My Life as a Watch Man

Photos of me from 30 years ago show a young man dressed about as I am now — blue jeans, button-down cotton shirt with the sleeves rolled up. The glasses changed from the aviator style to something more classical (less 1980s, that is) and I augmented the thinning hair with beards and goatees until I finally settled on my current look a decade ago. So while I’ve never been a fashionista,  a close observer would notice some attention to detail, within the rigid limits of straight male style.

Here’s an example.

Coming home on the train yesterday, I noticed a man with a tie that caught my attention. Its swirls and blue-green tones looked exactly like something I would ear. He had a grizzled look, prep-school baseball cap turned backwards, probably a coach or aging jock, approximately my age. We stood by the door, both leaving at the same station. I decided to break through the thick silence among suburban male commuters and remarked, “I really like that tie,” I told him, as a third man, whom I recognized from the regular slog to New York, looked on.

“Yeah, it’s a Jerry Garcia tie,” he said.

That explained the magnetic attraction — I have two Jerry Garcia ties, beloved gifts from my marriage, and they are essential to my personal style on those rare occasions when I wear a tie to the office.

“I’ve got two of them myself,” I said. “I love the design.” After at least 15 years of steady use, they still look great.

The man standing with us chimed in with a comment about the Grateful Dead. Suddenly, we three strangers had a bond to tie us together. The first man, Grizzled Jock, had met Garcia several times while a college student.

“He keeps making money even after he died,” he mused.

The doors opened and we went our separate ways. The talk inspired a New Year’s resolution — wear more ties. I have a lifetime collection, enough to keep me in fashion in the most formal of work environments. My closet includes two orange-and-black ties, purchased at the Princeton University Store, required wear for any alumni events I attend (as well as the occasional corporate event at the Harvard Club in New York). I’ve got plenty of plain blue, yellow and pink shirts perfectly ready to be worn with my black and dark-blue khakis and brightened with ties from J. Garcia and other purveyors of men’s style, often with an Art Deco motif.

Besides ties, the urge for ornamentation exists primarily on my right wrist. I’ve always enjoyed watches. As a teen I gravitated to the trendiest 70s look with leather bands sporting multiple buckles. When I graduated from college, my father gave me an inscribed TAG Heuer watch with both digital and analog displays. It constantly broke down and multiple repairs couldn’t keep it running. I soldiered along with forgettable watches until I experienced a time-keeping epiphany at a flea market on New York’s Upper West Side in the late 1980s. A watch dealer displayed an incredible Art Deco watch with a rectangular face and a sleek gold-toned band. I had to have it and I bought it immediately. For decades it was THE classiest watch I had, the perfect detail for swanky nights on the town and serious job interviews. This was nicknamed the Deco watch.

My stable of watches grew over the years. Each purchase remains a sharply etched memory. As a student of Russian history, I jumped at the opportunity to buy Russian watches newly available in the West after Mikhail Gorbachev became the last General Secretary of the USSR. in September 1989, while on my honeymoon in Italy, I bought a Raketa watch with an intriguing design; it included an adjustable monthly calendar, beginning in 1981 and concluding in the inconceivably distant year of 1999. Its blue face and cyrillic lettering gave it an exotic air. This is the Honeymoon watch.

In the 1990s, I inherited a Greenwood watch — thick square crystal, chunky metal-link band, from my friend Rena Frank,. whom I had known since 1980 through Project Dorot, which connects the Jewish elderly with visiting volunteers. Before she died in 1994, Rena, a Berlin native who escaped to London in 1938 and then on to New York in 1952, gave me the watch, which belonged to her brother. The watch had deep meaning as it came from this treasured friendship, and its connection to a vanished European world.  I call it the Rena watch.

Over a decade later, at a display stand at the long-vanished International Pavilion at the corner of 42nd Street and 5th Avenue, I celebrated the start of a new job by buying two more Russian watches. One had a dark-green face and the name “Kommandirsky,” in script cyrillic letters. The other, truly awesome, piece was the Poljot brand (Russian for “Flight”) watch. This had stopwatch functions and remains the thickest watch I’d ever seen, so massive and unyielding I nicknamed it the Soviet Bloc watch.

For years, these watches satisfied my fashion needs. They ranged from the understated and elegant Gruen and Greenwood to the show-stopping novelty of the three Russian watches. They became the signature of my personal style, to the extent a man can break out of the the dictates of officewear. I’m content to follow the khaki and button-down look. Indeed, I joke that I could pull clothes out of my closet blindfolded and they would inevitably go together. And if I happened to pull down a plain blue shirt, then any tie would also look good.

Watches galore — Honeymoon, Soviet Bloc and Kommandirsky on top, Deco and Rena on the bottom.

