It would be unimaginable to address the battalion of options available for discourse upon the facetious subject of “men and boys and the price of their toys”. Beginning with childhood and continuing to adulthood, there is among males the well-known passage from dinky toys to train sets, from bicycles to all-terrain vehicles, from motorcycles to automobiles, from boats to planes and many other combinations of mechanical diversions in between. What however is a less publicized absorption is the delight which men derive from watches and clocks.
Watches and clocks, like many other expensive items, have long been recognized as status symbols. Rolex for example thrives on the frenzy for prestige, aligning its pedigree relentlessly with renowned persons in rarefied society (including Martin Luther King, Winston Churchill, Elvis Presley, Andy Warhol, famous athletes and celebrities like Sean Connery and Paul Newman). There are some who argue that the success of Rolex is due exclusively to its marketing techniques while other more technologically sound artifacts are less acclaimed. If nothing else it is difficult to fathom how celebrities have any special insight into the works of a watch. Arguments about the quality of watches center not only on the discussion of their various movements and complications but pointedly on inquiry into whether the watch was a singular manufacture or rather a construct of imported parts made by other partners (who are inevitably from jurisdictions less classic than Switzerland, Germany and Italy). The Chelsea Clock Company, an American firm specializing in nautical clocks (ship’s bells) and barometers, has countered this off-shore contamination by committing itself steadfastly to unparalleled craftsmanship, avoiding diverting gem stones and precious metals and using instead rugged forged brass cases which are then hand polished and lacquered to last generations. By the way a true ship’s bell (which of course was originally a suspended cast brass or bronze bell with the ship’s name engraved upon it) has no face as the time is communicated only by the number of strikes: Eight at midnight, one at 12:30 am, two at 1:00 am, three at 1:30 am, four at 2:00 am, five at 2:30 am, six at 3:00 am, seven at 3:30 am and finally eight at 4:00 am, “Eight bells and all’s well!” , after which it begins all over with one strike at 4:30 am and so on.
There are few who fail to be impressed by the presence of a grandfather clock. Its steady pendulum and ponderous movement is both stately and tranquillizing. The cases are frequently magnificent and ornate. As well the grandfather clock brings to the ambiance no small degree of elegance and sophistication and promotes reminiscences of grand homes and even mystery and intrigue. The salient distinction of the grandfather clock is that because of its size it is far less personal than the pocket watch (first developed in the 16th century) or wrist watch (which became popular after World War I during which a transitional design, trench watches, were used by the military).
Many of the expensive watches are garnished with gold, diamonds, exotic crystals and enamels. If however elaborate decoration dissatisfies, there is the alternative sphere of precision which captures engrossment. In fact the latest and hugely successful product on the market is the Bulova Precisionist series which boasts 1/1,000 second precision over a 12-hour time frame and is reportedly “accurate globally to within 10 seconds per year”. More to my personal amusement than these meaningless and unverifiable proclamations is the sweeping second hand which of course is quite extraordinary for a battery-powered watch as opposed to a mechanical device. The watch aficionado who truly has his nose well in the air considers mechanical watches superior to quartz watches even though the latter are clearly more accurate.
The pocket watch, though winsome, is not likely to make a popular come-back. More often than not the allure of the pocket watch is its antiquity. Apart from what goes on between traders, pocket watches are otherwise destined to either a gloomy existence in a bureau drawer or their preposterous exhibition as a relic hanging from a hook under a glass dome. With the advent of mass-produced watches in the mid-1800’s it was not uncommon to obtain a key-wound pocket watch, though they were enormous in size (similar to the so-called “railroad watch”). One cannot overlook the mandatory accessory to the pocket watch – the chain (normally silver or gold). Further there is frequently attached to the chain a fob which can be highly ornamental, incorporating usually semi-precious stones or escutcheons. Sporting a gold pocket watch and chain easily qualifies as a sartorial statement of the first order!
Except for the former railroad watch, traditionally watches have been of manageable size and weight. Within the past twenty years however there has been a noticeable trend to over-sized watches. The domain for these watches is usually casual dress or mere ostentation. In the diving vernacular, the excuse for the bigger watches is their legibility. Opponents of the large, expensive watches cast the expected aspersions of concealed inadequacy upon the owners, equating the rodeo with rank vulgarity.
The typical simple movement of a watch includes an indication of hours, minutes and seconds. Even if the timepiece is enhanced by a day/date display or chronographs and automatic winding mechanisms it is not sufficient to qualify the movement as complicated. The grandes complications include for example astronomical indications, repeater strikes, and even a barometer, thermometer, compass and altimeter though purists regularly decry the latter four as complications because they do not relate strictly to time-keeping. While a simple movement watch may have 250 parts, a complicated watch may have 1,000 or more parts. Ultra-complicated watches are produced in strictly limited numbers, some built as unique instruments. If you’re looking for one of the latter, try Brequet, PatekPhillippe or Vacheron Constantin.
The purveyors of fine watches regularly house their merchandise with other articles which appeal to the male hankering for pricey, portable things. Mont Blanc has a battery of baubles which include not only the writing instruments for which they are best known but also watches, leather, jewelry, eye wear and even limited edition platinum-plated key rings. It is not uncommon to see in these male-dominated bazaars a collection of briar pipes and all the paraphernalia that go along with them.
The proliferation of watch manufacturers ensures a boutique for their sale at almost every corner. If you dare to venture in, beware of the snares laid by the shopkeepers. The glamour of their products is not to be underestimated and it takes a determined mind to resist the temptation, or else a healthy credit limit on your plastic card. Watches are a long ways from dinky toys!