I started working full-time for Hodinkee in August 2022. Before that I was doing quite a lot of freelance watch writing as Hodinkee’s so-called Newbie, which entailed quite a lot of going to Switzerland, and also quite a lot of staying up late looking at watches on the internet, asking myself if putting a 1952 Rolex Bubbleback or a brand-new Grand Seiko on a credit card was “normal behavior,” not to mention reading the Wikipedia entry on Hans Wilsdorf. Over the course of this year, I would learn many things. I can’t possibly detail all of them, but here are the 10 that stand out.
1. I learned what a tourbillon is.
Confession: As soon as I wrote this down, I thought, yeah, but do you really know what a tourbillon is? Let’s say “I began to have an understanding of what a tourbillon is.”
So, as you, Hodinkee reader, probably already know, a tourbillon is an accuracy-increasing complication in a watch, and it’s a sort of cage or special home (as I like to think of it) for the balance wheel and the escapement that allows them to be more stable.
Does this mean in a watch without a tourbillon that the balance wheel and the escapement are just rolling around inside the watch case? Because that’s what it sounds like! “No,” said my colleague, Tony Traina. “The thing is, ole Abraham-Louis Breguet developed the tourbillon as a way to combat the effect of gravity on his pocket watches, which would hang on a chain all day long, the balance wheel constantly fighting the pull of gravity. Wristwatches, unlike those fancy pocket watches, constantly move around, meaning there isn’t really a need for a tourbillon in a wristwatch. But hey, there’s not a need for mechanical wristwatches full stop, and that’s never stopped us, has it?”
2. I learned that even watch professionals can be perplexed by tourbillons.
Because when I wrote to Tony, his first response was “Oh no, now I have to talk about tourbillons!”
3. I learned and actually understood how a self-winding watch works.
One of the weird things about being a newbie is that you are so overwhelmed with all the things you don’t know that sometimes you find yourself frantically making lists, like: 1. What is a chronograph? 2. ASK SOMEONE/LOOK UP IF TAG HEUER is a PERSON. 3. How do automatic watches even work? FIND OUT TODAY.
And all the while you’re walking around pretending to be a watch professional and everyone is like, “chronographs,” “TAG Heuer” (are those initials?), “rotors,” and so forth. And you smile and act like you’re not dying of terror and shame.
But then, one lucky morning, I was at a women’s watchmaking class at the F.P. Journe Boutique in West Hollywood, and Briana Le, our teacher, was explaining that an automatic watch had a thing in it called a rotor, and the movement of the body and wrist moved the rotor, and powered the watch.
This was fine, but this would not have been the thing that emblazoned on my mind forever what a rotor is and what it does to power an automatic watch. And it was a very simple thing Le did but she turned sideways to us and walked, and pointed out how her arm moved back and forth, and then she directed our attention to the whiteboard onto which a rotor inside a watch movement was highlighted, and said something to the effect of “See, this rotor swings back and forth when I walk!” and I understood the connection between the moving arm and the rotor and the watch. People have certainly told me before that “there’s a rotor in your watch powered by the movement of your body,” but I didn’t really get it until that morning. Who knows why.
4. I learned (see above) that I will absorb Watch Facts and Truths when my mind is ready to take them in – and not a moment sooner.
You’ve already seen an example, re: rotors. Then today, I was apparently ready to truly absorb that TAG Heuer is partly a person (Eduard Heuer, Swiss watchmaker, 1840-1892) and partly an acronym (for Techniques d’Avant Garde). I couldn’t think of anything less avant-garde than a TAG Heuer watch, but I believe we’ve established that I do not know everything, so I decided to ask Tony (might as well) if he could think of anything less avant-garde than a TAG Heuer watch, and he said “Many things.”
5. I learned that the more you know, the more you know how much you don’t know.
Even though I learned a ton this year, as December 2022 rolls into January 2023 I do not feel any closer to mastering or even having some kind of confident sense of “I know watches.” I know more about how they work, I know more about brands, I know more history – but to be honest, if I just sit here and say the word “watches” to myself, what I mostly feel is confusion and a little bit of panic. How will I ever learn the things I don’t know? How will I ever remember the things that I do? Why do I keep forgetting, for example, how to spell Christiaan Huygens?
6. I learned how to say Bulgari. BOOL-gar-ee.
Thank you to Kristen Shirley, my 4+1 interview subject, who said it three times for me without laughing once.
7. I learned that watch companies are owned by bigger luxury companies, and therefore, brands are not so much individual brands as batches of brands.
In a previous draft of this story, I listed a bunch of major watch brands under the major luxury companies that own them. I don’t think anyone needs to read that, look here if you have questions. The important takeaway is that this made me a little cynical. It’s not that I didn’t know watches were a business, it’s more that I recognize that a lot of what makes one watch actually different from another has more to do with surface characteristics and marketing and economies of scale than one might like to imagine. And yet, when you see a really terrific product from one of these conglomerates, all of that knowledge is somehow swept away and you fall under the watch’s spell – you want it, irrationally, no less than you did before you knew how the sausage was made.
8. I learned that you wind a watch in one direction.
I was in Le’s class, and she told us, “Wind your watch until you feel resistance.” I had no idea that you could feel when a watch was done being wound. I thought that you wound a watch by moving the crown back and forth. Until literally three weeks ago.
9. I learned that watch people really care about date windows.
Here’s a question: Why is this publication, now my employer, called Hodinkee when it should obviously be called, “Why Did These Jackasses Put The Date Window There?”
I have read the arguments. Date window at three is classic, but in the way – and also asymmetrical. Six is symmetrical, but weird, and still in the way. What about 4:30? Some say ideal, a wonderful solution. Some get madder than ever. I understand this debate. In fact, I understand so much that I just bought my first serious watch (big reveal coming) and guess what. It has no date window. Sure, it’d be great to know what day it is. But it’s not worth seeing you all fight like this.
Funnily enough, I asked Brynn Wallner of Dimepiece and the podcast Killing Time With Brynn and Malaika what she thought about date window drama and she said, “All I’ve really heard are murmurings that Rolex is flashy for having the Cyclops date and that some people prefer a more minimal date. Other than that, nothing super heated or compelling. I also tend to completely tune out when watch guys start watch guy-ing too hard.” Oh no. Brynn. I think I tend to tune in.
10. I learned how people justify having more than one watch.
So I got myself a nice watch. And almost as soon as I had it, I was ready for not just one more watch, but three. Although I love the nice new watch, everything that is nice about it merely highlights what would also be nice about another watch – and, in fact, demonstrates how I need another watch to fully appreciate this one.
Yes, I love stainless steel, but wouldn’t I love it more if I had an option in gold? Yes, I love a time-only watch, but aren’t I missing out on the experience of being a real watch lover if I don’t experience complications? I love larger watches, and I love smaller ones, and what I don’t have is a medium watch. I want a gold watch in a medium-ish size. Correction, I need one. In fact, no one in their right mind could possibly expect me to go on one more day without one.