April 7, 2002
A man in a decent suit enters a well-dressed room. He is scrutinized by two groups of people who are aligned, loosely, by gender. Women -- and, yes, there are exceptions -- silently judge the condition of his footwear, overall attentiveness to grooming details -- from haircut to fingernails to the cut of his fabrics -- and, perhaps, his physique and the gleam in his smile.
In the same split second, the fashion-aware males in the room scan for any visible flaws in the new competition's muscular or financial suitability to perpetuate the species. Odds are, both evaluations ultimately will fix on the appendage that displays a man's most personal and revealing style choice.
That window into a man's wardrobe soul is his wristwatch. A $20 Casio with a battery and a black plastic band says one thing about you -- mainly, that you just want to know what time it is. It will keep time fine, as good or better than a watch costing 20 times as much. A $150 chronograph with sub-dials for elapsed time, pulse rate and hour of the day in Istanbul suggests that you really like to stay apprised of the time. It also implies that you'd kind of like others to notice your abilities of exactitude.
Then there is the statement made by the man whose sleeve rises just so, permitting a sly glimpse of a Patek Philippe or Audemars Piguet, crafted in Switzerland in, say, the 1930s. A watch that the wearer winds lovingly by hand each day or so, and must periodically adjust to the correct time. If nothing else, this watch proclaims a man who has made a choice to value aesthetics over the mere registering of minutes and seconds, and who has probably given some consideration to the heritage of the timepiece he puts on his arm.
After all, being on time only counts for so much.
The men with the magnificent watches can be intimidating, and it's not because they can afford to dump a few thousand dollars on a watch. Classic watches don't have to cost a lot. Look on EBay or visit Wanna Buy a Watch? on Melrose. You'll find many vintage mechanical watches, Swiss-made even, for a modest investment. No, these guys are threatening because they grasp a wardrobe truth that many men don't get.
The fashion advice Web site www.AskMen.com routinely finds it necessary to remind its young male audience that "a classic watch is undoubtedly a man's single most important fashion accessory." Adds the site's fashion columnist Chris Rovny: "It's the only practical accessory a man can wear. In my view, it's the only accessory a man should wear. And his choice of a watch tells a lot about his style."
If that is discomfiting to you, the real bad news is that these men in the know are multiplying. Nowadays, it's easier and more inexpensive than ever to buy a watch that keeps excellent time without any effort. But you are missing a great chance to make some cool points if you go ahead and strap just anything to your arm. Judging by EBay auctions, online discussion forums and plain old street buzz, more men are appreciating the classic beauty of vintage watches or going for new models with a little elan. Rolex and Omega, of course, but also Breitling and Gruen and other top brands.
Aficionados prowl the monthly Rose Bowl flea market and shop at the Antiquarius mall on Beverly Boulevard for deals on vintage watches. They buy any of a half-dozen magazines devoted to watches and collecting, and they flock to Web sites such as www.TimeZone.com and the newer www.ThePuristS.com (based in Los Angeles) to discuss the intricacies of ebauche and etablissage (French terms for a key component of the watch movement and a method of assemblage). They voice their affection for their watches in words they might otherwise use to describe an affair of the heart.
"I imagine we all experience 'honeymoon' periods with our new watches, but for me, only a few of my acquisitions have managed to keep me enthralled," began a recent posting on www.TimeZone.com titled, "Head Over Heels in Love," a paean to the writer's vintage Hamilton Boulton: "It's such a cool watch to wear. The case is a stunning example of '30s Art Deco style and distinctly different from other watches from the same era. I know it's common for us watch nuts to say that our collections are 'art we can wear,' but it's a classic of watch design in much the same way that the Cord convertible is a classic car design from the same period, and both embody the same streamlined, futuristic aesthetic. I've got a feeling this is a love affair that's gonna last."
My closest contact with this degree of epicurean appreciation came on a European vacation, when my wife insisted we stay over in Lucerne so we'd have time to shop for watches. Fun for her, agony for me. I tend to own one functioning watch at a time and wear it until the battery quits or the band splits. Then I go without until, exasperated by my asking her the time, she gives me a new, invariably prettier watch. I'm up to a Tissot quartz with a leather band, still a long way from a Vacheron Constantin, but an improvement on my Swiss Army watch from REI.
By canvassing friends, I found I'm about middle of the pack on the watch question. My friend George in Dallas is the anti-watch extreme. He works all day in a deadline environment, and even though he is often the enforcer, he never wears a watch. There's always a clock around if he needs one. Away from the office, he doesn't want to know. "I'm a slave to the time at work, so the rest of the time I just ignore it," he says. "I hate wearing a watch."
I also discovered closet watch fanatics lurking in my midst. My friend Jeffrey runs his own business in Paris, a city not known for punctuality, and he prizes his modest collection. "I am fond of the finer collectibles, but my dreams of Audemars Piguets, Rolexes, Pions, Blancpains and Cartiers are, let's say, reality-challenged." For now, he adroitly adds less precious pieces, working them into his wardrobe as the situation warrants. "I wear each one strategically, in the correct context: the Casio Data Bank when teaching programming classes; the self-winding Swatches for squash and bicycling; the Seikos for all-purpose business wear and going out on the town; and a brown leather-banded Swiss Army Wenger, worn while motorcycling in leather or hiking in fatigues."
