Time not the only thing watches tell as status symbol lives on


OPINION:Fingleton’s watch is offensive on two counts: cost and symbolism

WHAT IS it with men and their watches? Men such as Michael Fingleton, who got one worth €11,500 from Irish Nationwide when he retired in 2009.

Ridiculously expensive watches are still desired and worn by businessmen around the world, keen to display as subtly, or as brashly as possible, the cost of telling the time on their wrists.

Watches all serve the same function. But luxury goods aren’t about function; they’re much more loaded than that.

For many, a watch is something that lasts a lifetime, a traditional object that is passed between father and son, or bequeathed to a senior employee. Even in an era when Blackberrys and iPhones are replacing timepieces, a watch is still an object of desire for many men.

The watch industry knows it too, which is why men’s magazines seem to have a watch advertisement on every second page, featuring a celebrity mugging with some classy bling on their wrist.

Like a Hermès Birkin or a pair of Manolo Blahniks for women, a watch is a status symbol. And like most status symbols, they need to cost.

Hermes was the Greek patron saint of boundaries, something the French luxury goods house tends to ignore when pricing their produce.

Men have few outlets to accessorise with status, and aside from a car, a watch is a perfect object to signify that status. To a lesser extent, cufflinks, pens and tiepins all mark out the professional from the wannabe – or can be perceived to do so.

For the conservative businessman who refuses to accessorise and isn’t likely to come back from southeast Asian trips draped in beads favoured by backpackers, or to pick up a nice medallion in the Mediterranean, some cloth bracelets in North Africa or a chunky pinky ring Stateside, a statement watch is very much the only acceptable piece of jewellery.

Like a car, it allows some form of expression to peers – that expression generally being “look at all of my money”.

And it’s also a very personal expression. Buying a watch is generally not a shared decision, unless it’s a gift, which has a different status of its own. It’s an individual one made to articulate and express one’s own style, earnings, personality and most importantly, status in society.

Among a younger generation, watches are becoming scarce, worn ironically (like old digital Casios), or increasingly abstract in design. But for budding City boys they remain a desired object and the young buck on Wall Street still probably thinks of heading to the jewellery store when he gets his first big bonus.

A watch is the only piece of male jewellery guaranteed to draw appreciation, not criticism.

Whether it’s a Louis Moinet or a Baume Mercier, or something on the higher end of Tag Heuer’s scale, Breitling, Montblanc, Rolex, Omega or Breguet, the luxury watch industry is almost endless.

Good watches have something that has been depleted in the modern era of luxury goods: impeccable old-fashioned craftsmanship.

They are something to boast about; how many parts they have and how many hours went into making them. They look expensive, are expertly engineered, are masculine, slick, and obvious without being too showy.

It wasn’t just the cost of Fingleton’s gift that was offensive, it’s also the fact that the gift was a watch – because it’s a symbol of the rich old businessman, that the young, less rich businessman can’t yet afford and aspires to, and that most of the population would never even get close to owning.

But amidst the disdain for such jarring affluence, there will be men musing: “I wonder what kind of watch it was?”

Just, you know, out of curiosity.