I was 35,000ft over the Atlantic when I first freaked someone out about his watch.
It was in the line for the airplane toilet. A guy was ahead of me, wrestling a full-bladdered toddler.
This, I reasoned, is exactly the moment he’ll want a stranger to ask about his Panerai. He’ll tell me the story behind it, enquire about my watches. We’ll probably swap Instagram details.
“Nice Panerai,” I said. Like me, he was Irish. You don’t see many Panerais in Ireland.
“Huh?” he asked, his attention flipping from annoyance at his toddler to wariness at me.
“You’re wearing a Panerai,” I said, as if he might somehow not have noticed that.
He eyed me, wariness turning to deep suspicion, and without another word lifted the squirming toddler and darted into the now free toilet. He snapped the door shut, a shield between us.
Ah, he wasn’t a “watch guy”. He was just “a guy with a watch”.
I wanted to shout through the door at him, “I won’t steal your Panerai. I don’t even like Panerai. I just want to talk to a stranger about watches. Is that so wrong?”
I know there are others like me, who live in a bit of a watch desert and find themselves constantly scanning wrists in the hope of spotting something, anything interesting.
Asking a stranger about their watch is risky. You’ve been staring at their wrist after all, coveting the most expensive item they’re likely carrying. And while you might think of yourself as a curious watch lover, interested only in wrist-rolls and long conversations about lug widths, to someone else you’re a weirdo or security risk or, most likely, both.
I’ve learned there are clues to whether your approach will be welcomed or spurned or – as happens more often than not – will lead swiftly to a conversational dead end.
For instance, vintage always has a story. If you see someone wearing a watch that pre-dates their adult life, you know they’re either a collector or the watch was a parent’s. Either way they’ll enjoy telling you about it.
Rolex wearers can be tricky. For obvious reasons, you wouldn’t want to walk up to someone on a London street and yell “Batgirl!” at them.
Pick your moments, and temper your expectations. In my experience, a man with a 10-20 year old Submariner on his wrist is likely a one watch guy who bought it because, well, it’s a Rolex Submariner and he won’t ever need another watch. The chat will be about his watch, not watches.
A vintage Sub is whole other matter. You should always dive in. A Tudor Sub? Now we’re talking.
And I once interrupted the magician at our daughter’s birthday party to ask him about his vintage Datejust and it turned out he had quite the Rolex collection. He showed me pictures galore. The birthday was spoiled, but we had a great chat.
I’ve found that if someone is wearing a German watch (outside of Germany) then you should absolutely go for it. I’ve spotted Nomos, Junghans and Sinn on wrists and even if they are one watch guys, the owner chose that piece having thought about design and engineering independently of the usual watch hype. And they have always been damn cool.
And finally, a guy with a modded Vostok will always want to talk to about it with passion and detail that will make him sound like the Roger Smith of Amphibias. It will be the best conversation you have all day.
You might have your own stories, your own observations, your own moments of cringe, but you’ll know that when you connect with someone who wants a stranger to see what’s on their wrist, it’s worth the risk… and the occasional aviation security incident along the way.