This post was inspired by a recent New Yorker article, “Time Out,” by one of my favorite current writers, the Russian émigré Gary Shteyngart. The article concerns Shteyngart’s growing obsession with expensive wristwatches, brought on by the 2016 presidential election and its outcome.
I was also inspired by a print ad for a wannabe elite wristwatch, the Stauer Magnificat II.
But most all, this post is the (perhaps inevitable) result of my long, troubled love affair with my own wristwatch.
As expected, I found Shteyngart’s article funny and touching. (For a sample of his style of humor, click here.) But I was also nonplussed. I understand his angst, but not his reaction to it. That is, I grasp that most people found the 2016 election exhausting and stressful, and millions of these people (roughly half the US population) are suffering even more given the outcome; based on Shteyngart’s background and his politics, it’s a no-brainer that he’d be one of these millions. But his headlong plunge into retail therapy seems like a weird response.
Quick synopsis: after a panic attack on the subway, during which staring at the soothing glide of the second hand on his $1000-dollar watch helped him cope, Shteyngart dropped over $4,000 on a fancier watch, a German-made Nomos Minimatik Champagner. Just before Election Day, he says, “as my feelings of dread spiked, I decided to buy a Rolex.” Then, to bolster himself for the inauguration, Shteyngart bought another expensive watch. “I knew I had to stop,” he declares, “but I had an excuse. I desperately needed a waterproof watch for swimming, my only form of exercise.” WTF!? His $4,000 Nomos isn’t even waterproof?
That’s not all. He goes on to admit that his fancy watches don’t actually keep very good time. The Nomos loses five seconds a day, and the Rolex gains fifteen. This amazes me. Apparently the lack of a quartz crystal, and thus the need for incredibly complicated workings, keeps these elite watches from doing their core job very well.
Okay, that’s not fair. The actual core job of these watches is simply to look great and be elite. And that, for me, is the real irony. The depth of Shteyngart’s existential angst about Trump presupposes that, like most hand-wringing Democrats, he is opposed to Trump’s unapologetic, ostentatious wealth and socioeconomic elitism. So why would Shteyngart cope by laying out thousands of dollars on needlessly expensive and prestigious luxury products? Shouldn’t his taste in watches be closer to Bernie Sanders’ than the Donald’s? (Actually, Trump’s choice in watches is a bit more complicated than you’d think.)
I won’t dwell further on Shteyngart’s retail therapy because a) emotional trauma is a complicated and deeply personal affair, and b) this post is threatening to get political so I’d better nip that in the bud.
Stauer and the paradox of the luxury brand
I certainly don’t mean to imply that I’m above, beyond, or impervious to branding. I don’t actively seek out prestigious brands, but I instinctively recoil at any product that’s trying to pass itself off as something fancier than it really is. Which brings us to the Stauer Magnificat II. I’ve been sneering at Stauer ads for years. They seem targeted directly at people who suffer from acute brand envy and badly wish they could afford luxury and class.
The ad in question, which is very similar to the online version here, announces, “Upper Class Just Got Lower Priced,” and goes on to say, “Finally, luxury built for value—not for false status.”
Okay guys, first of all, “luxury” and “value” are not compatible concepts. They are opposite ends of a see-saw. Second, there is no such thing as “false status.” What would that even mean? Status is a perception of somebody’s standing … errors in judgment are possible, of course, but that’s not the same as falsehood. If “false status” means “trying to impersonate a higher status,” nobody could be guiltier than Stauer. But they’re implying that wearing an actual Rolex is pretending to be high status. How is that pretending? You buy a Rolex, you put it on your wrist, and then—what? You laugh maniacally like a criminal mastermind? You think, “Hahahahaha, when I wear this Rolex, nobody will know that I’m actually lowbrow!”? It’s as weird a concept as the evil giraffe.
