James May21 November 2012

James May on watches

"The sort of people who like cars and aeroplanes and boats tend to like watches as well"

I saw a watch advertised in a tabloid newspaper the other day for £12.95. It was pretty unremarkable, to be honest, but with a modern Japanese quartz movement, there was no doubt it would be excellent for telling the time.

And that's all we really need from a watch. Timekeeping is what civilised the world. Without standardised time and accurate timepieces, we would never have developed safe railways. Air traffic control would be tricky without knowing the exact time, and the widespread desire for clocks and pocket watches helped develop some of the basic principles of mass production, which, ironically, requires an accurate knowledge of how long operations take. A successful watch factory needs a bloody good stopwatch.

Knowing the right time is unbelievably empowering, and even though just about every domestic appliance and pocket electronic device incorporates a clock, the wrist is still the best place to display it. A watch, once such a valuable and coveted device that Fagin would try to pick it from your pocket, is now a disposable fashion accessory. And that's a good thing.

And yet... the sort of people who say: "A watch is just something for telling the time" are inevitably the ones who also say: "A car is just something to get you from A to B." The opportunity to transport yourself from one place to another, at your own whim and with complete autonomy, is the great gift that the car gave us. We may as well celebrate it with the Ferrari 458 if we can. It does the same job as the Panda, but it's more satisfying.

Similarly, a beautifully designed and made Omega will not tell the time any more convincingly than the £12.95 job, but since we look at our watches hundreds of times a day, we may as well be moved by what we see. What, in fact, do we look at more than our watches? I can't think of anything.

It's no wonder, then, that the sort of people who like cars - and motorcycles, aeroplanes, boats, bicycles and other deeply personal devices for getting about - tend to like watches as well. A watch is a fabulous thing to contemplate. Even the most basic mechanical watch is a marvel of miniaturised classical engineering, with its springs, levers and gears. An electronic watch is a work of pure and largely microscopic witchcraft, and one that might be able to offer up an altimeter or your heart rate as well. A watch is the most exquisite of machines, and it's always with you.

So to say that a watch is "just something for telling the time" is as fatuous as saying clothes are just something to hide your unsightly body and keep you warm, or that a house is just a way of keeping the rain off your face when you're in bed. ‘The time' is the most crucial nugget of information available to us, and the means of displaying it has exercised the technical wit and artistry of humankind like few other of our possessions. Might as well enjoy it.

 

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