Gerontohorologyphobia: A Young Man’s Fear Of Being Seen Wearing An Old Man’s Watch
Disclaimer: Women are immune to “old man’s watch” syndrome and can wear anything they like, from 43 mm down to 15 mm. Men, I feel, do not have this freedom.
Three months after my daughter was born in 1993, apparently unfazed by the prospect of having another mouth to feed (and in reckless disregard of the estimated lifetime cost of raising a child of £300,000 that was doing the rounds at the time), I headed for Selfridges in London and bought myself a new watch in the summer sales.
The watch that I had my eye on was a Swiss-made, chronograph-style sports watch by Sector, an Italian brand that achieved a degree of success in the 1980s and ’90s through a combination of strong design, good-quality components, and astute marketing, forging links with “extreme” sportsmen and sportswomen such as Patrick de Gayardon and Umberto Pelizarri through its “Sector No Limits” advertising.
As a keen, but not terribly competent windsurfer at the time, and as was no doubt intended by the brand, I was perhaps hoping that this watch would have performance-enhancing effect.
At that time the mechanical renaissance was very much in its infancy, so I bought an ETA-driven quartz model without much forethought (Sector’s range also included the Golden Eagle, an automatic chronograph with a Valjoux 7750 under the hood, a model quite sought after today).
With its gold-on-black bezel, white dial, and gold baton hands and subdials in a polished steel case with crown guards, my Sector ADV 1000 was my pride and joy for several years and still gets a turn on my wrist occasionally. Albeit with a new ETA movement fitted in 2016, the previous one having been destroyed by an expired battery that I had forgotten to remove during a long spell in the drawer – caveat all quartz owners.
It also came in a mid-size version, a deciding factor for me with my chicken wrists, which were yet to expand in step with my waistline. The watch wasn’t cheap, retailing at around £250 before discount: to put that in perspective, you could buy the manual-wind Omega Speedmaster for less than £800 in those days.
However, the real reason for me buying a totally unnecessary new watch at this rather inappropriate juncture in my life was rather more peculiar.
Fourteen years earlier, having just left school, I spent the modest sum of £29 from my first paycheck on a blue-dial, stainless steel Seiko 7025, the forerunner of the Seiko 5 with its 7S26 movement, on a jubilee-style steel bracelet.
This watch was indestructible and saw me through my university years, living in North Africa, getting married, and I wore it while swimming for many years with no apparent ill effect as I believed that “water resistant” meant waterproof.
I nearly lost it when we were on honeymoon: reaching out to put my hand on the gunwale while boarding a felucca at Aswan, a spring bar on the bracelet gave way and the watch slipped from my wrist into the bottom of the boat. Two inches to the left and it would have plunged to an eternal watery grave at the bottom of the Nile.
The Seiko 7025 still features in my regular watch rotation, perhaps more than ever, for reasons that will become clear below.
Fast forward to 1993, and this was the watch I was wearing when the receptionist at the trading company I was working for at Canary Wharf, a chirpy lass straight out of the BBC’s “Eastenders” soap opera, looked down at my watch disdainfully and said, “I hate watches with blue dials. They remind me of old men in pubs.”
Suddenly my head was filled with a vision of Steptoe and Son lookalikes (I believe the U.S. equivalent was called Sanford and Son) huddled round a table in a sawdust-strewn pub in London’s East End, playing cribbage or studying the horse racing “form,” sipping their half pints and glancing furtively at their blue-dial Sekondas to see whether they would be able to make their drinks last until closing time.
It was at that moment (I was not yet 30 at the time) that my conscious quest for a “young man’s watch” began, starting with the purchase of the Sector sports watch not long after. This quest logically involved reaching a precise definition of what constituted an “old man’s watch.”
It was another 10 years before I acquired my first “serious” watch: a steel, black-dial Omega Constellation COSC-certified chronometer that my father had bought in Singapore in 1964 and had worn continuously throughout my childhood until it (the watch, not my childhood) stopped in the 1990s, when he put it in a drawer and forgot about it, probably baulking at the cost quoted for servicing it in comparison to what he would have paid for it.
After he gave it to me for repair I had it serviced by a Tissot specialist in Edinburgh, one Brendan Haddock, who called me to let me know it was ready with scarcely concealed excitement, whispering in reverent tones that he had “got it going like a young ’un.” Indeed he had, as it performed to within +/- 1 second per day after that.
This revived my interest in mechanical watches, seeking out further information on forums such as TimeZone and Omegaforums, which I soon tired of as I do with all internet forums, finding it bizarre to see self-appointed experts located in different countries all over the world carrying on as if they actually knew each other (unless they do actually all know each other, in which case I feel distinctly left out of whatever is going on).
