Provenance Worth Pursuing: an Heirloom Hamilton

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One of the most iconic advertising campaigns ever produced by a watch brand is undoubtedly Patek Philippe’s “Generations.” The sentimentality and notion of timelessness–the idea that one doesn’t simply own a watch, but is actually holding on to it for the next generation–are well-known, so much so, in fact, that I’ve heard this sentiment from both serious collectors and casual enthusiasts alike. It’s a clever bit of marketing born of reality. The idea of passing down a watch as a family heirloom is an old one, and it’s undeniably ingrained in our culture (let us not forget the perilous journey of a certain little gold watch in “Pulp Fiction.”) Hamilton Jon Gaffney - 5Today, our longtime contributor, Jon Gaffney, tells us the story of his grandfather’s gold Hamilton watch, which was left to Jon’s uncle after the patriarch’s passing. It’s a watch of little value to those outside of Jon’s family. It won’t command record-breaking prices at auction. It’s no one’s grail. But it’s the embodiment of one of the many reasons why I, and many others, love watches. In an age marked by disposable pleasures and goods, this little watch remains an everlasting heirloom. I’ll let Jon take it from here.


Last summer, after a few years of thwarting doctor predictions by sheer will and escaping yet another stay in the ICU, my grandfather passed away at home with his wife and children by his side. He had a fairly incredible run. He lived for 95 years and was happily married to my grandmother for 74-and-a-half of those years. He served in WWII in Patton’s army and then returned home to raise a family and find a good career. He and my grandmother had no problem raising a family as they ended up having 13 children in 16 years (my mother being number 12 of the bakers dozen). My grandfather worked hard for Raytheon for nearly 40 years before retiring to travel the world with his wife, enjoy his large family, and play golf any chance he could. All told, at the time of his passing, he and my grandmother were the genesis for over 80 people: children, grandchildren, great grandchildren, and great great grandchildren.Hamilton Jon Gaffney - 18

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My uncle, John, is the youngest of the aforementioned 13 children. He’s a lifelong bachelor who loves to rock climb, play games, and is a phenomenal photographer. He is also my mother’s best friend. Given how close he is with her and without a family of his own, he’s always been treated as a welcome addition to my nuclear family. As I’ve grown up and we’ve come to share  a variety of interests, my uncle has become a good friend. Rarely a week goes by that we don’t talk about bouldering routes, card hands won and lost, and photography–a lot about photography.

All of my grandparent’s children lived within an hour or so of their parents, but uncle John was the closest. That, coupled with his bachelor status, meant that he spent a lot of time with them, and as they got older and started to need help he shouldered a large part of the caretaker role. Given his proximity to my grandparents, I would often double-up a trip to see them whenever I would visit my uncle, or I’d make sure to stop by my uncle’s when I visited my grandparents. Hamilton Jon Gaffney - 14

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My grandparents were always excited when I would stop by, with my grandmother sharing a warm hug and my grandfather, with a smile on his face, exclaiming, “Jonathan!” as I’d enter their home. Conversations with my grandfather could be a challenge as his hearing had paid a high price to German artillery, but with some coaxing he would always share riveting stories of the many places he’d experienced through his life.

It was gold, small and round, with diamond indices, a manually wound movement and an expanding metal band in the style of the ’50s. He had memories of his father wearing it, but hadn’t thought about it in years.

When my grandfather passed it was the first death in our gigantic family, and it hit hard. Aside from my grandmother, it probably hit my uncle the hardest of the rest of the family.

John was named the executor of his father’s will, and he was tasked with digging through 95 years of paperwork, policies, and keepsakes as the family moved forward with the uncomfortable necessities of a loved one’s passing. It was in this process that my uncle found my grandfather’s watch.

Hamilton Jon Gaffney - 3How a watch is passed from one person to another comes about in a myriad of ways. They can be sold, found, bought, or earned, but none more meaningful in my mind than when it is passed or gifted from one loved one to another. My grandfather on my dad’s side wore two watches consistently, and when he knew his life would soon come to a close he made the decision to pass them along himself, gifting one to my cousin and one to me. My other grandfather, it seems, stored away his watch quite a few years before he passed, and perhaps he even forgot about it, unknowingly leaving a gift for my uncle to uncover.

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As my uncle proceeded through my grandfather’s estate he eventually had to sort and catalog the contents of his safe. Upon opening it, he discovered something unexpected–his father’s Hamilton. It was gold, small and round, with diamond indices, a manually wound movement and an expanding metal band in the style of the ’50s. He had memories of his father wearing it, but hadn’t thought about it in years. My grandmother insisted my uncle take it and wear it. He did. It instantly became one of his most treasured possessions, and it remains a strong reminder of his father every time he looks down at his wrist.Hamilton Jon Gaffney - 13Time has worn away the memory of how and when my grandmother purchased the Hamilton for her husband, but she’s certain she did buy it for him as a special gift many decades ago. A search through their many photo albums detailing the raising of their baker’s dozen and a retirement spent traveling the world garners only a few shaky photos where he might be wearing the Hamilton, but it also could have been his gold Timex he favored as his version of a beater watch. Most of the photos are of my grandmother posed around the world as my grandfather wielded his Polaroid SX70. There are no box and papers to be found a half-century and three houses later. All things that cause a watch collector to fret and wring their hands are abandoned here, and the reality is that none of that matters one bit.

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Philosophically, a watch is a funny thing. It’s a machine built by man to track time–a concept of his creation–in an attempt to quantify something over which he has utterly zero control. But in that futility is a sense of security and understanding. Time is universal in a way nothing else is–not religion, not language, not art, or music. It binds us all together. For my uncle, that Hamilton is a direct link to his father, and its value outweighs any collector checklist because it’s a wearable memory, a reminder of time spent with a loved one.Hamilton Jon Gaffney - 15Hearing my uncle now talk about how special this watch is to him always makes me smile. It’s everything that’s right about watches and the legacy they can carry. It’s easy to get bogged down in the incredible fading of a bezel and creamy tritium lume on a dial only to miss the human element behind those characteristics. None of us are timeless. We all fade, crack, and break down and can’t be made new again. But the things we carry with us can be priceless to those we’re closest with.

My grandfather always told me, “There’s a time to work, there’s a time to pray, and there’s a time to play.” A simple sentiment that feels harder to distill in an ever more complex world. But perhaps that’s the lesson, that time isn’t as complex as we make it. Maybe if we use our time well, someday someone will hold our watch close as a ticking reminder of life’s momentum and the impact we made. To me that’s a provenance worth pursuing.

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Jon is a native New Englander who enjoys traveling as much as returning home. He has a passion for watches that his significant other kindly tolerates whilst shaking her head in consternation. A tendency to plow through life with little finesse has led him to appreciate and pursue the utility of a good tool watch.
thevanman
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  • Love of family & remembrances never goes out of style.

  • YC

    Best article I’ve read on any watch blog in a while. Thanks for sharing this very personal story :).

  • Hmmm

    Great article and one of the reasons I love some of the watches I have.