Watch What Happens: The Importance of Heirloom Timepieces

Courtesy Fashionphile

For some men, a watch is a trophy, talisman, and the culmination of a life’s work. Enter the watch as present-day heirloom.

About this time last year, I was chasing down a watch in my mind. Growing up, I was a huge fan of the T.V. show Dallas. J.R. Ewing, Southfork’s resident villain, with swagger as big as his cowboy hat, wore a black and gold Rolex. He called it his Texas Timex. It had been the watch I had always dreamed about and it was time to get it. It was to be my first real watch.

This would be a big moment, I was told repeatedly. “Oh, wow,” everyone seemed to say, on a loop. “That’s a big deal.” “I remember my first watch.” “You’ll have it forever.” “You will pass it down.” 

They were right. Not only was it going to be a five-figure purchase that I’d spent more than a year saving for, but it was going to be a closing of a loop. An acquisition of something which was imprinted on my consciousness as a child. It would become, I hoped, an heirloom. No, it would be an heirloom. 

There were plenty of images on Google of J.R. in 1984, wearing either a solid gold Rolex Day Date 41 with a presidential bracelet or customized strap that looked like a concha belt. But I could see the scene in my mind. Larry Hagman as J.R., rolling up to the Ewing Oil offices in a white Cadillac, arm hanging out the window with a gold Rolex with a black bezel. 

At the time, I was eight, maybe. J.R. looked like the very image of a man who had it all, all summed up on his left wrist. I could be that guy, I hoped. I would own a Rolex. I might not work at my family’s evil oil empire, but I could feel like I did. 

“That’s exactly how you’re supposed to buy a watch,” Yoni Ben-Yehuda said, when I told him the story. The head of business development for New York City’s Material Good, which sells Audemars Piguet, Richard Mille, and a curated assortment of pre-owned timepieces, says that there are a few brands which tend to be solid buys—Audemars, Mille, Patek Philippe, and Rolex—but the watch to buy is the one that means something. “It has to cause a visceral reaction.” 

Ben-Yehuda, who previously worked as both a tech CMO and a teaching advisor at the Wharton School of Business, explains that not only will it bring the owner joy (for many men, this is the only piece of jewelry they will wear all week) but it’s good business sense. Much of his day is spent trying to get someone to fall in love with a watch. “If you care so much about such a big, careful purchase, then”—should you fall out of love or go broke—“someone else likely will too.” 

At Phillips auction house, head of watches Paul Boutros falls in love every day. And then hopes to pass it on. Boutros travels the world scouting, sourcing, and securing watches for one of several major timepiece auctions Philipps hosts around the world each year. A collector himself, Boutros sees many buyers today looking heirloom purchases: either a new watch to pass down one day or what could be described as second-hand sentimental value. “A lot of people today are looking for birth-year watches for their children,” he says. Say, an Omega or Patek from 1981. His advice: Always buy from the original owner. “That way you can be assured there is no parts swapping, such as dial changes.” That can affect your resale, should that happen.

In the end, I bought my Rolex new. I tracked it down, did tons of research, called in help to find it. It was the watch J.R. Ewing wore, a gold GMT Master II with a black bezel. Ben-Yehuda called it a “soft flex.” 

“Real luxury is not just a beautiful item,” he said. “It’s when a beautiful item meets supply and demand. Meaning when it’s hard to come by.” He explained that the old adage in marketing, “You have a hit, you run with a hit” doesn’t work in timepieces.  “This model is antithetical that. If it’s ‘amazing’ that doesn’t mean it has to be had by all.” 

The other day I was scrolling through Instagram and saw a #throwback post. It was Don Johnson in Miami Vice. He was wearing yellow-gold Rolex Day Date with a presidential bracelet. I pretended not to see it.