The Mystique of Men's Watches

Why good timepieces will always entice good gentlemen.

Men are prisoners of time. The exigencies of daily life—one long domino effect of delays—make a mockery of any device designed to keep perfect time. Yet men remain defiantly shackled to the wristwatch, as revered in the canon of masculine connoisseurship as cars, bars and cigars.

While there may be elements of testosterone-charged combativeness and high-end hoarding involved, there’s no logical reason why watch collecting continues to make men tick. After all, even if we could keep our lives on schedule, a watch is no longer a necessity when telling the time is a smartphone or a dashboard away. But if the booming global market for new and old watches—some estimates peg it at $40 billion, and men make up the vast majority of it—is any indication, deeper male psychologies are at play.

It’s a hoary old chestnut, the idea that men are canny creatures who buy expensive watches as investment pieces that can be amortized over time. Not so, says Martin Lindstrom, the straight-talking author of Buyology: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy: “With very few exceptions, watches are not a good investment, period. Men buy watches for emotional reasons and because watches are like car keys that are acceptable to put on a boardroom table. They’re a way for men to display what is important to them without being vulgar.”

Benjamin Clymer, the founder and executive editor of Hodinkee.com, a trusted website devoted to “haute horlogerie,” agrees. “It’s a talisman of who you are,” Clymer says. “It’s with you day in and day out, and a mechanical watch relies on you as much as you rely on it in the sense that if you don’t wind it, it won’t work. It’s quite poetic.”

The psychometric connection to the wearer (for those not fluent in psychobabble, psychometry is the supposed ability to discover facts about people by touching objects associated with them) may explain the recent explosion in provenance-driven purchases, especially at auction. Men, it would appear, not only want to buy watches from time-honored heritage houses like Breitling and Breguet and value their watches as heirlooms handed down by fathers and grandfathers, but they are also increasingly prepared to pay handsomely for the vicarious thrill of having a watch that was previously owned by someone noteworthy.

Albert Einstein’s Longines (a nondescript 14-karat watch of minor consequence that was engraved to him on the back) sold for $596,000 at Antiquorum’s New York auction house in 2008. A year later, Mahatma Gandhi’s pocket watch, which no longer functioned but was sold with his wire-rimmed glasses, sandals and a bowl he frequently ate from, went for more than $2 million. And watches owned by Steve McQueen, that perennial watch-industry booster, routinely sell for six figures.

Aurel Bacs, the international head of the watch department at Christie’s, where last year he oversaw sales in excess of $100 million, says the emotional connection to the previous owner is not the only reason men are drawn to timepieces from the past. “The handcrafted vintage watch offers another dimension, the charisma of time damage, of an aging patina that cannot be faked,” says Bacs, who is considered a watch whisperer even among experts. “But if you wear a vintage watch, you are also communicating, whether true or not, that you are from a long history of wealth and culture, that you are not nouveau riche.”

In addition to being an atavistic link to the past, real or imagined, a watch can signify status, rank, authority and vigor. Watches from prestige luxury houses like Cartier confer instant status-conscious glamour on the wearer while a Vacheron Constantin chronograph suggests a man who is as reliable and reserved as the tables at his favorite establishment restaurant. Meanwhile, few would confuse a captain of industry in a subtle Patek Philippe Calatrava for a man of action in a Rolex sports watch with a rugged fabric NATO strap.

While plenty of men are undeniably seduced by the charms of engineering and personality-defining design, and others simply by the thrill of paying exorbitant prices or treating themselves to something they feel they deserve to commemorate a milestone, there are most likely just as many lured by the siren call of community. A man, for example, wearing a mechanical watch that displays a lot of complications is communicating to the world that he is possessed of an agile mind and part of an intellectual elite equipped to understand the mysteries of time.

And then there are the like-minded enthusiasts along the way. “People think that watch collecting is very competitive and antisocial,” says Paddy Conway, a Chicago-based collector and founding member of the Paneristi, a traveling pilgrimage of Panerai devotees. “But I have made so many friends in the Panerai network. We meet up every year at the same time, hundreds of us who have never met, for the most part, but we share a common love for the simplicity and aesthetics of Panerai and for the memories that our watches have given us. It’s one of the reasons I am a fan of the brand.”

In the relatively limited vernacular of male adornment, it’s not hard to see why watches mean all things to all men. And as the average household footprint worldwide significantly decreases, rendering practically obsolete some collectibles like large furniture, small treasures like watches are likely to increase, especially for men who are constantly on the road and don’t often get to admire the rewards of their success.

But what of the collectors who never wear their prized watches? Or of the sensualists who buy watches because they are attracted to the click of the winding or the sound of buttons when pushed? Or of the men who wear a different watch every day? Are they walking crises of masculinity? As Hugues de Pins, president of Vacheron Constantin North America, says with tongue firmly in cheek, “It’s complicated.”

Highly Complicated

By their nature, watch complications have always catered to the various needs of the owner, and the continuing arms race in Switzerland to develop multi-complication pieces (sometimes called grand or high complications) means exponential variety. Ulysse Nardin’s Freak Diavolo ($153,000; ulysse-nardin.com) has a carousel tourbillon on the minutes indicator and a flying tourbillon on the seconds indicator, while Chopard’s L.U.C Lunar One ($63,600; chopard.com) pairs a moon-phase display with a perpetual calendar. Carl F. Bucherer’s Patravi TravelTec Four X ($52,900; carl-f-bucherer.com) is a chronograph with three time zones and a date indicator. —Shannon Adducci