When I was seven my father gave me a duty-free Timex, my first watch. I loved it, wore for it years, and haven’t had another one since it stopped ticking a decade ago. Why? Because I don’t need one. I have a mobile phone and a laptop and I’m always near someone with an iPod or a Blackberry. All these devices display the time — which is why, if you look around, you’ll see loads of empty wrists: sales of watches to young adults fell 10 per cent in 2005.
But while the sensible have realised that they don’t need them, others — apparently including distinguished Spectator contributors — are spending absolute fortunes on them. The luxury watch sector is booming. Brands such as Patek Philippe, Jaeger-LeCoultre and Breitling command obscene prices, up to £250,000 for a bespoke piece.
This is absurd. Expensive cars go faster than cheap cars. Expensive clothes hang better than cheap clothes. But these days all watches tell the time as well as all other watches. Pricy watches come with extra functions — but who needs them? How often do you dive to 300 metres in a mini-submarine or need to find your bearings in the Antarctic? So why pay the equivalent of five years’ school fees for watches that allow you to do these things?
By rights the Swiss watch industry should have gone bust when the Japanese discovered how to make accurate watches for a fiver. Instead the Swiss reinvented the watch, with the aid of millions of pounds’ worth of advertising, as a message about the man wearing it. Rolexes are for guys who spend their weekends climbing glaciers; a Patek Philippe is an aristocratic heirloom; a Breitling suggests you like to pilot planes across the Masai Mara.
So far has this craze gone that watches are now classified as ‘investments’. Auction houses make a killing as the rich outbid each other: a 1994 Patek Philippe recently sold for nearly £350,000 at Bonham’s, while 1960s Rolex Daytonas have gone from £15,000 to £30,000-plus in a year. But a watch is not an investment. It’s an indulgence, a trinket of fashion. Prices may keep going up — they’ve been rising for 15 years, says Bonham’s head of watches, Paul Maudsley. But when fashion moves on, the owner of that £350,000 beauty will suddenly find his pride and joy is no more a good investment than my childhood Timex.