits: sneakers, cast-iron skillets, small-batch soju, comic books, vintage bikes, vintage Prada, cameras, wine, motorcycles, vinyl, Linotype fonts, classic arcade games. There is no way to duck these conversations, which are as interesting as a slideshow of someone else’s vacation, even though I’ve learned to spot them coming. Collectors, at least the ones itching to talk about themselves, all have the same tell, a delighted little nod of feigned modesty, which immediately precedes long monologues about their cars or watches or bourbons or once, bafflingly, Crocs.
“Well, you see” — and here comes the nod and a conspiratorial tone like they’re finally revealing the dark secret of just how interesting they are — “I’m a bit of a collector.” Ah, yes, well. You don’t say. Tell me more.
To be fair, collecting can be a fine pursuit. Noble, even. The best collections arrange history into still life, the specific details and composition revealing odd little tidbits about ourselves as a species. The proper selection of objects arranged just so can tell a story — how Cubism evolved to express the anxiety of a rapidly modernizing world, for example, or how much ’70s car designers loved cocaine.
But collecting mostly seems exhausting. I know a man who keeps his tweed collection across state lines, piles of the stuff in a rented storage container in New Jersey, which he never sees because he’s too busy buying more tweed. A photographer friend once insisted I get myself “some real glass” — by which he meant vintage and blindingly expensive — if I planned to keep posting to Instagram; only a collector could figure out how to make a free app require several thousand dollars and the regular use of a darkroom.
Not long ago collecting was the purview of the leisure class and nerds. So where do they come from, these teeming hordes with all their stuff?
I say social media is driving the surge — platforms that let users feed themselves content of their choosing. As Hannibal Lecter explained to Clarice, we begin by coveting what we see every day. Now consider the average watch enthusiast and the boundless array of Instagram accounts, Facebook groups, forums and enthusiast sites available in his pocket at every moment — the staggering volume of horological pornography consumed in a given day, each example caressing the prefrontal cortex, stimulating arousal. The mind boggles. Then it yearns. Then it starts making demands.
There’s a better, not to say easier, way. First, find one thing you like more than everything else; something that fits you perfectly. If we’re talking watches, pick something you can wear every day, that works with a suit or jeans. Something that can take a licking and makes you happy every time you look at it. Take your time, don’t rush, do research. Buy it in person even if you have to travel. Spend money on it, even a lot of money if necessary, because the last part is the toughest and it might sting: unfollow all the Instagram accounts, bail on the forums, stop reading the magazines and don’t buy another damn example, for years or possibly ever.
Let your brain settle on the new thing. Contemplate it until the newness wears off, then just wear it. I keep on my wrist a weighty steel chunk of Swiss engineering, understated and unkillable and stamped with a logo that passes for alternate currency in every country on earth. It took me a long time to scratch up enough to buy it and just as long to get used to wearing something worth the cost of a decent motorcycle. Now I almost never think about it, but when I do it makes me happy; in that way, and because it will last forever, it’s an excellent value. As soon as I buy another watch, that value diminishes.
I’m not immune to the yearning. A new Patek Phillippe Aquanaut Chrono or a perfect old Cartier Tortue still occasionally pops into my feed, giving my brain an unwelcome tickle and riling up the imagination. Does that watch better represent who I am as a person? Or maybe a “weekend watch” really is a necessity like the magazines tell me. Certainly, in any case, a gentleman is not expected to wear the same watch in summer heat and winter chill?
But this is a capitulation to marketers insisting wristwatches are somehow more relevant the less necessary they become — despite having become, basically, jewelry: functionally unnecessary but good for an accepted form of adult dress-up. (Now I’m a pilot! Now I’m a diver! Now I’m James Bond!) In endlessly obsessing over the various movements, manufactures, fonts and complications, or deliberating which timepiece goes just so with your blazer, you’re ignoring the only pure function a wristwatch still provides: it’s a memento mori, a reminder that the time, not the watch, is what matters. Because that time can be spent only once, no matter how many watches you collect.
A version of this article originally appeared in Issue Nine of Gear Patrol Magazine with the headline “In Praise of the One-Watch Collection” Subscribe today.