No-one compliments a man on his Patek Philippe. It would be redundant, pointless, stating the obvious; nigh-on sycophantic; leering and lewd. ‘Nice watch.’ It’s like telling Tiger Woods that he’s got good hand-eye coordination. Or telling George Clooney that he’s genuinely quite handsome when he wants to be. Or telling the President of the United States that he’ll go far, so long as he knuckles down and applies himself and reads that book The Secret.
The man with the Patek Philippe knows it’s a nice watch. You know it’s a nice watch. He knows you know it’s a nice watch. And pointing it out carries few advantages and twin risks. Firstly: that you become locked in a sudden three-hour tete-a-tete with an horological bore. (Avoid anyone, by the way, who uses ‘horological’ out loud.) Secondly: that the wearer thinks you’re having a pop at him in some way; implying he is gauche and gaudy and nouveau and naff. ‘Nice watch.”
Then there’s the whole English thing about expense and wealth and a terror of acknowledging either, which we can’t get into now without a therapist present — not to mention the deeply-held middle class discomfort with any compliment whatsoever. (“Oh this old thing? It’s horrible, I hate, forgot I was wearing it, only got it out to throw it away actually, don’t know what I was thinking…”)
In short: wearing an expensive watch is almost pointless if your hope is that it’ll spark conversation and joy in a room, as you imagine it might when you first try it on in the shop. (“You’ll be the talk of the town,” the salesman might say, which is a lie, and ignores the existence of cities.) Wear it on its own terms, by all means. But don’t imagine it’ll be a substitute for a personality.
I’ve never worn a Patek Philippe, so perhaps I don’t know what I’m talking about. What I do know, however, is that when I put on my 1993 Swatch Chrono ‘Riding Star’ model — with the blood red panda dials and the plastic strap with saddles on it and the gold lettering around the face: ‘GALLOP DRESSAGE TROT JUMP’ — people grab at my wrist and chortle. (Yes, chortle). It cost me £25, it’s almost as old as I am, and it looks as if Ralph Lauren spent a summer in Japan watching a children’s cartoon about a sentient horsewhip. Pound for pound, it might be one of the finest things I own. (Its older brother, the delightfully neon 1992 Grand Prix Chronograph, below, now changes hands for up to £1000.)
Swatch SAG 100 GRAN VIA 1992
Then there’s the 1991 Swatch Automatic Gran Via, with a genuine automatic movement and a crocodile strap. The lawn green plastic casing is toy-like and nostalgic for the mid-nineties, like the see-through plastic of a GameBoy colour. And yet, somehow, paired with the ivory face and the Roman numerals, it all begins to feel a bit like a deconstructed, postmodern, otherworldly Rolex on the wrist. I can’t quite explain it — but it cost me £50, so I don’t really need to.
A friend of mine wears a black simple rubber Casio all day everyday, despite the fact he has finally just got his hands on a storm grey-faced Rolex Datejust after a year or so on an irksome waiting list. It cost him £9.99. That’s lunch at Pret. But he prefers the Casio in the same way you prefer a black golf to a yellow Lamborghini, or an empty pinkie to a signet ring. (My girlfriend has a rule about never, ever looking at expensive supercars as they roar obnoxiously through central London. Doesn’t want to give the driver the validation that their adolescent ego craves. I imagine you could apply something similar to the gold-coated wrist.)
The Pope wears the analogue version, which means this is god’s own watch. And Bill Gates, Robert Mueller of the FBI and even Tyler, The Creator are longterm advocates of Casio’s monochrome, no-nonsense modesty.
Another pal leaves his Audemars Piguet at home while a minimalist, plasticky Timex comes out to play most weekends. And while it feels affirming to slip on something expensive and unpronounceably Swiss for special occasions, there is something utterly winning about a man in full Anderson and Sheppard tails and Hermes tie adjusting the black plastic strap on his mid-noughties digital Casio as he nervously awaits his bride. Mastering this high-low sensibility is the basis of all good taste and personal style. It’s the foundation of both British ironic understatement and Italian sprezzatura playfulness. It is self-effacement and pragmatism; maturity and fun.
Just ask George Bamford of Bamford London. Mayfair’s tinkerer-in-chief understands the principles of luxury and brand heritage better than anyone — he first started out in the watch world customising legacy marques, and is a firm advocate of that old saw about knowing the rules before you set about breaking them. But his greatest hits are all playful, mid-market creations which beg for everyday wear. His collaboration with G-Shock — that stalwart of the coolest kids at your prep school — is a joyous thing, the beautifully black rubber enlivened with a zap of electric blue and those familiar alien-green digits on the dial. It sold out almost immediately.
Bamford G-SHOCK 5610
The Mayfair Sport model, meanwhile, has a tactile bezel like a Rolex GMT-Master and a classic 40mm case — but comes in a pleasingly chunky plastic polymer as opposed to stainless steel or precious metal. It is all the better for it.
Like the 1990s Swatches — literal, working chronographs, remember, like Rolex Daytonas on holiday — it’s the speckles of referentialism that make them such fun. They each nod towards fine watchmaking without any of the usual solemn reverence. They all call to mind other things and higher pricepoints through tangents and winks. They don’t poke fun, but nor will they stand on ceremony. And they are lovingly crafted, even when they’re utterly simple. Wagyu beef in a Happy Meal.
Bamford Mayfair Sport
This is a taste of things to come in the New Normal (eugh), as the Roaring Twenties take flight — an era, hopefully, where irreverence and understatement are prized more highly than status symbols and name drops and waiting lists and bores. I was at a petrol station a few weeks ago in Battersea, and a chap in the queue in front of me — swaddled in a cashmere polo neck, Porsche keys jangling from his fingers — asked me for the time. I gave it to him, along with a little flash of plasticky green Japanese timekeeping silliness. “Thanks,” he said. And then: “Nice watch.” And I think he really meant it.