The ad goes on to ask, “Do you have enough confidence to pay less?” It chides the wealthy person whom their target market presumably resents, declaring, “Status seekers are willing to overpay just to wear a designer name.” This is absolutely true, but Stauer isn’t really an alternative. If they were marketing their watch as “a really nice timepiece that looks great,” that would be fine, but they’re calling their product “upper class” and “luxury.”
Look, Stauer people: your watch is $87.50. It might be a fine watch (okay, “timepiece”), but nobody will mistake the wearer for a 1-percenter. If anybody even notices the watch and examines it, he’ll either ignore its lack of pedigree or snicker at it. He won’t decide the wearer is horologically sophisticated, particularly confident, or in any way elite.
One thing I learned from Shteyngart’s article is that people who appreciate really expensive watches are not actually that ostentatious about it. Their pleasure comes from their awareness of the delicate workings inside the watch that nobody can even see. Shteyngart calls these workings “perversely opulent” and goes on to say, “Parts of the mechanism are finished by hand but are never meant to be seen by the owner; only the watchmaker and subsequent watch repairers will see the work in full.” In the case of Stauer, a watchmaker didn’t make the watch, and the watch wouldn’t be worth ever repairing. Noone will see anything, if there’s even anything to see.
The painstaking human effort required to produce these watches, Shteyngart contends, is also central to their allure: “The Nomos was not a quartz watch built by robots in a giant Asian factory. A German man or woman with real German problems had constructed this piece, blue screw by blue screw.” This completely flies in the face of the Stauer ad, which boasts, “By using advanced computer design and robotics, we have been able to drastically reduce the price on this precision movement.” Yeah, you and everybody else producing run-of-the-mill, non-luxury, value-oriented cheap consumer goods.
Shall I bag on Stauer some more?
Let’s have a closer look at the Magnificat II itself. (Perhaps you’re wondering: was there an original Magnificat? Not that I can find. Somebody in marketing must have determined that “II” at the end would increase the perceived luxury and class of this timepiece.) I enjoyed the amateur reviews for this. One review is titled “A watch that is ok.” I love this headline. It’s so sad, and so much more profound than “OK watch.” I’m somehow put in mind of Eeyore. A donkey who is depressed.
The reviewer goes on to declare breathlessly, “I was so happy but after a few months I have one problem with the watch, in the morning when I get up to look at the time the time is off and have to reset the time and I have to look at my phone to see what the real time is and I was even late for work when I relied on the time my Stauer Magnificat II Watch had.”
Another reviewer seems happy enough—he gives the Stauer five stars—but, to my mind, inadvertently damns it with faint praise: “I set this watch to my smart cell phone time and today I checked it again. Still accurate to the minute.” Um … isn’t the gold standard “accurate to the second”? Are we supposed to be impressed that this watch lost or gained less than a minute in a day? (The Magnificat II, like the really expensive watches it’s trying to be, is mechanical instead of quartz, which seems like a really poor choice—like buying grocery store sushi or ordering puffer fish at a culinary academy.)
The reviewer goes on to say, “Great valve, great looks and will buy again.” I was trying to figure out what valve a watch could possibly have before realizing the reviewer meant “value.” (Maybe he was trying to be fancy in the Classical Latinate manner, à la E PLVRIBVS VNVM?) Moving on to “will buy again,” this suggests loyalty, sure, but doesn’t it also imply that the reviewer expects this watch to have a short life?
My own beloved wristwatch
Honestly, between a) being a lifelong cheap bastard, b) despising the pathetic yearning that causes people to pretend to be wealthy, and yet c) loving well-designed, well-machined stuff like racing bikes, I don’t know what kind of watch I’d buy if I had to buy one. Fortunately, I haven’t had to grapple with this decision. I never had to shop for my beloved watch—instead, it kind of found me.
(It’s not like I never bought a watch, of course. After the inevitable cheap digital Casios of my youth, I decided as a young adult to buy a fairly cool but also humble Benrus analog wristwatch. I got it for a song because it was a display model and the box & instructions had been lost. I liked this watch just fine until the original burly rubbery band broke and I had to replace it with this crappy two-tone metal thing that looked like it would smell like an old man. Meanwhile, the glass face of the Benrus got pretty scratched up over time, to the point of being a bit cloudy. Still, it never occurred to me to replace this watch.)
