Wanna Buy a Watch? A How-to Guide for Christmas

Every good producer or hot new TV star needs a watch — just does he need a $50,000 Rolex?


From Hollywood hipsters to New York subterraneans, the watch has become “the thing.” Or, at least so the major newspapers would have you believe.

Ever notice that on pages 2-3 of the New York Times everyday three or four ads are for pricey watches like Bruget, Hublot, Patek-Phillippe? Heck, in L.A. even the haughty Los Angeles Times is running watch ads on its front page (previously a “no-no”).

Where’s it going to stop? Men’s Journal recently featured a half-million dollar watch on its cover, while the New York Times reviewed a $950,000 one. It’s arm wars!

Now, every good producer or hot new TV star needs a watch — just does he need a $50,000 Rolex? The problem isn’t that watches cost too much; it’s that you pay too much because you don’t know what you’re buying. And, with Christmas coming up in these straightened times, it bears re-thinking.

Until recently, the Rolex was the standard — though I never understood why wearing a hunk of steel on your arm made you a better man. Me? I managed to produce some 20 movies with a slightly more subtle $5,000 Cartier Tank watch my father gave me for graduation. (I don’t think he thought I’d make it!)

I recently lost it, and it was only then that I started to pay attention to what had happened to watches. 

First, before we commit hari-kari over our inability to afford a watch good to millionths of a second or 300 feet below water (where even submarines implode!), it’s appropriate to review the state of the watch.

A couple of years ago, I was gifted with a Frank Muller watch by my wife to replace the late, lamented Tank. While I’d never heard of Frank (do his friends call him Muller?), I was entranced.

I’m basically an old-school guy. But the Muller was superb and with my blond hair turning gray (you try financing indie films!), I fell in love with the stainless-steel exterior, visible movement and black face with vaguely luminescent, blue hands.

I also learned that, like many loves, it was a bitch to keep up — unlike even the eternally classy Tank, you actually had to wind the Muller. Every day. Interesting. I had other questions: Who was Muller? 

On a recent trip to the Virgin Islands (“Little Switzerland” — home to more duty-free jewelers than any 12-square miles on earth), I decided to find out. Turns out Muller is a young jeweler (well, younger than me) who apprenticed in Geneva.

To show his independence, in 1992 he left the Mecca of watches, and set up shop in Gethorn, a couple miles out of town. (All right, it’s not exactly Mao’s 1,000-mile Long March, but even a rebellion as small as this begins with a single kilometer or two!)

The point is Muller was trying to set his watches apart from even the laudatory Geneva standard. In addition to makeing only manual, “windup” watches, they would all be “complication” watches.

Don’t let that fool you, because here is where this morphs into the best and only story on buying a watch you’ll ever need — entertain friends at cocktail parties after you’ve read it, but I guarantee you’ll never look at Rolex again … unless a Rolex is what you need (e.g., you’re a racecar driver or diver certified below 100 feet.) 

For the rest of us, I learned wind-up watches are so “in,” they’re actually tommorrow — in Chicago and Dallas, they’re still buying batteries.

And that’s your biggest choice: Power sources. 

Wind-up, batteries, solar, automatic … these are simply ways of powering the famous “movement” of the watch and, today, any watch keeps superb time, even if it doesn’t synchronize to the U.S. atomic clock within 1 second in 1 million years.

I have nothing against the battery-powered watches, which have been the standard for a half century. Even my Tank, which seemed “retro” in comparison to the digital watches the “Saturday Night Fever” crowd favored at the time, was electric.

But I — nor should you — have no intention of being forced into the future of “solar-powered” watches that jewelers are pushing on the Hollywood crowd. I have a suspicion that solar watches will end up on Ed Begley’s junk heap! 

I do like another innovation — what watchmakers are now calling “kinetic/autquartz” watches.

They have that superb quartz movement that my old Tank did, but generate the power via a tiny, spinning rotor that captures the energy of your moving arm to crank a mini-generator on your wrist.

That’s the kinetic part that appeals to the same a kid in me that took car engines apart and forgot how to put them back together.

Worse, “kinetic” means they can still run down if you’re too stoned to move (or dead!), which is the same problem with “automatic” (self-winding) watches which store your energy in a spring, instead of a battery.

If we’re going to go back to spring-wound watches we might as well do hat Muller did and just wind the damn things!

Now, I’m not even going to get into chronographs vs. chronometers — no newly minted producer or first-time screenwriter should ever be seen with those pushbutton monstrosities.

Similarly, no one needs to knows the difference between a telemeter (which storm chasers use to determine how far away a tornado is) and a tachymeter … other than to know that anyone who calls it a “tachometer” is confusing the dial in his car with the feature on his watch that measures the speed he has traveled over a measured distance. 

On the other hand, even Frank Muller knows that life has its complications.

In watch-making terms, “complications” are different than discovering that that your stunning new girlfriend hasn’t quite ended her relationship with the reality TV star, but rather that the watch does more than tell time — in simplest terms, the old day/date, say.

What you want to avoid — and take this on faith — is what’s called a “grande complication”: That’s the temptation of (largely) Asian manufacturers to pile every tiny microchip feature into a watch that they can think of … including (no kidding) a calendar programmed for up to 514 years!

Even a hand-made Swiss watch isn’t going to last that long.

I also won’t bother you talking about “crystals” and “bezels” because you either know what they are or think you do (though you should know that the only acceptable way to hold your watch on your wrist is with a leather “strap” — a “band” is one of those twisty thingies our fathers’ wore in the ‘50s!) 

A watch salesman may throw a couple of other words at you, though — in prudence, I warn you a number of them are French. Caveat emptor.

Caliber — You probably didn’t know that watchmakers define the fineness of their “movements” in calibers (an English word) which is determined by the number of lignes it encompasses. (A lignes is 1/12th of a “French inch” … oh, don’t even bother!)

Jewels — not the kind to impress your starlet girlfriend. Almost all watches encompass 17-23, but they’re artificial diamonds used to hold the oil that allows the mechanism to run smoothly. Any more than 23 and, like a “grande complication” watch, you’re paying for a lot of stuff you’ll never use.

Authorized agent– if you’re going to invest in a watch, buy from an authorized agent. That way, if anything goes wrong you’re covered. (This doesn’t apply to Rolexes off the street, of course.) For a list of agents, call 411 for the American Watch Guild.

There’s nothing wrong with a good quartz watch. But if, like me you’ve fallen for the new babe in town, the mechanical watch, know this: Like any sophisticated piece of machinery it should have regular checkups … every two-three years.  Also, if you chose one of those “automatic” (self-winding) watches, they’ll only run for 24-48 hours off your wrist — if you leave it home for an extended period buy a “winding box” that will  wind it every 24 hours so to not damage the mechanism.

And if, for some reason, any watch– mechanical, quartz or self-winding — runs down, always set the new time by twisting the hands clockwise … no one likes to be pushed back.

Finally, if, a complication watch has stopped you have to reset only during daylight! Day/date features are designed to kick over between 9 p.m. and 3 a.m. your time.

If you reset it between those hours — IT WILL NEVER BE RIGHT AGAIN!  Let’s go back to that comparison between my new Frank Muller and a beautiful woman — we’ve all had booty calls, but Seal got Heidi Klum by taking her to lunch! 

Treat your watch with respect and you’ll never have a problem. And if you happen to be passing through Switzerland, tell me how far Gethorn is from Geneva. For some reason, I think the apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree.