Why Are Watches Still a Thing?

When you travel a lot, you get bombarded for ads for watches – big chunky expensive awkward things you can wear around your wrist to snag on machinery. Some of them look like something James Bond would wear.

Because I’m a horrible person, I used to ask people who wore the fancy ones with the time-shift computer bezels “how does that work?”

I didn’t look at this tactical watch, but it’s not the last watch I will ever buy. The last watch I will ever buy was the one I bought in 1995 – a fake Rolex I got in South Korea for $15, which I gave to my then-boss so I could watch his face as he tried to decide whether or not to tell me it was a fake or to appear grateful for the inappropriate gift.

I assume a ‘tactical’ watch has a huge scope on it, a laser designator, and perhaps an extensible cheese-wire for beheading ISIS agents. It’s carbon fiber except for the parts that are damascus steel or carbon crystal.

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Thinking “damascus steel watch” made me have to go do a google image search. Wow, there are some amazing high layer-count mini-billets out there. Does damascus equal “tactical”?


  1. Bruce says

    To me, watches are still a thing because it can be handy to see the time one-handedly and discretely.
    To some of those who buy fancy watches, they are a thing because they are acceptable male jewelry. It’s like, why are suits and ties still a thing?
    And of course, Dick Tracy tactical watches are many men’s last chance to play at action hero. Many of those men might even ask why handmade blades are still a thing.
    In other words, I don’t know why certain items are still a thing, but I know they are. Enjoy what pleases the self. Thanks.

  2. says

    Many of those men might even ask why handmade blades are still a thing.

    Toxic masculinity means never having to raise such questions!

  3. felicis says

    Well – some people (mainly men) like watches, and there’s a bit of a collectors thing going on… others (also mainly men) think of the military, pilots, and divers and want watches to imply they are as tactical… erm… manly as those groups they look up to.

    I did wear a watch in the army, and would continue to do so, as having a timepiece on your wrist was actually useful. Now, of course, like most people I use my phone or computer for time.

    Still have my last watch – a small electric dial watch with tritium lit hands that is about the size of a quarter – maybe a little thicker. I would wear it on the inside of my left wrist (think of how your hands are positioned when shooting a rifle – you only need to move your eyes to see the time).

    Still – if I had the money to blow, I might get one of these as a work of art:


  4. says

    I still use a waterproof watch to time myself swimming laps. I might have to consider a smart watch to display my blood sugar readings from my continuous glucose monitor while exercising.

  5. Pierce R. Butler says

    … something James Bond would wear.

    Bond’s watch could never keep up with Derek Flint’s. (Sorry I couldn’t find a more watch-focused link, but guess what happens when you search for a movie using the keyword “watch”…)

  6. says

    Why Are Watches Still a Thing?

    I was about to answer, “For the same reasons why people still wear jewelry,” only to notice that this could have been meant as a rhetorical question. I’m not sure, though. This is how my brain’s “figurative language detector” works: 1) hear/read some words; 2) take them literally; 3) start thinking for an answer, 4) notice that the initial words seem a bit weird for being meant literally, 5) start wondering whether these words make more sense figuratively. #5 is actually pretty tricky—usually I end up remaining unsure about whether something was meant literally or not. Of course, often I totally fail to notice that some words seem weird when taken literally, this is why I sometimes completely miss figurative language.

    When you travel a lot, you get bombarded for ads for watches – big chunky expensive awkward things you can wear around your wrist to snag on machinery.

    Well, modern marketing is good at selling people stuff with dubious utility. If something is at least pretty, I won’t call it useless. Unfortunately, lots of stuff on shop shelves is not only impractical and unnecessary, but also ugly; in other words—useless.

    Because I’m a horrible person, I used to ask people who wore the fancy ones with the time-shift computer bezels “how does that work?”

    I don’t think this is a horrible thing to ask. Even if you can already predict the answer. By the way, that’s modern technology for you. It always has some superfluous functions that the user doesn’t even understand how to use. I don’t own any wristwatches. In fact, I don’t own any watches at all. I own lots of other stuff with the same problem though. For example, my compass, my flashlight, my clothes iron, even my vibrator each have some functions that I don’t need and occasionally don’t even know how to use. If somebody asked “how does that work?” I would simply explain that I just bought whatever was available in the store. The device with the largest amount of useless functions must be the smartphone, though. I use less than 10% of all the functions mine has. Same goes for software too. For example, the user might need just a simple text editor, yet it comes with all sorts of other functions nobody knows how to use.

