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Watch Out!



A status symbol can misspeak.

I have become fascinated with watch ads recently, and I thought if I wrote about it I could move on to some other interesting aspect of modern culture.

There are some very subtle–and not so subtle–ways that the affluent make themselves known to each other and us, and the wristwatch is one. In magazine and newspaper ads, women’s wristwatches have become ever more gem-encrusted, whereas those for the men offer increasingly complex functions.  The other day when I went to Chavez Fine Jewelry to get a new battery and leather band for my very nice but conservative timepiece, I mentioned the flash I was occasionally seeing around town. Knowing I was referring to women’s watches, Tino Chavez smiled wryly and said that many of the gems are not real.

Clearly, however, a watch has become a major status symbol, and one wants to be aware of  the underlying communication. It’s being polite, you know, to respond appreciatively to the message being delivered; and when traveling by air, you might end up having a very pleasant conversation up in first class. I am imagining this from the perspective of the female but as one who doesn’t have that many air miles yet.

So I did a little research and learned some interesting things about the watch in general. Did you know, for example, that the wristwatch did not become commonplace until World War I? It was then that soldiers and pilots in particular realized that they needed to keep hands free while staying in touch with the time.

Ads for men’s watches include many notes about all the functions that anticipate adverse conditions. These include power reserves, shock protection, water resistance down to hundreds of meters, resistance to vibration and centrifugal force, and the ability to monitor multiple time zones and the phases of the moon all at once. One might assume that a guy wearing one of those is prepared for an emergency, pretty much anywhere. A good seatmate.

Some watches are advertised as chronographs, which means that they can serve as stopwatches. The first one was invented by an astronomer, but they became commercialized when King Louis XVIII commissioned a watchmaker to design one in about 1821 that would enable him to time horse races. In general, chronographs are valuable to pilots, race car drivers, divers, and submariners. If you know a chronograph when you see one, you may assume that a stud is at hand and strike up a conversation accordingly. Alternatively, your seatmate could be like a Mafia guy, somebody needing a threat function, like “I’ll give you ___ seconds to turn over that ___. ” You have to anticipate all possibilities.

A chronometer has the same function as a chronograph but is a step up in sophistication. It has a timing hand that automatically resets. A watch cannot claim to be a chronometer unless it has been certified by the COSC, the official Swiss testing institute. Asking if a watch is a chronograph might make you look sophisticated, but inquiring about whether it is also a chronometer might be a bridge too far. You don’t want to imply a shortfall, you know.

And that brings me to the subject of quality. The Swiss are the world’s premier watchmakers, as you probably know, and you have also probably heard of the world’s premier brands: Rolex, Patek Philippe, Cartier, and Breitling. So if you get a glimpse of a label like that (mine says “Chavez, Santa Fe”), it’s a major perk-up moment. It’s a courtesy, really, to be sensitive to someone looking for a certain kind of affirmation. And FYI, in the male world where the complexity of a watch seems to be important, Patek Philippe is the champion with the Calibre 89, which has 33 complications.

Red Skull RM 52-01 by Richard Mille

Among all the stunning ads that are popping up, I saw one the other day that really caught my eye. The brand, Richard Mille, was unfamiliar to me. I discovered that he is a famous French designer, but it was the face of the watch that I homed in on. It is the image of a skull, and my immediate impression was that it humorously honors the rugged spirit of the Hell’s Angels or something. However, further research revealed that it was launched to express “creative freedom and attract a wider range of market.” Here are the details: The skull is red gold, the straps are crocodile, and the plate is black PVD coated grade 5 titanium plate. There are 19 jewels in the mechanical movement including the nano tubes that act as a stabilizer. Wow.

So if the Red Skull RM 52-01 is designed to reach a wider market, what does it cost? Hold tight: $1,413,040. Yep, you read that correctly.

How in the world would you feel with a million dollar watch on your wrist? I can’t imagine. And on the site where I found this information, I was initiated into the different reality of the super-wealthy. I knew a Rolex was expensive, for example, but how about a design that costs almost half a million dollars? Among the other high-end brands are many that sell in the six figures. Although I started out having fun with this subject, I ended up feeling odd, a little uneasy.

Maybe there is an unintended significance to that death’s head watch. The instrument marks time, of course, and things run their course. When power gets significantly out of balance in society, change happens naturally or it is forced, as in revolution. We traditionally admire success and the wealth that comes with it. However, there are degrees, and the degree must seem accessible to be admired, to be aspired to, and also to be tolerated. If I ended up sitting next to this watch anywhere, I think I would feel uncomfortable, like I wanted to move. A status symbol can, after all, misspeak.


One Response to “Watch Out!”

  1. Ann Karlstrom

    Ellen–You’ve been reading the New York Times again! Where else (other than some luxury publication) would you get the info to start your research on expensive watches? It is interesting to see what the 1% of the 1% can figure to do with their more money than brains. They’ve forgotten what happened to Marie Antoinette and her husband.
    My watches usually cost about 1% of 1% of the Red Skull. But we mustn’t worry; I expect to see a knockoff of that one somewhere. The skull on a timepiece is irresistible–memento mori.