I can’t trace my love of timepieces to any one event or moment, but I do have one distinct memory from childhood that may have planted a seed. I remember reading a book in my parents’ bedroom one quiet summer afternoon when I was perhaps 9 or 10 and hearing a soft hum, almost like a ringing in my ears. It emanated from the heavy wooden dresser at one end of the room and I walked over to investigate. There, coiled almost like a sleeping snake, was my father’s wristwatch on its expanding metal band, the one my dad hated because it pulled his hair. I picked it up, its weight indicating some sense of importance and quality. I remember flexing the band, sliding it on my skinny arm and holding the humming case up to my ear.
That watch was a steel Bulova and, though I don’t remember it in great detail now, I vaguely recall its appearance: a typical ‘70s cushion-shaped case and silver dial with stick markers and hands. What made an impression was the sound it made, which was amplified by the wooden dresser. It must have been one of Bulova’s Accutrons with its vibrating tuning fork movement. Though I wasn’t a watch fanatic immediately from that moment on, it wasn’t long after that I started wearing a watch, something I haven’t stopped doing.
My father isn’t a watch guy. He comes from the deep Midwest, where ostentatious displays of wealth or success are traditionally frowned upon, and grew up during World War II with parents of humble means. In fact, they didn’t have indoor plumbing during much of dad’s youth, and he and his brother had to brave Minnesota winter nights for outhouse runs. My grandfather was issued a Hamilton pocketwatch for his work as a line foreman on the Soo Line railroad, a watch he carried in his overalls every single day. It wasn’t a fancy watch, just one that worked reliably. Later on, he moved up to a wristwatch, a hand-wound Timex with an unjeweled Taiwanese movement. I still have both of these watches, reminders of where I come from, horologically and genealogically. Grandpa’s — and I suppose my own — DNA is stubbornly encrusted under the lugs.
The only watch my dad gave me growing up was a fake Rolex Cellini he bought on a business trip to New York. I wore it to high school, impressing many of my clueless friends who only knew the name “Rolex” but not that they weren’t supposed to tick. I didn’t know enough to care. I just liked the look, a slim gold-plated case and alligator strap, something I wouldn’t be caught dead wearing now. Though now I wish that first Bulova was still around, it disappeared like so many other things from childhood memories (including that fake Rolex), possibly broken and discarded or sold in a garage sale.
I still have both of these watches, reminders of where I come from, horologically and genealogically. Grandpa’s — and I suppose my own — DNA is stubbornly encrusted under the lugs.
As my interest in watches grew and I began writing about them, buying and selling my own and going on various press trips with watch brands, dad took an interest in this foreign world of luxury timepieces, living it vicariously through his son. Fighting against every frugal, practical instinct, he grew fascinated by watches, reading my articles, even subscribing to a watch magazine to which I contributed. But he never bought one, while I, his prodigal son, came to visit from time to time with a different expensive watch on my wrist.
Unlike many family traditions, including those shown in Patek Philippe ads, in our family, watch gifts didn’t flow from father to son but rather the other way around. A quartz Louis Pion chronograph I bought on a trip to Paris was “handed down” to my Dad when I grew tired of it; he wore it for years, wearing out strap after strap, which I changed regularly for him. Then, for his 70th birthday, I gave him an automatic Archimede pilot’s watch with a display caseback, no date and a massive crown for easy winding and setting. He wears it every day doing DIY projects around the house, yardwork and to play with grandkids. It bears the scars of regular use but hasn’t failed him in four years of steady wear.
Though Dad treasures that watch, his Midwestern sensibilities would never let him consider it too precious, to be tucked away in a drawer, coddled and taken out only for special occasions. That sense of practicality was what he handed down to me: that a watch’s value isn’t the metal from which it’s made or the name on the dial, but in its usefulness. This lesson that I learned from my father is more meaningful than any watch. I have plenty of those anyway.