The Anachronistic Joy of Mechanical Watches

by Site Author

Ecuador, 1939: a Slovakian refugee steps off the boat. He’s not used to the heat. And he has to learn Spanish. This is a long way from home.

It must have been a hard transition for my grandfather. His family back in Slovakia was wealthy, and so they could afford to send him and his brother overseas. But my grandfather’s parents felt so secure, so established, that they refused to move even as the Nazis began their march.

For several years, my grandfather and his brother corresponded with their parents, describing their adventures in Ecuador. Late into the war, their parents stopped writing back. We don’t know in which ghetto or concentration camp they died.

My grandfather eventually made his way to New York, where he met my grandmother and raised a family. For many years, he was a butcher. Then, late in life, he owned a furniture store. This was the 50’s and 60’s, and the American dream was alive and well. My grandfather sent both of his daughters to college and retired to a small condominium in Florida.

It was the destruction of the family’s Slovakian fortune that caused my grandfather to spend money as though the wealth had never disappeared. He wore expensive clothes, and the house always had an open bottle of Crown Royal for guests. The furniture was gaudy. My grandfather bought a Jaguar while they were still living in a two-family house. Financial advisers recommend that people spend money on their house first, then their car, then clothes. My grandfather did the reverse.

And so he bought himself a Rolex. It was an entry-level model, a starter Rolex, but a Rolex nonetheless. He wore the watch for years.

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The watch is mechanical and it winds itself when the wearer moves his wrist. But it was in Florida that my grandfather died of cancer, and when he was confined to bed, he moved his wrist too infrequently. The watch stopped keeping time. My grandfather brushed this off, joking about getting his money back.

I recently recovered the Rolex, and last week, I took it to be cleaned. While it seems as though everyone else is excited about the Apple Watch, I’m going in the other direction.

Mechanical watches have certain advantages over digital watches. They wont interrupt you every time you receive a text message. But more importantly, the watches are functional jewelry. They will last forever. All the energy that goes into necklaces, bracelets, and earrings for women, some men funnel into their timepieces. A new Patek Phillipe costs over 15 thousand dollars. (Respectable mechanical watches can be had for much less.)

Unlike digital watches, mechanical watches are heirlooms. They can be passed on to the next generation, and if they’re cleaned by a professional every ten years or so, they can work indefinitely. We can say that about very few of our possessions. I’m lucky if my laptop lasts for three years, and my fancy blender may make it only a bit longer. Even our furniture just barely survives a move or a toddler with a sharpie. But mechanical watches are different. And so, appropriately, I now wear my grandfather’s watch.