Right Twice a Day

GQ recently ran a piece on why “true watch heads” never set the time on their watches, which smacks more than a little of rich privilege, is surely in no way an accurate reflection of all or most watch wearers or collectors, and is frankly a bit rage-baity. Just posting a link to it could be considered trolling… and yet I did exactly that, to Metafilter yesterday (though I couldn’t bring myself to include the headline’s “true”, and had to resist the urge to insert “some”; it was still a hell of a hook). I was fascinated by the idea that some people treat watches as nothing but jewellery, and thought that others might be too. And I had a feeling that the article could prompt my favourite kind of Mefi thread, the kind that blossoms from a small seed into a field of flowers, full of collective memories and lore—which it did.

I love analogue watches, especially self-winding ones, and digital watches too. I’ve stuck with wearing watches even through the smartphone years, and couldn’t imagine not actually using them to tell the time. (Until now.) The watch on my wrist isn’t just a timekeeper, though. It’s one of the few accessories that remains a long-term part of my visual identity, even if, like my glasses and belt, the specific watch sometimes has to be replaced. From that point of view, even I can connect to the watch-as-fashionistas. But mine isn’t a fashion item, changing according to trends and my mood. This is watch number eight of all the watches I’ve worn in my 50-something life: each one was an era, a period of me.

My parents gave me my first when I was ten or so: an analogue with a leather cover over its face, fastened with a press-stud, such that you had to make an effort to check the time. I wore it constantly until I forgot to take it off before a swim and accidentally killed it (I can still remember that oh-no moment, glancing at my wrist underwater after I’d dived in). They replaced it with a circa-1980 Texas Instruments digital that lit up its red LEDs when you pressed a button to read it, which ushered in a decade of digital watches, so in keeping with my new teenage obsession with computers. My high school friends and I would compete to see who could get the lowest time on the stopwatch on our digital watches, pressing that side button as fast as we could, dit-dit, di-dit, d-dit (who needs a PS5?). My own digital peak was the calculator watch with tiny rubber buttons that Dad bought me in high school.

But in my twenties, I went back to analogue. By then I was aware that I’d lost something by going digital, which others at the time were noticing too: there was a minor moral panic around then about how digital kids couldn’t read the time on analogue clocks any more. The way to address that in myself was to start wearing an analogue watch again. To doubly reinforce those analogue neurons, I made sure it was one without numbers on its face.

I liked, too, that it reminded me of my dad’s watch, the Seiko he’d worn for as long as I could remember—part of his visual identity, and one of the markers of adulthood, like a wedding ring and a Parker pen. Part of me was trying to forge small visual links in that chain of family to bind me to them, as by now I lived a long way away. I bought my analogue watch at a duty-free shop in Fiji, where he had bought me my last couple of digital watches—another link.

My next one was purely automatic, battery-free, like Dad’s Seiko: the opposite of those 1980s digitals. From a duty-free shop in Thailand, this time. There was something romantic about the craftsmanship and centuries of technological development embedded in a timepiece that worked by the constant winding of a spring purely from the movement of my arm. I wouldn’t ever own one of those amazing mechanical calculators from Liechtenstein, but this was within reach. I loved it, until the day it ran down and almost led to our missing a flight home from Denmark. (It took an hour or two for me to realise it had stopped, at a time when we could least afford to waste an hour or two. For our anniversary that year, J. got me one that self-winds only to charge the quartz battery that runs it.)

And then there’s the last one that Dad has given me so far: his father’s watch, a fine late-1960s model, again an automatic, which I wore for a few years until one of the strap links broke. The strap couldn’t be repaired, so I took it to a dusty clock-repair shop near work and got it replaced. When the repairer handed it back, he said, “I’ll just polish the glass for you,” and before I could stop him he’d polished away the scratch on its face that had always reminded me that this was the watch my grandfather had been wearing the day of the car accident that led to his death when I was two.

I’m looking down now at number eight, that anniversary gift: I just took it off and gave it a shake to wind the mechanism that keeps its battery charged, even though I don’t need to—it’s a pleasing sound and ritual. I still like wearing watches because a quick glance tells me the time in contexts where pulling out my phone would send the wrong message, or take up a hand I was already using. It means I can manage that device better, too, keeping it out of reach at times when I don’t want to be distracted by having the internet in my pocket. But the main reasons I like wearing my watch are woven through all of those memories and meanings.

14 January 2024 · Memory