Like any watch lover, he can wax on the attributes of his babies. "My two Taboo-Taboos, one in gold and the other in silver, are classic French quartzes with an unusual ball-shaped adjuster stem placed at the 4 o'clock position on the bezel." His favorite watch was handed down by his father, a retired television writer. "A 1947 Glycine Swiss given to my dad by Bob Hope and inscribed 'to Burt, my favorite ghost.' I'd be proud to wear it while dining at Taillevent or Alain Ducasse."
Closer to home, Robb Dalton, president of programming, production and development at Twentieth Television, a division of Fox Television, also received a treasured watch from his father. He's noticed that many of his fellow collectors caught the horological bug with such a family heirloom or a gift. He owns more than a dozen watches, mostly antique Americans such as Gruen and Elgin, and a rare Hamilton Illinois. On a recent Tuesday, Dalton sported a Gruen driver's watch, a sort manufactured in the 1920s and '30s to sit on the inside of a motorist's wrist and be visible when hands are on the steering wheel.
"I bought it because it's absolutely a work of art," Dalton says. That's the bottom line for many admirers of fine watches. It's not about price or resale value. "It would never occur to me to sell one of my watches," he explains. "It is about craft and about appearance. I like a watch with some personality."
He doesn't keep them hidden in his closet either. "There's not a watch in my collection that I don't wear," Dalton says. Putting on a watch is the most fun he has getting dressed. "Let's face it, men in business don't have that many choices: you've got the blue suit, the black suit or the gray suit. When I go in the closet in the morning and pick out what I'm going to wear, I think about which watch will be right for that day." Showing off and admiring vintage watches seems to have become a Hollywood pastime. Now when executives and talent shake hands at the start of a meeting, they often check out each other's wrists. This sets off a round of compliments and swapping of tips on the best service technicians and where to shop. (Feldmar on Pico Boulevard and Westime in West L.A. are favorites of local collectors.) "We're sort of like a club without any meetings," Dalton says. "We talk about watches all the time."
So what explains this growing devotion to the watch? Michael Friedberg, a well-known collector, took a stab at explaining: "I've had and have many fine watches -- Patek, Lange, Breguet, Audemars, Blancpain, etc. They all keep time, so that's not the issue . . . Watches are symbols that transcend timekeeping devices, that reflect a culture, a history and an aesthetic."
To some extent, he says, the rising interest is due to the fact that American men are finally discovering the classic attraction of a watch--part adornment and part practical device. And, he suggests, in this high-tech age, when so much is electronic and invisible, a vintage watch remains strictly mechanical, a formation of springs and jewels that can be tinkered with and observed. Many collectors can--and do--take their watches apart and explore the workings. Try that with a digital camera, a radio or an automobile engine.
Friedberg has been collecting mechanical watches for about a dozen years. His personal obsession now is pieces by IWC. He hosts busy discussions of IWC watches on Web sites, and lately has been wearing IWC's limited edition Portuguese Automatic 2000. As for IWC, "they don't keep time better than another dozen brands. But I like their style, service, engineering and history. IWC has a highly engineered approach to watchmaking that has survived for over a century."
These true believers can recite the founding dates of the major Swiss watch houses and they report to each other on vacation visits to the Old Country. Some refer to themselves jokingly as Watch Idiot Savants, a title that gives rise to some self-ribbing: "A WIS is so distracted by his watch that he fails to note the time." "You know you're a WIS when you accept a job because the interviewer wore a nice watch." "A WIS has nightmares about Rolex world domination."
Every manufacturer has its fans and detractors, but none gets roasted among the faithful like Rolex. That is due, in part, to the brand's reputation as the watch of choice for know-nothings who only want to buy an expensive name and brag about it. A heated Internet exchange ensued recently after a poster asked mischievously: "Why do so many fat businessmen wear Rolexes?" This, of course, frosts the brand's more learned worshipers. The chief Rolex advocate on www.TimeZone.com once felt moved to post an impassioned defense of his favorite maker, which, after all, has been around since 1905: "A little tolerance might be no bad thing. For all intents and purposes, Rolex invented the wristwatch as we know it."
Ultimately, the enjoyment of a nice watch is a sensual experience. Fans like to look at their watches, stroke them, listen to the purr of the balance. Here's how one collector expresses his pleasure at the simple act of turning the crown on his Patek Philippe: "Oooh, that feel of a Patek winding experience--deliciously smooth and creamy, coming together with that fine-pitched ratcheted sound--tactile ecstasy!"
The allure is put another way by Thomas Mao, founder and executive director of www.ThePuristS.com: "Time is too precious to measure on a cheap watch."
©Los Angeles Times 2002