By this time I was becoming increasingly aware of the brands and styles of mechanical watches that were available, as well as the vintage watches that were attracting attention, and another incident (again involving old men in pubs) helped to refine my definition of what constituted an “old man’s watch.”
On a business trip to Yorkshire I spent a night in a budget motorway hotel with a mock-Tudor pub on the other side of the car park where we could fill up on a full English breakfast. After breakfast I discovered that my car battery was flat, so I returned to the pub to seek help with jump-starting my engine, and a sturdy Yorkshireman, probably in his late fifties or early sixties, kindly offered to help out.
While he was connecting the jump leads to his car battery, I noticed that he was wearing a slightly tired-looking Omega pie-pan Constellation on what was certainly its original “beads of rice” bracelet.
Today, a patina dial and original beads of rice bracelet on an Omega are much sought after signs of vintage authenticity, but for me at the time it raised the red flag: this gentleman was quite clearly (and understandably) wearing the watch he (or his good lady) had probably treated himself to 30 years earlier. Could this be the definition of “an old man’s watch”?
In my modest part-time occupation cleaning up and (occasionally repairing) equally modest vintage watches, especially Chronographe Suisse chronographs with indefatigable Landeron or Venus movements, I frequently receive watches from the 1950s and ’60s on Fix-O-Flex bracelets, probably fitted to the watch after the original leather bracelets gave up the ghost, that have subsequently accumulated 40-50 years of “wrist cheese.”
Nothing makes a watch look like an old man’s watch more than a Fix-O-Flex bracelet; I used to remove them carefully and put them through the ultrasound cleaner, but I now have a drawer of these utterly unloved items so they are ripped off unceremoniously with pliers and thrown straight in the bin.
My father found leather straps impractical in hot climates and always fitted his watches with steel bracelets. The first thing I did with his Omega Constellation when I had it serviced was to replace the steel Fix-O-Flex bracelet with a brown leather strap that to my mind better complemented the black dial with its genuine tropical patina, as the watch had spent the first ten years of its life in the scorching sun of Borneo and Oman before ending up in the shady gloom of a drawer in Scotland.
So how do we define an “old man’s watch” nowadays – and is anybody bothered?
As in the fashion world, trends are cyclical and return sooner, later, or even much later. This is hard to believe sometimes, but one day the mullet, as sported by Don Johnson in the third season of “Miami Vice,” will return as an acceptable hairstyle, perhaps with a little marketing push from Ebel, (whose El Primero-powered Sports Chronograph replaced Johnson’s (fake) gold Rolex in the series).
The concept of the “old man’s watch” has been turned on its head by the boom in vintage watches, as smaller cases and distinctive period-specific designs such as the Universal Genève Polerouter and Omega Seamaster have become the holy grail for those “in the know” – even better if on a beads of rice bracelet.
Furthermore, as I contemplate joining the ranks of the elderly with alarming rapidity, I have become increasingly aware that age is a relative, fluid concept.
Some years back, a London radio station did a survey of what its listeners considered to be the definition of “rich,” and the clear response came back that no matter how little people earn, anyone earning twice what they do is “rich.”
So it is with age, as at any stage of life we tend to think of anyone 20 or more years older than us as being “old.”
If I were to come up with a definition of an “old man’s watch” that could be universally applicable to any period in horological history, it would be “the watch that a man bought in his thirties or forties and hasn’t got round to replacing by his fifties or sixties.”
In the 1930s that would have been a pocket watch; in the 1960s a small (30 mm) gold-plated manual-wind of a brand that didn’t survive the coming quartz crisis, in the 1990s a blue-dial Sekonda worn by “old men in pubs” (see above); and nowadays a steel-bezel quartz TAG Heuer (or TAG Heuer lookalike) with an overcrowded dial on one of those integrated steel bracelets with bulbous links.
The irony of all this for me is that at the time of writing, blue-dial watches on stainless steel bracelets are on an unprecedented roll, led of course by the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak and the Patek Philippe Nautilus, with the latter fetching astronomical prices in the secondary market.
The photograph above, which has been doing the rounds, shows these two watches in a lineup with another 10 blue-dial/stainless steel “Royal Oak-alikes” from Rolex, Cartier, Vacheron Constantin, et al.
My blue-dial Seiko that incurred the disdain of our receptionist in 1993 would not look out of place between the Oysterquartz and the IWC and is getting more wrist time than ever.
In the meantime, I am less inclined to worry about whether I am wearing an old man’s watch – and even if I am, I am approaching the age when I am entitled to. But if I do, it is, as any like-minded vintage aficionado will understand, because I am wearing it ironically.
I might even dig out one of those Fix-O-Flex bracelets . . .