Opinion: Don’t Buy a Birth Year Watch (Or, Do it When You’re Young)

I have a birthday coming up later this year, and according to custom, math, and the Netflix algorithm that is serving me a heavy dose of mid-90s action thrillers, it’s a fairly big one. It’s the type of birthday that sometimes results in an extravagant purchase, a treat-yourself moment that is often parodied and mocked. Indeed, reader, I have mocked these types of indulgences, and I still think the guy who has been happily driving a Camry for years suddenly finding his love for sports cars at the beginning of a new decade of life is a little silly. Still, I’m drawn to the idea of buying myself a special watch to mark the occasion later this year, and I’ve been thinking about what that might be. Certainly there have been a whole lot of great new releases that have caught my eye even in the very recent past, and there are longstanding, back-of-mind grails that I casually track on all the places you track such a thing. But there’s one category I absolutely will not be exploring, one that I’ve always been a little puzzled by. Of course, I’m talking about the birth year watch. 

Fact: these are all birth year Speedmasters (for somebody)

Recently I’ve come across a flurry of Instagram posts and advertisements from watch dealers hawking Rolexes and other luxury watches from the early 90s and describing them as “birth year watches.” This is ridiculous on its face: every watch is a birth year watch, after all. And if these dealers are trying to micro target younger millennials and Gen-Z types, you’ve failed, because I’m an Old. More to the point, this seems like the ultimate in imbuing meaning into a watch where there is absolutely none. Even I, someone as stone hearted as you’re likely to encounter when it comes to sentimentality around physical hunks of steel, can understand developing a connection with an object you’ve spent a life with. But to pluck something from a dealer case, or in this instance the void of Instagram, and tell yourself that you are now connected to it because you share a birth year is a concept I have a hard time grappling with. Why not birth year shoes? Or a birth year computer? Sneaker collectors and fans of vintage electronics, this is your cue to flood the comments. I get that there’s historical value in these things because they are literally part of history, but the random nature of a watch (or anything) being approximately the same age as the collector doesn’t strike me as being particularly noteworthy.  

I want to be clear here and point out that in the course of discussing this idea with watch collector friends and colleagues, there is sometimes confusion about what a “birth year watch” actually is, and I’d like to say in the strongest possible terms that if a birth year watch to you is a watch bought for a child (especially your child) in their birth year to be gifted to them at an appropriate time, I think that is not only perfectly OK but actually quite a wonderful gesture, and seems to me like a guaranteed way to ensure that this hobby of ours lives out at least one more generation. Of course, it also might mean that the mania and psychosis that comes along with collecting will remain alive and well in our offspring. That’s a burden I might not want to pass along. But I’m sure the kids will figure it out in due time. 

I have sometimes said on podcasts and in writing that I’m not very sentimental about watches, and that I enjoy them primarily on an aesthetic basis without a ton of emotional attachment. I still feel that way, but I have to admit that I’m softening. As I look at my watchbox and see watches that have now been with me through multiple collection purges and have some real miles on them, I can see them as totems and not merely beautiful objects. The mere fact that I’m considering buying a watch on the occasion of my 40th birthday later this year is a signal that my attitude is changing. Only a few years ago I would have scoffed at the idea, and probably asked, “Why not a 41st birthday? Or a 39th?” That’s actually a fairly good point, and even at this moment I’m wondering how it is I’ve gotten so corny. 

A 1970s Computron: A birth year watch for the Gen-Xer in your life

I guess my feeling is that even if 40 years is an arbitrary interval, there’s some established ceremony and custom around this particular birthday. Not that it’s a great accomplishment to turn 40 or anything, but there’s at least something earned there. It’s a time in your life to consider what you’ve accomplished, what you still hope to accomplish, what you’ve overcome, and, hopefully, if we’re very, very lucky, represents an opportunity to celebrate. I can see how a watch tied to that could have some meaning. 

