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Time is of the essence

Alex Bilmes says that the stylish own a luxury timepiece or two — but the horologists just can’t stop buying

28 November 2007

4:58 PM

28 November 2007

4:58 PM

Alex Bilmes says that the stylish own a luxury timepiece or two — but the horologists just can’t stop buying

Being time-rich can make you cash-poor. That’s something to remember when shopping for a wristwatch. Fashionable watches can be very expensive indeed. But you can also pick up a beautifully engineered, extremely handsome specimen for well under £2,000.

Every stylish man ought to own a decent timepiece or two, and a really good one will last a lifetime. I have friends and colleagues (not many, but more than one) who maintain what they refer to as a portfolio of watches. These men have ticking wrist adornments for every occasion, from slim dress watches for state banquets to chunky chronographs for deep-sea diving. Not that any of them are ever likely to be invited to the former, or pluck up the courage to attempt the latter. Still, they collect watches in much the same way as elegant women accrue handbags.

They call themselves horologists (try saying that after the little hand’s passed 7, or VII if it’s a very old watch). They converse fluently in watch — perhaps the closest to a language that the Swiss can all share — dropping words like ‘bezel’ and ‘movement’ and ‘vertical clutches’ and ‘column wheels’ and ‘calibres’ and ‘complications’ with gay — or, at least, metrosexual — abandon.

They track trends in watch design; they buy vintage watches at auction; they arrange their shirt cuffs just so, the better to show off their latest acquisition.

It’s not just men, either. Over lunch recently, I admired the pop star Lily Allen’s (right) Rolex Oyster Perpetual Submariner. It’s one of five watches she owns, she told me. She recently bought a watch box in Smythson — won’t Mrs Cameron be pleased? — to house her growing collection. Her next acquisition will be another Rolex, this time with a green rotating bezel, rather than blue.

Those of us who aren’t international chart sensations probably don’t need more than a couple of watches — one for formal, one everyday. And even those who declare such fripperies ludicrously profligate would no doubt be delighted to receive a strapping Tag Heuer Grand Carrera Calibre RS; a sleek Cartier Ballon Bleu, a muscular Baume & Mercier Riviera, an understated Breitling Super Ocean or, like our Lily, a classic Rolex Oyster Perpetual Submariner.

After all, there are surprisingly few ways in which us Brits — or at least Brits who don’t wish to ape the garish dandyism of a David Beckham — can signify our élan away from our lovely homes. Not for us the Maori-inspired tattoos, the diamond-studded earrings, the diamonté-appliquéd jeans and product-heavy hairdos of the international showbiz jet-set. Bling is, thankfully, a degraded term these days, mostly associated with suburban rapper manqués and the dreaded WAGs. But there’s nothing wrong with celebrating one’s success, and a watch will do it equally as well (and with rather less fuss and expense) than a Rolls-Royce Phantom or a weekend bolthole in the Shires.

The first thing to consider when you’re buying one is whether you want a dress watch (thin, subtle, commonly with a leather strap) or a sports watch (thick, showier, often with a metal link strap). This is often more a matter of taste than practicality, and thickness of wrist will dictate almost as often as thickness of wallet. Some of these watches are very big.

There are a bewildering number of respectable brands, too many to mention here, and the following list might appear exhaustive — not to mention exhausting — but it hardly scratches the surface. Still, you certainly won’t go wrong with any of those mentioned above, or with Zenith, Ebel, Oris, Hublot, Vacheron Constantin, Piaget, Frank Muller, Longines, Graham, Girard-Perregaux, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Patek Philippe, Corum, Audemars Piguet, Parmigiani, Chaumet, Rado, Locman, Bedat and Maurice Lacroix.

You’ll find the best selection in one of the major department stores — Harrods is good, as is Selfridges — and at Watches of Switzerland branches in London, Birmingham, Cardiff, Manchester and Glasgow. So far we haven’t even mentioned the major luxury goods brands and the household-name jewellers, many of which — Gucci, Chanel, Louis Vuitton, Bulgari, Tiffany, and so on — sell excellent watches.

Don’t discount the Japanese, either: Seiko’s new Spring Drive Chronograph isn’t especially cheap, at £4,200, and it may not offer quite the same bragging potential but it’s very handsome and claims to be the world’s most accurate chronograph.

My personal recommendation is Panerai, a venerable Italian brand. Since 2001, I’ve been the proud owner of a heavy, stainless steel Luminor Marina and it’s always seen me right. My favourite of their new range is the Panerai Black Seal (£4,150). Other recent faves: the Omega Planet Ocean at £2,925 and the fabulous IWC Ingenieur Jumbo, for £7,000.

Christmas will soon be upon us. Tempus fugit, as they used to say back when we only had sundials to go by.

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