Out of nowhere, in 2002, I won a big contest at work, which normally would have resulted in a lavish vacation to an exotic locale where I would get to meet the president of the company. The problem was, the president at this time was in hot water with the SEC, and the company was teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, so nobody was attending lavish corporate junkets. So instead of the normal prize, I got 1,000 “e-motivation” points, which worked kind of like cereal box tops—you saved them up and exchanged them for valuable prizes.
What was I going to get? This was an enormous number of points. I could have had a whole slew of lawn furniture, a mountain bike, or a giant TV, or a bunch of random Hammacher-Schlemmer-ish stuff I didn’t want. I felt I had to choose something fast, though, because any day the company could go under and the whole e-motivation program could be shut down, its points becoming as useless as my company stock options. So I rashly threw 250 points at a 512 MB MP3 player, and the rest at a Swiss-made Tag Heuer wristwatch.
In retrospect, the watch was a stroke of genius: almost 15 years later, this very watch can be purchased used for more than twice what the e-motivation catalog originally valued it at. The MP3 player, meanwhile, is basically useless and inarguably inferior in every respect to a modern one you can buy for about $30. A watch like mine ends up being a good investment: it’s impervious to obsolescence, and is as beautiful today as the day I got it, because the face is made of sapphire (meaning only a diamond could scratch it) and the rest is stainless steel.
Does my watch have a soothing sweep second hand, like Shteyngart’s watch (and the Stauer Magnificat II)? No, its second hand ticks one second at a time, like that of a cheap Timex or a fake Rolex. Is the movement mechanical? No, it’s quartz, which I guess the true watch aficionado would find embarrassing. Do I care? No, because this watch keeps almost perfect time! It loses a second about every two months! (I end up setting it only when I change time zones, or to accommodate Daylight Saving Time.)
It’s kind of hard to imagine why anybody would prefer a mechanical (vs. quartz) movement. If you stop wearing your mechanical watch for a few days, it runs down and has to be re-synched and wound up. Plus, as I mentioned, mechanical movements keep crappy time. Okay, fine, there’s no battery to replace, but check this out: not only does my Tag Heuer’s battery last about five years, but the watch came with lifetime free battery replacement, by a super fancy outfit in San Francisco that actually pressure tests the seals to make sure, after they put the back back on, that the watch is still water resistant to 200 meters (which is far deeper than I would ever swim, by the way).
Okay, I get that you’re starting to be bored and annoyed by how pleased I am with my watch and myself. Don’t worry, as always, there’s…
Trouble in paradise
Not everything about this watch is perfect. For one thing, the bezel stopped clicking at some point and now just spins, which is kind of a bummer. Also, this watch has a bracelet design feature that backfired. The bracelet has two modes: regular and extended, the latter giving you a bit of slack to fit over the thick neoprene sleeve of your wetsuit. As if! People buy diving watches because diving watches are cool, not because anybody actually scuba dives. (Same deal as the basketball shoes I wore in college.) A tiny metal tab on the little extended bracelet doodad broke, so the bracelet would pop open, and this couldn’t be fixed. The price of a new bracelet—$250—surely reflects a built-in luxury tax which I am congenitally incapable of paying. So I decided to epoxy the bracelet extender shut, which is a bit kludgy and makes the watch harder to put on.
Meanwhile, five or six years after I got the watch (which was two or three years after the warranty expired), the date counter stopped working. This is bad enough by itself, but it carries an extra sting because the date also stopped working on my Benrus, decades ago. That watch was still under warranty so I sent it in for repair with a clearly written note explaining the problem; waited for weeks and weeks; and then got it back unrepaired with a work order that read “CHECK ALL HANDS DOES NOT ADVANCE.” The technician must have watched the hour, minute, and second hands for a minute or two, shrugged (or some other equivalent of “Okay, I checked”) and mailed it back without ever considering that the date hand might be frozen. So now, whenever I reflexively check the date on my Tag Heuer before remembering it doesn’t work, the stupid little voice in my head says, “CHECK ALL HANDS DOES NOT ADVANCE.”
