Why this is the golden age of mechanical watch collecting Why this is the golden age of mechanical watch collecting

Why this is the golden age of mechanical watch collecting

Dan Kaufman

If you’re old enough to remember the song Video Killed the Radio Star, you’re also old enough to remember a time when most people wore quartz watches. This was a time of breakdancing, big hair, even bigger shoulder pads, and every song on the radio having at least one saxophone solo. The 80s might have been a decade of greed, but at least it was greed with a groovy soundtrack.

But I digress. This column is meant to be about watches.

Back then, if you wanted to know the exact time, you couldn’t just look it up online. Instead, you either had to check with other friends and average the varying times out, find a giant clock somewhere in town, or call a special number where the time would be read out in a broadcaster’s voice. This was, admittedly, a pretty nifty method, but trying to set your watch with both hands while also holding a large Bakelite phone headset was not for the fainthearted. Then again, if your watch ran a minute slow every week, before long you’d be missing your train.

Even James Bond was seduced by quartz

So it’s easy to see why people were eager to throw their mainsprings away in glee at the chance to have quartz watches. A love of fine horology is all well and good until you turn up to work late.

(Incidentally, wearing a watch back then also meant that, without fail, you would always have a stranger approach at least once a week to ask you the time. Why and how these people managed to exist without a watch themselves was a mystery: regardless, having a watch meant you could always count on strangers popping up in front of you, usually at the most awkward moments, to ask you to consult your wrist piece.)

These days people like to say the Internet has made watches redundant, but it hasn’t – it’s just made quartz watches redundant. Now that we can get the exact time whenever we want by checking our phones, it doesn’t matter if our watches run a little fast: we can easily reset them to the correct time.

mechanical watch collecting
The Grand Seiko SBGP005 offers accuracy of +/- 10 seconds a year

Accuracy used to be the be-all and end-all of watches. Now, it’s just another metric that doesn’t mean as much as we’d like it to, along with water and magnetic resistances that only professional divers and electronic engineers would need. Instead, we can now focus on the mechanical joys of watchmaking, from exhibition case backs to tourbillions on the dial, without worrying about missing our train.

In other words, this is the golden age of mechanical watch collecting.

If you’re reading this article, the odds are you either have more watches than you need or you want to have more watches than you need. I’m not judging: on the contrary, I’d be buying watches every week if I had the budget and wasn’t fearful of my wife’s wrath.

mechanical watch collecting
Scouring markets and second-hand shops was how you used to track down a vintage watch

But this just isn’t a hobby that could easily have existed before the internet – especially when it comes to collecting vintage pieces. Sure, people have always collected watches (even without Instagram to flaunt them) – and they were certainly cheaper than they are now (let’s not even get started on Rolex) – but back then you were much better off buying the most accurate watch you could afford rather than collecting a range of watches that, despite their lovely patina, would get you fired given enough missed trains.

mechanical watch collecting

I can’t help but wonder if this is why sports watches in the fifties could also double as dress watches. Look at an Omega Seamaster from the 1950s and it would undeniably be called a dress watch today. Back then you had one watch, you set the time, and you didn’t screw around with it.

So the next time some smug bastard tells you your watch collection is obsolete thanks to mobile phones, resist the urge to smack them and instead become smug yourself, safe in the knowledge that you probably wouldn’t even have a collection if not for the internet’s ability to set your watch to the exact time before then shamelessly flaunting it on Instagram.