  7. komarov says

    To be fair, watches are great if you’re always worried about being late, wonder how long you’ve been sitting here because someone else clearly didn’t worry – may they turn eternally on the spit of hell – and hate smartphones, having to remember to charge them, or both.

    Disclaimer: This comment is not remotely autobiographical. I very much enjoy the idle time afforded to me by people who frequently ignore the time. Especially if they’re working in the railway sector.

  8. aziraphale says

    With a watch I can easily check the time while driving. With a smartphone it would be difficult and probably illegal.

  9. says

    To be fair, watches are great if you’re always worried about being late, wonder how long you’ve been sitting here because someone else clearly didn’t worry

    You can discreetly (per aziraphale@#10) sneak a look at a watch, or pointedly check the time if you’re stuck in a meeting. But if you pull out a smartphone, everyone assumes you’re being rude and checking your text messages. So those are points in favor of a watch.

  10. Reginald Selkirk says

    I haven’t worn a watch for about 15 years now – since cell phones became a thing. But tactical schmactical; if I wanted to wear a watch for looks I think I would go with a meteorite watch

  11. jrkrideau says

    I believe that if you are a government official in China and it is a wildly expensive watch, it is a relatively discrete way of saying you will accept gratuities. So much more tasteful than an ostrich jacket.

    For a while, a few years ago and perhaps still there were people watching for pictures of government officials on the internet reporting Rolexs, etc., and naming names.

    It may well be the same in Russia. I am not sure what it says about Patriarch Kirill I of the Russian Orthodox Church.

  12. seachange says

    At the time I was old enough to buy my own watch a watch I wanted, everything already had blinky digital time on it everywhere. So my watch is most definitely jewelry, and in keeping with my Lutheran heritage as fancy a piece of bling it is (and it is very fancy, think of those wooden watches but in the metal gold) it’s a pocket watch. The fob exists so you know I have a watch, but it is very plain and you wouldn’t know to look at it that it’s a very high karat gold too.

    If you ever find yourself in Rodeo Drive or some other shopping district, you will find that people with money to spend don’t want “just a watch” or “just a thing of any kind” and everything on sale has added-value, even if it is not visible. In fact one of the ways you can quietly demonstrate you belong and are not some yokel tourist is to ask “what else it does”. Some folks with money want you to SEE the extra value though, and this is what those airport watches are for. You are actually gratifying the owners of those super expensive watches with the absurd feature, because they have found out that someone of consequence (and I think of you as such) Wants To Know. They haven’t wasted their money.

  13. ionopachys says

    It’s kind of funny seeing all these comments about how “everyone” has cell phones today. Not everyone does.

  14. Mano Singham says

    I got my first watch as a gift from an uncle when I was about 10 and have worn one ever since. I don’t buy fancy ones, but I do want one that keeps good time, is not big or ostentatious, and is simple, with just a dial and hands. My current one is a Citizen that gets charged by solar energy and does not need battery replacement. I put it on first thing in the morning and take it off last thing at night and look at it often every day. If I forget to wear it for some reason, I feel a little unsettled, more so than if I forget my cell phone.

    Why? I like to be punctual and tend to be a person who likes routines and having a watch makes it much easier to be so. It is true that with clocks nowadays everywhere, on phones, cars, and computers, I could manage without one, but why bother when I find it so convenient when I do not have easy access to any of those alternatives?

  15. says

    While I don’t particularly wear a watch any more either, when I head down into the Grand Canyon in a few weeks I will be wearing one. 1) No cell phone service, so 2) my cell phone will be in the pack on my back and not easily accessible without taking off the pack.

  16. Curt Sampson says

    The nice thing about a watch is that you’re always going to feel it vibrate, whereas I find I don’t always feel my phone vibrate even when it’s in my pocket (and certainly not if it’s in a bag). It’s also a bit quicker and easier to check the message by glancing at your wrist to determine whether or not to pull out your phone.

