Here’s the extent of my relationship with watches: As a kid, I had a Snoopy Tennis Action watch, the one where his front leg is the hour hand, the racket is the minute hand, and a tennis ball is the seconds hand. I wanted it so badly. Then childhood passed, and it disappeared. That was 40 years ago. I haven’t worn a watch since.
I do have an old dead watch from an old dead San Francisco men’s store, still sitting in a drawer. Some guy I went on maybe 1 ½ dates with in 1999 gave it to me, very unromantically. I was in his apartment, I picked it up and looked at it, and he said, “Take that with you,” even though I didn’t even know I was leaving. I keep meaning to get it fixed because it’s moderately cool (at least to me; at this point, I know nothing about what’s really “cool”), but I’ve had it for so long, I can’t imagine I’ve ever been serious about this.
The point is, until HODINKEE called, I basically never thought about watches. Like everyone else, I find out the time from my phone, though “find out” is an overstatement, since I am pretty much always staring at it. But I have agreed – enthusiastically, optimistically, as I very much love shoes, bags, cashmere, and other things we acquire because, although they do serve a purpose, they are mostly just fun to have – to spend the next year thinking about watches. I will shop for them; I will notice them on normal people and on actors. I will say things to myself like, “Wow, two characters on Call My Agent are wearing Rados, and the camera zoomed in and lingered on each watch for an unapologetic full two seconds.” Then instead of just forgetting about this, I will Google Rado. And voila, we are only three days in, and I have already developed an intense crush on two Rado watches, one sporty one and one sexy one. I spend at least half an hour every day thinking I should just buy one, but I am only at the beginning of my journey. I haven’t spent more than 20 minutes of my adult life thinking about watches. I have never gone watch shopping. I can’t marry the first prince I see at the ball.
Especially since I have never met the King.
What I’m saying is that before I start thinking about watches too seriously, before I make any rash purchases, I need to go look at Rolexes. I mean, why mess around? Why not go look at the only fancy watch in the world most people have heard of?
I think of myself as fairly restrained in my tastes and imagined I would find Rolexes silly, like Khloe Kardashian’s velvet-wrapped Range Rover, or Waterford crystal glasses, or $ 200 Napa Cabernets that just taste like really expensive grape jelly. But I was still intimidated at the idea of trying one on. It seemed like I would have to get rich or famous first. I felt like I needed some kind of ticket, like I would walk into the Rolex dealer and a siren would go off, and my monthly income would start flashing at me like one of those signs on the side of the road that shows you how fast you’re driving.
So I dressed carefully. I wanted to look really rich, but still look like myself. The way that I managed this, or at least managed it in my mind, was to wear jeans, a black velvet blazer, my Trillbilly Worker Party T-shirt, and Fiorentino and Baker boots that I got used for $ 80 and that have a 3 ½ inch heel. I also wore makeup (mascara) and an enormous vintage cocktail ring, and carried a Mulberry bag which I got used for $ 125. I also wore a wedding ring, which, when a Modern Lady goes to the suburbs, I have found to be indispensable.
The nearest Rolex dealer was in a mall jewelry store near Sacramento. I parked my dog-hair-filled 15-year-old Toyota between a Honda Accord and a yellow Hummer with a vanity plate indicating that the driver very much enjoyed winter recreation. I masked up with a medical-grade mask and entered between a Starbucks blasting ambient music and a Mexican cantina blasting Juanes. The February weather was summery, as per usual for the past several years. Moms and kids and grandmothers together and men alone were eating frozen yogurt and french fries with masks around their chins. A four-year-old girl wearing a slouchy knit hat that said CHILL shouted at her mom, “I want to go home!” and her mother said, “We are always home, eat your fries.” The little girl stared at me, clearly thinking to herself, “I hope when I grow up, I get an NWT $ 1,500 Mulberry for $ 125 at the Sliver Lake Crossroads.”
I walked across what seemed like miles and miles of tiled floor until I saw what I was looking for: The green and gold Rolex logo. It was both familiar and mysterious. I have of course seen it a million times, but I never looked at it and couldn’t have told you if it was a crown with very long prongs, or crudely drawn it from memory, as I can now. It seemed like it came from another time and was rather wasted on the mall. I wanted to see it on a city street. But the mall is a city street, I said to myself. It’s not the city street you want, but that’s what it is.
It wasn’t a Rolex store per se but rather a jeweler who sold Rolexes, a fancy jeweler with a heavy glass door and a hushed feeling after the bustle of the mall. Diamond engagement rings comprised probably fifty percent of their business, and the Rolexes were a section on the left-hand side. There wasn’t a door separating the jewelry from the Rolexes, but stepping over to the Rolex case, I had a sense of moving into a world where the focus is less on romantic dreams than individual achievement, or self-actualization.
“I’d like to look at the Rolexes,” I said in what I imagined was a self-actualized tone. The salesman, a fortyish white man who introduced himself as Steve. “I’m thinking about buying a watch (or thinking about thinking about buying a watch, I thought) and I just want to look at them.”
‘I’d like to look at the Rolexes,’ I said in what I imagined was a self-actualized tone.
The words coming out of my mouth sounded ridiculous to me but it seemed that Steve had heard them before. I didn’t exactly think he was going to ask me for my tax returns, but I thought there would be some bullshit sizing-up stuff like, “Big promotion? For you or for your husband? Kid graduating?” But Steve, blue oxford shirt, neat beard, and mustache, just said, “Absolutely,” and started pulling out the product. After all my careful dressing, Steve wouldn’t have cared if I were wearing a bathrobe. Steve was cool. This was his job. It was no big deal.
