Friday, January 18, 2013

Wristwatch Resurgence

I always carry a phone, and I've done so for the past fifteen years. Even my first feature-phone had a nice, accurate digital clock. There's a time display in the corner of my computer screen at all times. My N7 tablet, too, shows the time whenever it's switched on.

But now I've started using my old wristwatch again. I haven't used it for ten years or more. My watch — a plain, inexpensive one I bought as an undergraduate — has languished in a drawer. Why would I start using it again?

What does your watch say about you? This one says "I'm too lazy to get a new watch, so I just use this scratched-up one I left in a drawer."

The picture, by the way, is not lit by flash. Window light comes from the top of the image, and a mirror reflects light back from the bottom. The dark background is my turned-off phone and a sheet of black paper just above the camera makes sure it's not reflecting anything recognizeable.

A few months ago my wife got her long-broken watch fixed. I suddenly found myself asking her what time it was rather than check my phone. It was much easier to ask her than to dig out my phone from some pocket or another, turn on the display to check the time, turn it off and return it again. So on a whim — and to stop annoying her — I got a new battery and strap for my old watch.

And as it turns out, it really is more convenient than the phone. It took me no time at all to get back into the habit. In fact, I find myself checking the watch even when I'm using my tablet or my laptop, with a time display right in front of me. You can use it with your hands full, and even inexpensive watches are durable and water resistant, so you can use it in the rain, on a wet beach, a dusty, windy field or anywhere else you don't want to take out a fragile, expensive phone.

I never liked metal straps. They're heavy and slippery so they need to be tight or the watch slides around on your wrist. Leather straps tend to get dirty and dingy-looking, especially in summer. I got a silicone strap this time, and it works really well. It's plain and subdued, and easy to keep clean. The material is a bit grippy, so the watch stays in place without having to tighten the strap at all.

This got me to think about what it means to wear a watch. It is convenient, but I did get along just fine for over ten years without one. A watch is as much ornamental as functional today, and really one of the few accessories that are commonly accepted for men; perhaps the only one universally accepted in any situation. Swatch took that to heart, and is making a fortune selling watches as accessories rather than as functional devices.

Prestige brands do the same thing, selling expensive timepieces with ostentatiously complex precision engineering that appeal to both the design sense and technical fascination of their customers. Never mind that a simple quartz watch is more accurate and reliable; they're desirable because of their expensive, intricate and unreliable mechanical design, not despite it. I can't deny that I find it tempting as well.

A few months ago I saw (and sadly did not take a picture of) a collection of "watches" made entirely out of polished stone and hardened leather. They were beautiful but no longer told time, and had completed the trajectory from functional device to ornament. I doubt that will catch on, though; a watch without timekeeping is just a bracelet, and it's the functional aspect that makes a watch interesting and universally acceptable as an accessory to men as well as women.

And there's a watch line for every use and every taste it seems. There's rugged weather- and shock-proof watches for outdoorsy activities; sports watches with timers and step counters; expensive and less expensive diving watches that handle high pressures, salt water and, sometimes, helium contamination; discrete, expensive watches that signal you're monied gentry; ostentatious, expensive watches that signal you're a banker or used-car salesman; inexpensive, colourful watches to match any style you care to dream up; travel watches that handle multiple timezones and set the time automatically; vintage watches for hipsters and retro; geek watches with barometers, smartphone connection and calculator functions1.

Goth and cyberpunk-themed watches. Watches with designs so extreme you need a manual to tell the time. Watches related to cartoon characters, anime or popular music acts. Watches emblazoned with whatever brand you want, from expensive designer labels to vehicle makers and models to camera brands.

Whatever your interests, whatever your style, there's a good chance there's a watch out there that will fit you just right. If, that is, you decide to actually wear a watch. Me, I find it convenient, and I like how it looks. I think I'll continue wearing mine.

#1 As a twelve-year old I would have sold my kid brother into slavery for one of those.


  1. Even though I began using daily my phone since September, I've always preferred using a watch.

    I've got an inexpensive watch that's scratched up and worn, but love it... It went with me to South east asia in 2010 and holds a special place.

    Nowadays I put a couple of spare minutes more in my watch for the commute, so I get to arrive early for the train; as I hate to lose trains.

  2. I don't really know why I stopped using it, but I think one reason may be that I don't really care that deeply for this particular watch.

    I remember that I needed a watch rather suddenly, and spent all of ten minutes to pick out one that was inoffensive, would not look out of place and was within budget. Today I would probably choose a rather different style.

  3. Great post. I have a JR pocket watch that I was given, same as the Shinkansen train drivers use. I love it.

    Gott nytt år!


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