    That said, I find my Pebble too bulky and uncomfortable to wear all the time. Perhaps it’s because I’d not worn a watch at all for years before I got it, and perhaps a newer one (mine is first-generation) would be more comfortable.

  17. jrkrideau says

    It occurs to me that most of the last 10 000 years , (Note snazy SI number format) we did not have watchs, clocks and so on. Okay the Romans had personal sundials.

    Perhaps watchs, clocks and anything else telling “exact” times should be dropped[1]. At the moment, my mantra is ‘Hey no rush, I’m retired”.

    1. Train schedules excepted of course

  18. Hatchetfish says

    What many have said: I like knowing the time with my phone in my pocket, or if (horrors) I’m not carrying it. Being a child of the early 80’s* I grew up with a string of plastic digital timexes, ironman and otherwise. Eventually I got tired of the plastic cases getting beat to hell in a year or two, bought a few different metal cased quartz analogs that didn’t last all that much longer (the Wenger that had all three hands come off after six months was a real winner) and then about 2010 bought a (low end, fairly plain looking) Seiko automatic mechanical, and for the way it’s been holding up, expect to be wearing it when I die. As a mechanical engineer with a dislike of things like planned obsolescence and disposable electronics, I get a kick out of that, never mind that it keeps good time and I can leave my phone in my pocket to signal a meeting is taking too long.

    *No one can quite decide if my cohort are old millennials or young x’ers, and we often don’t fit well with the stereotypes of either. Case in point, I grew up with personal computers, am completely comfortable with smart phones, and still have an inertia-wound mechanical timekeeping device strapped to my wrist because I’m also comfortable *without* the smart phone.

  19. kestrel says

    Watches, tactical or not, are the bane of my existence. I work with livestock every day and for some reason, if I’m wearing a watch, that’s when I get kicked, stomped, slammed against a fence, bitten etc. and somehow the watch always ends up in the way. My parents used to buy them for me until I begged them not to; they would last maybe a week before they got smashed. It could well be confirmation bias (:-D) but since I stopped trying to wear watches, I’ve been bitten, kicked, slammed etc. far less frequently. In fact my phone does not have so much as a scratch on it. I’ll stick with the phone, thanks.

  20. sonofrojblake says

    Watches are still a thing because they (can) hit both factors of the William Morris quote: “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” They’re still a thing for the same reason in the era of GPS that maps and compasses are still a thing.

    I used to wear only useful watches – cheap waterproof plastic digitals, mainly because windsurfing had a habit of knocking them off and if they only cost a tenner I’d care less. I got out of the habit when I became Willy Wonka – you can’t wear a watch in a chocolate factory. It took a while to reacquire the habit.

    I believe the Rolex 116613 to be beautiful. I don’t care about labels, though. I therefore own a couple of legit watches by other manufacturers that look enough like it to suit me (but that don’t cost more than my car). They’re automatic, so no batteries, which appeals to my engineering aesthetic.

    I also have a Bulova 9B156. I didn’t realise when I ordered it that it’s about the size of a bloody manhole cover and therefore less practical, but the second hand sweep is so smooth it’s hypnotic (twice as smooth as any Rolex). Again, the engineering implications appeal to me.

    @jrkrideau, 19: a watch that doesn’t tell the exact time? I’m considering one of those as my next purchase. Consider a watch with one hand, that does one revolution in 24 hours. You know the time, more or less, near enough. I like that idea.

    If someone asked me how the time-shift bezel worked I’d probably misunderstand them for comedy effect and give them a rundown on how a ratchet makes it possible to make something only rotate one way, waxing lyrical about how the spring tension is very important and the tooth profile defines the kind of click you get. If they didn’t take the hint and said “no, I meant WHY does it rotate?”, I could explain in lengthy, tedious detail why, when you’re diving, it’s very important that the gadget you’re using to indicate how much time you’ve got left must fail ONLY in the direction that gets you to the surface sooner, rather than later. And yes, there are dive computers, but see earlier point about GPS and the benefits of having something that’s not as flaky.

  21. Hatchetfish says

    Abbeycadabra: I know them both, but try to spread neither. Complete agreement on the aesthetic virtues of “xennial”. It’s as though they don’t understand we’re the generation who mostly just hate the millennials for all of their neologisms, and labeled us with one.

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