watches, and why I wear one

August 2, 2006

The Wikipedia entry on “watch” contains this note:

“In the early 2000s, the carrying of mobile telephones has become ubiquitous in many affluent and even some developing countries. As these phones typically display the time on their screens when not in use, it has become common to rely on them for time-keeping, effectively making the mobile phone serve the function of a pocket watch.”

While it would seem inevitable, in this age of incomprehensibly accelerated technological development, that such a cultural shift would occur, it is to me a minor tragedy, for a watch was–and still is–not merely a device for keeping time. If it were, we would all strap on our blandly utilitarian Timexes (or pocket our phones) and that would be that. Rather, a watch is a personal statement; with such a proliferation of models available, a wearer’s chosen type and style can say a great deal about the character of the individual, his idiosyncracies and habits, his vocation and income level. Whether extravagantly bejeweled or inexpensive and unadorned, a watch means something.

Consider my own watch. It belonged to my grandfather, who wore it for many years before he died, after which it passed to me on my 18th birthday. I can still recall my father’s words: “wear it proudly.” I do. The case has scratches, yes, and the springs within the links no longer function as they once did, but the gold is thrillingly luminous in the right light. A pleasant heft reminds me constantly of its presence, and a nearly imperceptible ticking reassures me that its innards continue their merry rotations. Most of all, however, it makes me remember. I think of where this watch came from, where it will go. And yet nowhere in society do I see the magnificence of heirlooms like this celebrated; how many young people today will have something like this watch to leave to their children?

Even among those who still wear a watch–an increasingly uncommon breed, if the population of my campus is any indication–the marvelously intricate multi-jeweled automatic movements that characterized watches worn decades ago have largely been forgotten for those of the mass-produced quartz variety. Certainly they are more accurate than those they replace, and for that they are to be commended, but the disposability of their harshly molded plastic, steel, and crystal forms engenders no connection between the wearer and the device. We have lost something in our ruthless quest for things newer and better; mobile phones and digital watches, which many of us toss away annually, seem a poor substitute for what were once finely crafted marvels of engineering. It’s one area where technology hasn’t made things better.

–D. S. W.


2 Responses to “watches, and why I wear one”

  1. Excellent article. I have to say that I still were a watch, and I still am in college. However, like you, I feel that it is a statement about myself, not necessarily a timepiece; simple, silver with white dial, roman numerals, and quite heavy. I carry a phone as well, and I rely on either interchangeably for keeping track of time. But it is an unconscious statement to who I am.

  2. Jonathan Coveney said

    Sure, a watch can have meaning. But not all of us are so lucky. The only watch worth wearing is one that has sentimental value. And alas, I have no such luck.

    You love movies, right? I think this fits the article perfectly…

    This watch I got here was first purchased by your great-granddaddy. It was bought during the First World War in a little general store in Knoxville, Tennessee. It was bought by private Doughboy Ernie Coolidge the day he set sail for Paris. It was your great-granddaddy’s war watch, made by the first company to ever make wrist watches. You see, up until then, people just carried pocket watches. Your great-granddaddy wore that watch every day he was in the war. Then when he had done his duty, he went home to your great-grandmother, took the watch off his wrist and put it in an ol’ coffee can. And in that can it stayed ’til your grandfather Dane Coolidge was called upon by his country to go overseas and fight the Germans once again. This time they called it World War Two. Your great-granddaddy gave it to your granddad for good luck. Unfortunately, Dane’s luck wasn’t as good as his old man’s. Your granddad was a Marine and he was killed with all the other Marines at the battle of Wake Island. Your granddad was facing death and he knew it. None of those boys had any illusions about ever leavin’ that island alive So three days before the Japanese took the island, your 22-year old grandfather asked a gunner on an Air Force transport named Winocki, a man he had never met before in his life, to deliver to his infant son, who he had never seen in the flesh, his gold watch. Three days later, your grandfather was dead. But Winocki kept his word. After the war was over, he paid a visit to your grandmother, delivering to your infant father, his Dad’s gold watch. This watch. This watch was on your Daddy’s wrist when he was shot down over Hanoi. He was captured and put in a Vietnamese prison camp. Now he knew if the gooks ever saw the watch it’s be confiscated. The way your Daddy looked at it, that watch was your birthright. And he’d be damned if some slopeheads were gonna put their greasy yella hands on his boy’s birthright. So he hid it in the one place he knew he could hide somethin’. His ass. Five long years, he wore this watch up his ass. Then when he died of disentary, he gave me the watch. I hid with uncomfortable hunk of metal up my ass for two years. Then, after seven years, I was sent home to my family. And now, little man, I give the watch to you.

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