Steve balanced an Oyster Perpetual Datejust 36 that cost about nine grand on his hand, which was encased in a blue rubber glove. He said some things about it – that Oyster Steel was stronger and more vibrant than other steels, that it could sit on my nightstand for about 70 hours without my having to wind it, that 36 referred to the diameter of the face. He explained to me that he could get a watch like this, with any configuration, at any time, but that there were other watches for which there were waiting lists – though they weren’t actually waiting lists, they were more a list of people who they thought would really “value having a Rolex” and “really take care of it.”
I didn’t quite know how to process this. Was it sincere? Also, I had done no research coming into this experience. I had gone from “James Bond and Joe Biden are people who wear Rolexes, and surely there are others, with different initials” to “I have an actual Rolex on my wrist.” (Only later did I learn that James Bond now wears an Omega. And so does Joe Biden sometimes!) Anyway, at the time, it was hard to process the details, because the experience was very much one of feeling. And the feeling was that having a Rolex on my wrist felt so good. It felt like when I went to see Celine Dion in the fourth row and, having prepared to be ironic about the experience and its considerable expense (which was, I admit, expensed), I wept tears of wonder and joy and gratitude, and swooned with reverence for her surprisingly muscular arms, which in this situation I would say were analogous to the way the light skipped over the Roman numerals and the Rolex logo as I rotated my wrist.
Even not looking at it, just standing there with my arm at my side, I felt a substantial lift in mood.
“Wow,” I exclaimed, “This is amazing.”
Steve smiled with recognition. He had sort of a far away look in his eyes, as if he at once appreciated this reaction, and found it dull. “Yes,” he said. “That tends to be what people say. It’s just very relaxing on the wrist.”
Steve really hit the nail on the head here. The weight of all that cold Oyster steel on the back of my warm wrist did so much. It stabilized me. It made me feel more important, more attractive. It didn’t make me feel younger, but it made me feel more positively disposed towards being old.
The next watch was $ 13,000, a Datejust, with a black face, and diamonds. It is while wearing this watch that I realized that if I am ever going to buy a watch, it might as well have diamonds on it. Again, if you had asked me before this trip if I wanted a Rolex with diamond numerals, I would have said heavens no, but now that I was wearing one, I found myself trying to parse $ 13,000 into some reasonable expenditure, over time – into a value rather than an act of sheer irrationality.
I didn’t want to take the watch off, so I stalled for time asking questions, like, “Do a lot of non-serious buyers come in who just want to feel what it’s like to wear a Rolex?” Is that annoying?”
“I like to talk to anyone about Rolexes,” said Steve. “We are encouraged by the company to do that, to just talk about the brand, to get anyone and everyone excited about Rolexes.”
“That makes sense,” I said. “I mean I guess as a salesperson, you never know when someone might not have two nickels to rub together and then buy a brand-new Rolex.” Like me, for example. If I only ate beans and grew my own kale and drank tea instead of coffee for one year, I could buy this watch, no problem.
Then, in a further attempt to fantasize that buying a watch like this would somehow pay for itself, I asked if people reported to him that after buying a Rolex, they started to make more money.
I saw him hesitate. I saw that the answer was probably, “No.” But then he said, “Well, you know, surely, if you’re dealing with someone wearing a Rolex, you have to imagine you’re probably dealing with a pretty successful individual, who is probably pretty good at what they do, which could inspire confidence.”
Loose cannon, possible borderline personality disorder, hire someone else.
I wanted to believe this, that my Rolex would simply pay for itself if, at this point in history, I could manage to make it look as impressive on Zoom as it looked on my wrist, in person. But as a writer, I feel like pretty much anyone in my field who can judge from where I publish, and how often, that I probably make a middle-class salary, would know that if I bought a Rolex, I hadn’t bought it from money I earned at my job. If they knew what my partner does, they’d also know he didn’t buy it for me from money he made at his job. They would be forced to come to the conclusion, “She has a lot of family money” or “She spent a large portion of her income on a watch.” In the first case, they’d think, “We can underpay her; she doesn’t need the money.” In the second, probably, “Loose cannon, possible borderline personality disorder, hire someone else.”
I was about to leave when I saw, inside its own little case, a ladies’ Datejust, with a 28mm mother-of-pearl face, and diamonds, for a mere $ 32,000. I said dreamily to Steve that I had seen mother-of-pearl before, but not like this, not like frozen heavy cream mixed with fairy dust. Steve explained to me that when most people get mother-of-pearl, they just use the whole slab of it. But not at Rolex. No siree. At Rolex, they only use the very choicest and most magically iridescent part of the mother-of-pearl. “Is it like the filet mignon of mother-of-pearl?” I said.
Steve said that it was. He talked about the rose gold on this, how it was also special, mined specially for Rolex. I believed him. We did not shake hands because of COVID, but we nodded at each other with a sense of purpose, and I like to think he understood I had just had a profound experience, though it wasn’t just about Rolexes per se. It was the knowledge that I did want a watch, could see why people like watches, these precise, vestigial little jeweled planets that you strap to your body, that miraculously allow you to count the seconds that you settled into the fantasy that order and luxury coexist. I did actually understand how good it would feel to have something beautiful wrapped around my wrist all the time, even if mine couldn’t be quite that beautiful.
I don’t know what my watch will be, but I do know that every time I look down at it, I will expect it to make me feel happy, and that it will be, as Steve said, “relaxing on the wrist.” I wonder how much I would have to like it to stop always looking at my phone, and how much this is worth to me. It could be worth quite a lot.
Back at home, I spend some time staring, online, at the sexier Rado. It seems entirely possible if I wore that watch every person I met would say “Nice watch,” and the amount of positive feeling would have no choice but to accumulate into actual real increased happiness. And that Rolex, my pretty new friend. Maybe I would get the chance to wear it for a week, or a month. What would people say to me then? If I stared at a watch all the time, instead of at a phone, who might I become?
Illustrations by Till Lauer.