What makes an heirloom watch?

This is a question I’ve asked myself on occasion. Not often, but on occasion. I guess during some idle moment I’ve attempted to find a higher meaning to this hobby/obsession and the romantic idea of passing down a deeply personal item such as a watch sits well with that. Unfortunately, that doesn’t explain why I need so many of the damn things, and why I seem to sell them on just as soon as the next shiny thing presents itself. Nevertheless, the notion of an heirloom watch has been playing on my mind again recently.

I often see the phrase ‘heirloom quality’ thrown about, which doesn’t sit at all well with me for two reasons.

Firstly, most watches can and will last a long time if cared for properly. The cost of servicing becomes an obvious stumbling block for many of the more affordable watches we still admire. The difference in cost between a service, dropping in a new movement, or even buying a whole new watch can often limit the lifetime of a watch. Still, there’s nothing to stop a humble Seiko SKX, serviced by a hobbyist once every 10 years, lasting for an entire adult lifetime and beyond.

Secondly, price and quality don’t dictate how much meaning someone places in an object. If any watch, expensive or not, is worn regularly then it becomes an enduring part of a person more than any other item of clothing ever will. More than a hairstyle, more than a pair of glasses, more than a car. Other than a person’s own unique character, face and your own personal relationship with them, there’s nothing tangible that represents an individual more than a piece of jewelry that they chose to wear every day.

That all said, a watch is little more than a time-telling tool to a lot of people, even if they’ve worn the same watch for decades. Sons and daughters may not be able to identify, or even picture in their head, the watch that their grandfather wore for 30 years. It’s not an heirloom unless that connection is there – either in remembering how passionate they were about watches and horology, or simply remembering how they used to let you wind it each morning. I don’t have that connection through a watch, or those particular memories. I sometimes lament the sheer number of special watches that must be languishing in a box in the attic. Maybe some have even been taken out and wound on occasion, but quietly put away again without a second thought ready for another generation to take their turn.

These things can’t be forced.

I have a vague notion that two of my own watches will be passed down to my children. They are both special to me because of their connection to my children entering this world. The watches may grow to mean something to my children too if they see me wearing them enough. Or if the tales I tell of panicked hospital rushes or unfinished Christmas Dinners of their births prompt them to ask to see the many photos we took during their first few hours in this world. Scrolling through the photos they may stop and pause at the wrist shots I took with a new born baby wrapped up in background. As much as I hope they will want the watches I’ve picked out for them, I have to prepare myself for a major gut blow.

My own father always wore a watch. His choice was something functional and nothing more, no more money invested than absolutely necessary, and when it broke another one would replace it. A succession of white dials, Arabic numerals, quartz movements and day-date complications from department store brand such as Lorus, Accurist and Sekonda. Not a single one meant more to him than telling the time, and none became an heirloom. What I do have to remember my father is a garage full of tools – practical, and displaying the kind of hands-on approach that defined him.

Then one day my daughter found his old Ingersoll pocket watch. I had never attached too much sentimentality to it. As pocket watches go, it’s a no frills tool that he probably carried as a young man. I had never seen him use it, and I suspect he also had a string of mechanical wristwatches that preceded the quartz ones I remember. None were particularly remarkable in themselves, or special to him. But he did keep this one, even if he never intended to pass it down.

My daughter asks “How old is it?”, “Does it need batteries?”, and “How do the hands move?” and with the watch now ticking away, places it beside her while she plays Mario Kart.

The journey starts here.

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Brad stumbled into the watch world in 2011 and has been falling down the rabbit hole ever since. Based in London, Brad's interests lie in anything that ticks, sweeps or hums and is slightly off the beaten track.