Opinion: In Defense of the ‘Basic’ Watch

I’m not sure how long it’s been around, and I’m not exactly up to speed on cultural platitudes the likes of which are defined by Urban Dictionary, but I do remember the first time I heard the word “basic” used in reference to a watch (and its surely unhip owner). It was on a podcast, and it was spoken by a serious collector in regard to a steel Patek Philippe 5711, a now comically mainstream watch. It gave me a similar feeling to that of arriving at my first year of university, where I quickly discovered the bands I enjoyed were way too mainstream, and that real aficionados listened to more ‘underground stuff I’ve probably never heard of’. 

To be transparent, I’ve never owned a 5711 (or any Patek, for that matter), however I’ve always found them quite sublime in my few interactions with them over the years. Not quite my style, but I get the appeal (at retail, at least). This watch, along with many others now considered ‘basic’ have changed relatively little over the decades, but the world around them has changed quite a bit (you may have noticed). What you used to be free to enjoy for your own reasons, now seems to require an explanation lest your credentials as a watch enthusiast be called into question. 

Why settle for anything ‘basic’ in the midst of such a lush environment of great watchmaking?


A brief look around reveals some incredible work being done by hip, underground type watch brands. New micro-brands are raising the bar with each release, old-guard brands are reinventing themselves, and high-end independents are finally enjoying broad recognition. Yesterday, a Grand Seiko was for the in-the-know collector with a sophisticated palette. Today, their hot releases have deep waitlists at launch. Owning one prior to their split from Seiko and subsequent US launch is akin to having seen the Young Aborigines perform at the local pub before they became the Beastie Boys. Almost.

As is the case with many great things, they have a way of becoming mainstream. Even the humblest of beginnings will rarely stop something great, something beautiful, something useful, something destined for the classics section. Universal acceptance as such is never guaranteed, of course, but a healthy discourse comes with the territory. 

It’s not just watches, either, cars, bands, sneakers, whatever you’re into… the fact of the matter is that most people hop on board once the writing on the wall is clear: this [thing] is good. Whether your point of entry was ahead of the curve or at the apex of its popularity doesn’t change that, but it does change the perception.

I imagine a time in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s where a watch like the Submariner took a cultural leap from mere diver’s tool, to something more acceptable in a business setting, maybe even cool, as we see a reference 1680 on the wrist of Robert Redford’s portrayal of Bob Woodward in All The President’s Men, which was released in 1976. Steve McQueen wore a 5513 through the ‘70s, and of course, Sean Connery’s Bond sporting that 6538 in Goldfinger way back in 1964. I think Paul Newman may have sported a Rolex somewhere in there, too. Without Instagram or forums to foster the discussion, I wonder just how big an impact these watches had on the general viewing public, or what role they may have played in creating watch enthusiasts. 

On a recent recording of the Worn & Wound Podcast, in discussion with Danny Milton, we both recount something like an origin point to the hobby. Well beyond the ‘60s and ‘70s, obviously, but still before the fervor seen today. The watch was a vintage Submariner. You should listen to the podcast for the full discussion, but in short, his father wore a 5513 (inspired by one of the examples above, perhaps?) and that watch made a lasting impression that has since defined the center point of his lane to this day. I have a similar experience, and I’m sure many of you reading do as well, be it with a Rolex, Omega, Seiko, or otherwise. Point being, that die was cast in a very different environment of watch enthusiasm.

Is this thing ‘basic’?

Today, we live in an accelerator for hip shit, and something can go from being undiscovered hotness, to played out and basic in the span of weeks. Something that took literal generations to arrive at its current status hardly feels applicable to such parlance, but here we are.   

The first Rolex I ever bought was a Submariner reference 14060. It was head only, two-line dial. I owned it alongside a MKII Kingston, a Lum-Tec M21, a d.m.h. jump hour, a Xetum Tyndall, a Seiko 7002 (which I still own), and a Fortis B-42 Flieger Chronograph GMT (what a cool watch that was). When I moved on from the Sub, I had trouble selling it for $3,000, and ended up accepting a bit less, if memory serves. Resale values and social media shares weren’t even on my radar. None of that mattered. Is it basic? Absolutely. And that doesn’t really matter, either. 

Whatever your feelings on the changes this hobby has seen in recent years, having a north star of sorts can serve as a useful grounding, reminding you of just what it is that you enjoy about watches, and your experiences with them. The watches you’ve owned and built experiences with should carry no shame regardless of what labels they may pick up as trends come and go. As Michael Bolton, portrayed by David Herman in Mike Judge’s Office Space so eloquently put it in the 1999 film: “Why should I change? He’s the one who sucks.”

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Blake is a Wisconsin native who’s spent his professional life covering the people, products, and brands that make the watch world a little more interesting. Blake enjoys the practical elements that watches bring to everyday life, from modern Seiko to vintage Rolex. He is an avid writer and photographer with a penchant for cars, non-fiction literature, and home-built mechanical keyboards.