There are many reasons to wear a watch, I said to myself as I took my turn at the JFK airport security scanner.
“Take off your belts and empty your pockets,” the female TSA agent said, clearly bored of having repeated this phrase a hundred times an hour.
“Watches too?” I asked, pulling back my shirt cuffs to reveal my timepiece.
She looked at it for a beat, “Honey, that isn’t a watch, that’s a clock. In the tray.”
Yes, there are many reason to wear a watch, but simply telling the time is the least of them. The first clue that there is another reason comes from the mind boggling array of wrist-based choice. At the very top you have your “supercar” watches only able to be worn by people who don’t actually pay for them. Watches like those of Richard Mille that cost more than the mortgage on my house and yet I can’t help feel look garish. Then, coming down from the heavens atop the mountain, mere Demi-God brands such as Patek Philip, which has spent the last couple of hundred years trying, mostly successfully, to convince us that their product is worth a lifetime investment. Even their adverts talk to your having “invested” in an “heirloom”. Then just next to the peak comes the high-end tool watches. These are brands able to go to to extremes, the bottom of the oceans or into outer space. These are serious instruments used by serious professionals – or so we are told – and can save your life. Rolex and Omega spring to mind. Then… then it all gets a little floaty.
If you are not buying your watch to calculate the way back from the moon, for your children to marvel at when you’re gone, or because you’ll run 10/1000ths of a second faster, the market gets wide indeed. Under the magic figure of £1000 it gets figuratively as wide as the Atlantic. This, for me, is the where the most fun is to be had. Not just because of budget, I can rationalise a purchase just as well as the next man, but because I can have fun with something really personal. Something that expresses me much better that simply dropping £2000 on a tool watch and forgetting about it. Buying a watch, such as a Rolex, always seemed to me to be almost lazy. It is like there is no journey, no discovery of a love of timepieces, only a wedge of cash and ten minutes in a jewellers.
That’s that taken care of then, off about my day.
Where’s the expression in that? Other than perhaps saying that you have so much money that you don’t even need to think and just go for what you are told is “the best”. I’m sure it’s not like this for everyone, but for me a Rolex is no fun.
Fun, for me, comes from selecting, from researching, from reading up, from taking my time, from working up, saving up and reaching out. It comes from making the smart choice and getting a bargain with a little history. In this bewildering ocean of choice I looked into the far past for help.
Hamilton as a Classic Brand
It is interesting to me to think that in the past there was no uniform notion of time. I don’t mean in the sense that ancient cro-magnon man didn’t have a clock, I mean in the sense of what exactly is the “current” time? If you went to a town in the Old West 1850’s and asked the barkeep what the time was, he may tell you one particular time based on the spring-wound pocket watch tucked into his waistcoat. Walk down the street into the barbers and ask the owner and he may tell a slightly different time from his key-wound grandfather clock in the window. A discrepancy of seconds, but essentially synchronised. Imagine however that you could instantly teleport to the next town and ask the storekeeper there. He may give you a “current” time that is almost completely different, out by 20 – 30 minutes from that in the barbers. Time keeping was, back then, almost a local phenomenon as there was no uniform starting point. Consequently each town had its own sense of the “current” time. This was all well and good until the railways arrived. Suddenly, each town was joined together and the train ran between them. Imagine this train was due to depart at, say, 1:30pm and took 30 minutes to arrive at the next town’s station. If the “current time” value between those two towns was thirty minutes apart, then the 1:30pm would depart and arrive at the same “time”. Catching the train home from the second town to the first could be tricky. More importantly than this, trains run to a safety schedule. So, two trains, running on their local starting station’s notion of the current time, could easily run into each other!
This problem was solved by the railways themselves who simply ran the time on the train and “Railway Time” was invented. Soon each town would synchronise their time to that service and Railways quickly became the “source” for the “current” time. In order to police this, watches need to be invented with higher and higher accuracy. An evolution of watch development then flourished that leads all the way up to the modern era. That’s quite a history. One of the main brands laying claim to this heritage is Hamilton, who sold thousands of “Railway Chronometers” to train companies all over America.
Browsing the current Hamilton watch collection it becomes clear that this is a brand defined by its quintessential Americana and is making an effort to define what it means to be “American” in return. The railways ran on Hamilton’s and the canny owners also made sure that the US Navy also ran on them during the World Wars. This eye on the future is always present. For example, they designed a watch for Elvis that they still sell today with an new association that of Will Smith and “The Men in Black” enshrining the brand in the American mind forever.