The last time I had my watch’s battery replaced I asked how much it would cost to fix the date. This put a real gleam in the jeweler’s eye, and though I don’t remember the precise figure he quoted, it was somewhere in the realm of “your firstborn child.” Bottom line, this is too fancy a watch for the likes of me to properly service. (Sure, one could argue that since I paid nothing for this watch—other than the income tax on it—that I am already ahead of the game and can afford to splurge on a repair. But that’s just not how my cheapskate brain works.)
But wait, there’s more! The big problem is, I suffer from constant dread: what happens if I lose this watch? What then? Normally, the fact of owning something expensive means that at some point you convinced yourself that you deserved it and could afford it. This means you can replace it as necessary. For example, if my $1,000 bicycle wheels were to wear out or be destroyed in a fiery wreck, I’d have no problem going out and buying a new pair. Sure, the outlay would sting, but the decision is a no-brainer. I’m a bike geek, and that’s the cost of doing business.
But with this watch, I never made that decision. I never took that bold step of saying, “Yes, I’m worth it.” It would be difficult to decide this. I mean, what am I, some kind of dandy? Am I the slave to status that Stauer so routinely mocks? Is it fair to my children to make them wipe with regular old toilet paper instead of raw silk, just so I can be all fancy with a decadent Swiss watch?
Given this mindset, which despite my existentialist leanings seems as unalterable as the size of my wrist, the only way to continue having a nice watch is to own this one forever and take good care of it—because there are no do-overs with this thing, no chance of another 1,000 e-motivation points falling in my lap. The watch feels like a miraculous a gift from Fate, like my wife and kids are. I didn’t buy my family; I was blessed with it. This watch represents a one-time chance to live way above my station, so I better hold onto it.
Am I exaggerating this anxiety? No, and here’s an anecdote to show you I’m serious. Last summer I was in Colorado on vacation, and played some full-contact water basketball with my brother and my kids at a swimming pool. Then we went to the diving pool and slid down this giant slide a bunch of times, then went next door to the grown-up pool, swam a few laps there, relaxed in the hot tub, then went back to the kiddie pool. Suddenly I realized—OMG! Where’s my watch?!
In a panic, my brother and I swam all over that pool, combing it for my lost watch. (Yes, my brother was actually in a panic too, because he also wears a Tag Heuer and could fully relate to my situation.) Amazingly, I found my watch (minus a broken pin). My relief was twofold: 1) that I was able to find it, and 2) that I had even noticed in time that it was missing.
Upon reflection, though, I realized that it was inevitable I’d realize my watch wasn’t on my wrist. There is a process that runs continuously in my brain from the moment I put that watch on until the moment I take it off, that checks for the watch against my skin. I’m reminded of this mental process whenever I go through airport security: after taking off my watch and storing it safely in my bag, I go to check the time a minute later, see my bare wrist, and panic briefly before remembering I’d stashed the watch away.
It’s kind of like how a PC has a job that runs around every five seconds or so checking all the USB ports to see if something has been plugged in. How much RAM does that USB-checking process eat up? And what is the equivalent in terms of brain power devoted to checking for my watch? And given how much I always have on my mind already, as a working stiff and husband and parent, doesn’t this kickass watch start to look like an unnecessary burden?
Yep, it sure does. But what can I do? I love my wristwatch, and that word “love” carries with it all the burden we bear in looking after everyone and everything we love. A burden, yes, but not one I wish to give up. In this context, Shteyngart’s watch collecting strikes me as a bit sad … if he loved that first luxury watch, why would he buy a second and a third? If he’s looking for a watch he can really love, the way I love mine, I don’t think he’ll get there. To extend my analogy, he’s kind of like the womanizer who leaves in his wake a series of neglected bastard children.
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