The phases of our lives are measured by many things – passing loves, steps up and down the career ladder, fluctuating waistlines, the patter of tiny feet, soon becoming the stomp of size 11s, the lines on our face, that creakiness in our joints. But they are also marked by the stuff we own – how skinny jeans eventually become action pants, sports cars practical SUVs, complicated hi-fis ride-on mowers. And sometimes back again. And so it is with watches too.
They’re not really about telling the time, of course. If men have few things by which to express their personality, their stage in life, then their timepiece is one of them. The watch is a reflection both of shifting needs – to make a statement, to show off, to reward oneself and, just occasionally, to tell the time – and interests – in design, mechanics, history, in a certain taste. Indeed, while most prestige watches are for life, at least if they’re well looked after, perhaps there are still certain watches for certain ages, their style, brand and ethos more closely chiming with who we are then than at other times.
In your 20s
Having attained a useless education, learned to tie a tie and overcome the shock actually having to work for a living, you have also come to the realisation that your steampunkish Storm watch isn’t doing you any favours. You need instant cool. Who’s that dead actor you read about online that time? Steve Someone. Was in some super-slick movies – ‘Bucket’, or ‘The Tommy Hat Affair’, or something like that. Anyway, he wore a Tag Heuer once. The more familiar Leonardo di Caprio does too. You couldn’t care less about the pedigree: that Tag Heuer created the first quartz chrono, or the mechanical stop watches capable of timing to 1/100th and then 1/1000th of a second. You just want the label and want it big. But not too expensive OK? Enter the Tag Heuer Carrera Calibre 5. Tick tock – you just became a man, my son.
In your 30s
You no longer sleep on sofas or dodge buying your round. You go to the hippest bars. Your wardrobe is full of the latest kit and have something that passes for a beard. Above all, despite doing what everyone else is doing, you’re sure you are a fully-fledged, independent-minded individualist. And it’s high time you showed that by buying…a Rolex. Never mind that it’s the most recognisable watch brand in the world; that rarity is not Rolex’s middle name; that counterfeits and rip-offs are everywhere. This is more like joining a cult. No, you’re not going to be getting a black dial Dayton Paul Newman Oyster – just one of 10 made; or, just as esoteric, a 6538 Submariner with 3-6-9 indicators on the dial. You’re not that anal. It’s a plain Rolex Oyster Perpetual for you. And somehow, although it slowly dawns on you that it seems everyone you know has one of these too, it still makes you feel kind of special. Because, you keep telling yourself, you are kind of special.
In your 40s
Mid-life has its rewards, not least ceasing to care who Justin Bieber is. But it also has its issues. Parenthood, marriage, and invisibility to women under 30. And the unnerving feeling that your masculinity is slowly, unstoppably ebbing away. It is time to signal your inner Navy Seal through your timepiece. You could perhaps opt for Audemars Piguet’s Royal Oak – Arnie wore one in ‘The Terminator’. Or perhaps an Omega Speedmaster – the only watch to have gone to the moon. But you’re not sure you can convince as either android or astronaut. A commando, however… Or at least an ex-commando. There’s only one watch big enough, over-spec’ed enough and macho enough to say that: enter, swaggering, the Panerai Radiomir, largely unchanged since World War Two. Never mind the dial ladies, feel the width – all 47mm of it. Grrrrr.
In your 50s
The children have gone, the mortgage is paid, the pension is around the corner and your taste is finally upscale neo-conservative: you like a monogrammed shirt and a bespoke shoe. In the evenings you sit on your Vitra chair, drink new world wine and read ‘Golf Monthly’. And on your wrist? It has to be a thinking man’s manufacture, the likes of a Zenith El Primero or an IWC, respectable but just outside the mainstream. It’s the tool-like, materials-oriented build quality you appreciate – the fact that, for instance, IWC made the first anti-magnetic watches, the first from ceramic and also from titanium, that its dials are as austere as your furniture, that it has ‘Schaffhausen’ written on the dial, and that nobody outside of Schaffhausen really knows where that is, or perhaps even what that is. You do, and that’s all that matters to your stealthy oneupmanship.
In your 60s
Retirement gives pause for reflection. That naive youth who thought he was going his own way, no slave to the crowd – how misguided was he? Yet, all the same, you’re busting out, enjoying a second wind, with the time and right attitude to try new things. And that applies to your purchases too. Having seen a lifetime of stuff, if it doesn’t excite you, the cash stays your wallet. So the new wave of independent watchmakers – Urwerk, Stepan Sarpaneva, MB&F, Ressence – has you ready to buy yet another watch, despite your partner’s protestations. A timepiece that mimics dinosaur skin? One that looks bug-eyed? One that works by winch? One that doesn’t even bother with a crown? Some may find such lack of conventionality threatening. To you – like you – it’s liberated.
In your 70s
Time has a more personal significance beyond what you wear on your wrist these days. All the same, those remaining savings are pleading to be spent. And screw the grandkids. It’s all about the comforts of obvious luxury for you now. You drive a Jaguar saloon and wear slacks and cashmere v-neck sweaters. Now it’s the sober likes of the Patek Philippe 5205 Moon Phase that draws your attention. This is the wrist candy that says ‘my watch is a complication, my life isn’t’, or ‘at last, I have arrived’. Just before you depart, that is. After all, as the ceaselessly naff ad line has it, you merely look after a Patek for the next generation. And it could be getting it all too soon, box and papers included, and still under warranty.