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The Hands of Time

Classic Watches Are More Than Just Timepieces--They're Works of Art for the Wrist
Nick Foulkes
From the Print Edition:
Danny DeVito, Winter 96

It is under the term "classic" that some of the gravest offenses against male style have been committed. We have had "modern classics," "classics with a twist" and "reinvented classics," and almost without exception, they have been the most meretricious garments: jackets with oddly cut lapels, dining suits fashioned out of fabrics more conventionally used for making costumes for exotic dancers, and shoes with eccentric stitching and soles that look as though they would be more at home on the tires of a heavy-duty agricultural vehicle. The chances are that if something is trumpeted by its manufacturers as a classic, it is anything but.

A classic is, or should be, something that by its harmony of aesthetics and function achieves a kind of immortality. Beauty is a notoriously subjective thing, but nevertheless, a classic is an item that is instantly recognizable and over the years comes to define its own visual integrity. The black and yellow band of the Cohiba is, of course, an example every cigar aficionado is familiar with. Taken out of context and viewed dispassionately (an impossible task if ever there was one), the band comes across as a curious and dated piece of design, but the mythology surrounding it and all the associations of the fabled cigar would make tampering with the band an example of the grossest sacrilege. In the world of lighters, the Alfred Dunhill Rollagas has achieved a cult status; it is the Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud to Zippo's Ford Mustang.

So it is in the 24-carat world of fine watches. There are always those who will argue that spending anything more than a modest amount on a wristwatch is tantamount to lunacy, and it is true there are many cheap watches that, in their own way, have achieved some kind of cult status; just as it is also true that there are some perfectly popular machine-made Honduran cigars as well as the Hoyo de Monterrey Double Corona, and some perfectly palatable Appellation Contrôlèe Burgundies as well as La Tâche.

Fine watchmaking is an art every bit as refined as the making of fine wines, fine motor cars and fine yachts. Some of the great watchmakers have reputations stretching back centuries, and from time to time they produce genuine classics.

Even in these high-tech days of the Internet and information superhighways, the most prized watches are those with mechanical or automatic movements. It is a remarkable experience to wander through the watch factories of Switzerland and admire the utmost calm with which workers assemble the most intricate and minute of movements, often having to deal with pieces little larger than a human hair, so delicate that they have to be kept beneath glass domes. The atmosphere is best described as somewhere between the most modern of operating rooms and Oxford University's Bodleian library.

Once you've seen the craftsmen at work at their benches, hunched over magnifying glasses with Lilliputian tools in their hands or carefully engraving the case or movement, it becomes easy to understand why, although quartz may often offer greater accuracy and reliability, the connoisseur will invariably select a handcrafted mechanical or self-winding watch. There is something about winding a watch by hand that is curiously restful; like smoking a cigar, it imposes a kind of leisure and allows a moment of reflection on the many processes that have gone into putting the watch on your wrist.

A twentieth century phenomenon, the wristwatch's popularity took hold during the First World War. The route to a watch becoming a classic is a circuitous one. It could achieve classic status because it has been designed for, or worn by, a famous person. Perhaps the most celebrated of these is the Cartier Santos, which was designed for the pioneer Brazilian aviator and plutocrat Alberto Santos-Dumont and was used by him to record a record-breaking flight in 1907. Cartier also made the first Pasha watch for the Pasha of Marrakech who, in the 1930s, wanted to be one up on other plutocrats and be able to take a dip in his pool without having to remove his Cartier wristwatch. The famous jeweler on Paris' rue de la Paix obliged. More recently, the Rolex Cosmograph, a much sought-after chronograph, has become colloquially known as "the Paul Newman" because of the film star's preference for it.

A watch can also be elevated to classic status because it has calibrated an important event. A Breitling Navitimer with a 24-hour dial, sold today as the Breitling Cosmonaute, was strapped to the wrist of astronaut Scott Carpenter during his Mercury 7 space mission of May 24, 1962. But the most famous astronaut's watch of all time is the 12-hour chronograph called the Omega Speedmaster, which was designed during the 1950s but achieved international fame when Neil Armstrong wore it to the moon in 1969.

It could be a design feature that captures the imagination of the discerning watch buyer. Even though pocket calculators have long superseded the slide rule, the circular slide rule set into the bezel is still a much-loved feature of Breitling's Old Navitimer watches. It might be something as simple as a motif. Take, for example, Vacheron Constantin's famous Maltese Cross, which is reproduced even on the clasp of these excellent Swiss watches. Or it could be an overall approach to watchmaking. There are those who would argue that it is impossible for master watchmaker Breguet to turn out anything other than a classic watch, and certainly this marque's famous engine-turned dials are easily spotted; watch hands that boast a small hole beneath their apex are known as Breguet hands.

However, the qualities that make a classic are often unquantifiable; it just happens that a design will capture the spirit of the moment. There are at the moment many new designs making their way onto the market, of which only a few will become classics. It would be foolish to predict which ones will achieve such status, but among the brands to consider are Franck Muller, maker of some of the most intricate and exquisite formal watches for men, and Hublot, whose rubber-strapped, porthole-style watches are already a cult item. The Hublot GMT, with its blue dial and handsome clasp, is certainly one of the most coveted sports watches available.

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