My fashion-mongering has one major downside: Faulty technology. Russian watches are cantankerous beasts. They look great but they are highly unreliable. You’d think a watch wouldn’t need a repair schedule like a car, but that’s been the case for years. I struggled to find a watch repair store that could handle these Russian critters at a decent price. I finally found one tucked away in a corner of a jewelry store on Brighton Beach Avenue in the far, ocean-fronted shores of Brooklyn. The anonymous repair ace — I never knew his name — would take my Russian and other watches for a tune-up when they stopped working. His rates were reasonable but I paid in time — the train-and-subway journey from Connecticut to Brighton Beach took two hours each way. Then, a few weeks later, I had to repeat the voyage to pick up the goods. Once I reached Brighton, I would stroll the Boardwalk, pick up a bottle of Slivovitz, the notoriously powerful kosher plum brandy, and buy some Russian CDs at one of the bookstores bringing culture to the Russian-dominated neighborhood. I’d also get some knishes to fortify myself for the long subway trip through the heart of Brooklyn on my way back to Grand Central.

I liked my unnamed Russian watch mechanic. I really did. Unfortunately, the watches kept breaking and the investment in time for my time pieces made less and less sense. How much would I suffer for fashion? I finally found another Russian in New York’s Diamond District, on West 47th Street very near my office. Once again I took my baggies bearing watches to another gruff European and invested about $250 in getting them up and running. And again, they worked until some stopped. The brick-like Soviet Bloc watch sort of works, but runs 15 minutes slow over the course of three hours — not my idea of accurate time-keeping.

I was just about ready to give up on these meaningful but tempestuous watches when my younger brother, a true watch aficionado with an excellent eye and great taste — gave me a 1950s watch that had sat in the vault of a Dallas jeweler for a half-century. It had the understated look I liked, from what I call the “Don Draper” era of men’s accessories. That it came from my brother made it all the more special and it instantly took pride of place on my wrist as the Russians and the Art Decos were carefully tucked into a corner of my dresser.

And there they stayed while the super-accurate, self-winding Don Draper watch rode my wrist daily and completed every clothing ensemble. I finally had an elegant, fully functional adult timepiece. End of story.

The end, that is, until the crystal fell off.

The first time the crystal fell off, I was at the Ridgefield Playhouse in Connecticut with my girlfriend waiting for a concert to start. We sat on a window ledge along a wall at the sold-out event. I felt something hit my leg and roll on the floor. I leaned down to pick up the clear glass circle. I had no idea what it was, until I brushed the front of my watch and, to my horror, felt the delicate hands exposed to the world. I jammed the front crystal on and felt it snap into place. Spooked, I kept the watch in my pocket and didn’t wear it again. Instead. I took it to a reputable jewelry store in Connecticut, explained the problem and had it sent out for repair.

When the watch came back, it had a new crystal. It turns out the other wasn’t the right size for the watch. So that was $70 well spent. The watch kept time perfectly, a new band looked sharp, I had my Don Draper swagger back. Me and my watch, taking on the Big Apple.

We took on the Big Apple a few months until the crystal fell off again, while I was on a walk in Katonah, NY after the November blizzard. By the time I realized the crystal was missing, I had already finished the walk and I couldn’t find the crystal amid the snow and fallen leaves. I futilely looked for days, walking the same route with my eyes sweeping the sidewalks and gutters, but knowing in my heart that the crystal was gone forever.

I took the watch back to the Connecticut jewelry store, which still had the record of the spring repair. Something went haywire with either the watch or the repair. I’m waiting for the latest report. After going for weeks without a watch at all, I lined up my five surviving watches (plus a Tommy Bahama watch from my brother that’s completely stopped and must need a new battery). With little enthusiasm, I wound up all five of them to see which ones actually worked.

The Rena watch worked, the Kommandirsky watch worked, more or less, depending on its cranky winding mechanism. The Art Deco watch was hopeless and the Soviet Bloc watch functioned with all the aplomb of the Soviet economy. The Honeymoon watch is enjoying a period of high functionality, for a change, and keeps good time, except a pin fell out of the watchband and I need to get that replaced so I can actually wear it. Maybe I’ll get a battery for the Tommy Bahama and get that back in the stable. Or I’ll go in a totally new direction. II was at Wal-Mart this week and liked the Mike Rowe line of rugged, manly timepieces looked like a good bet — you know, Mike Rowe, Mr. Dirty Jobs, he’s got high credibility with me.

So that’s the current status of enslavement to my idiosyncratic form of male fashion. I’ve traveled a hard road on the path to stylish watchdom, and have probably invested far more than necessary in my beloved by cranky collection. A Mike Rowe $35 special would no doubt keep perfect time. But Deco, Rena, Honeymoon, Soviet Bloc and Don Draper only come along once in life, and I’m keeping all of them.

Meanwhile, I’ll start my January by wearing a Jerry Garcia tie to the office. They never need repairs.