But where’s the meaning in a birth year watch? At some random age, you decide that this particular old thing that has spent decades doing who knows what is now, somehow, the sentimental favorite in your collection? I’m sorry, I just don’t see how an unknown office drone’s Air King that he sold back to a jewelry store so he could buy a snowmobile resonates. We’ve been conditioned by watch media and the marketing of big watch brands to think that any watch more than a few decades old has stories to tell that are worthy of an HBO limited series. The fact is, and you know this for the same reason I know it, most watches have fairly average lives, worn by average people, doing average things. 

And that’s perfectly OK! That’s why when I buy that 40th birthday watch, it’ll be something new, with my name on the warranty card, and I know that it’ll be mine and mine alone as it accompanies me through all of the dull and very occasionally not so dull things that are likely to happen in my fifth decade of life (sidenote: yikes). There will be no force feeding meaning into that watch – it’ll just happen naturally as I binge watch The Office yet again, sit outside my favorite coffee shop with a bagel on a quiet spring morning, or perform an illegal base jump from a tall building in a yet to be determined exotic locale, narrowly escaping arrest by a corrupt police force. 

A 1970s JLC from the author’s collection. Thankfully, not a birth year watch.

The point here, and it’s one we’ve made in these pages time and time again, is that the stories within a watch that create meaning are the ones you create, not the stranger who had it right before you. And there are a lot of ways to create that meaning – it doesn’t need to be all base jumps and SCUBA diving and searching for the Holy Grail, and running from genetically engineered dinosaurs in a yet to be opened theme park. There are vintage watches in my collection that I rarely wear that have become incredibly important to me as I’ve studied the history of the manufacturers responsible, and the evolution of a brand’s design language. There’s a genuine appreciation there that is deeper than picking a watch based purely on serial number. 

There’s another aspect to birth year watches, and why I find them inherently problematic, that has to do with verifying that it is indeed a watch made in the year of your birth. Some brands (Rolex obviously comes to mind) have a serial numbering system that makes it relatively easy to determine a year of production. With other brands, it’s much more opaque. You can have a general idea of when a watch was made, but never be quite certain. To that end, is it the manufacture date that’s important? What about the year it was sold? What if the watch went through a service at some point and had a dial, movement, or even a case replacement? Is it still a birth year watch? 

Trying to find a watch that meets your precise criteria for birth year is more complicated than it seems at first, and will inevitably result in disqualifying watches that might be far more desirable. As a collector, it’s tough to imagine choosing a watch that’s been over polished and serviced with questionable replacement parts over an otherwise identical watch that you can verify is completely original, but was unfortunately born a year late or early. But if you’re committed to a watch made in your birth year, this is the bargain you might be asked to make. 

As I approach the big 4-0, I have to admit that another reason I’m reluctant to go the birth year watch route is that these watches just seem so damn old at this point. As I get older and mature in the hobby, the idea of buying a watch that would feel too precious to wear on a regular basis is anathema to what I want to get out of collecting, especially if it’s a watch I really want to wear frequently, which is a prerequisite for me these days. If I were turning 20 this year, I’d certainly have no problem buying a watch from 2002, a perfectly fine year. There are Seikos that were made in the early 00s that have yet to be serviced and are still keeping great time! But any watch made in the early 80s is going to require some special handling, not unlike all of us as we round the corner into middle age. So maybe the trick is to get that birth year watch when you’re young, before it’s a genuine antique, while it still has enough life in it to make it your own. For my part, if I attempt a base jump in my 40s, the watch I wear while doing so will be significantly younger. 

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Zach is a native of New Hampshire, and he has been interested in watches since the age of 13, when he walked into Macy’s and bought a gaudy, quartz, two-tone Citizen chronograph with his hard earned Bar Mitzvah money. It was lost in a move years ago, but he continues to hunt for a similar piece on eBay. Zach loves a wide variety of watches, but leans toward classic designs and proportions that have stood the test of time. He is currently obsessed with Grand Seiko.