Suburban Soliloquy #60

Obsessed With Time

Half a dozen years ago I received a catalogue in the mail from a high-end watch dealer. I had visited their store once to sell my father's Breitling Chronograph. He gave it to me very near the end of his life even though I told him I didn't want it. I had taken it to that shop to sell after he had died. Soon thereafter they sent me their catalogue. Amongst the images that filled its pages was one particular Breguet. It has been preserved, cut out of the catalogue and taped to the wall beside my desk.

Abraham Louis Breguet is one of the most famous names in horology. He launched his company in 1775. It is the same brand of watch by which both Wellington and Napoleon checked the time at the Battle of Waterloo, the brand also favoured by Queen Victoria and the Empress Josephine, not that such historical celebrities could influence my desire to have a watch with the Breguet name. It did, however, mean a great deal to me when fictional character Doctor Stephen Maturin (from Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin seafaring tales) acquired his Breguet.

This then is the story of my first meeting with the Breguet wristwatch in person.

We found it impossible to resist "the City" any longer. Last Saturday, my more significant other Ms Keogh, my mother, and myself, climbed into my coupe and drove up to Manhattan. We came out of the Lincoln Tunnel and without reaching a first stop light, turned the car up the narrow ramp that lifted us to the parking lot atop the Port Authority Bus Terminal Station. The lot is several stories, but I always pick the rooftop. It is the least crowded and has a grand view.

Our visit began with a short walk over to the main branch of the New York Public Library, which we entered by the side entrance. The building is a Beaux-Arts masterpiece of white marble and deserves intense examination, but we came to check out the ongoing exhibits of which there are usually several at any given time. There were a half dozen to choose from that day, but we picked only one, the Renaissance Bindings for Henri II. It was a small exhibit of twenty-six books selected from a larger exhibit recently displayed at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. Our aim, however, was not to spend the day in the library. We three wanted to simply walk the city streets in the brisk autumn weather, Ms Keogh with museums in mind, my mother and I to window-shop the finer stores.

We left the grand building by the front doors, down the wide steps between Patience and Fortitude, the dignified lions that guard against the enemies of books, and onto Fifth Avenue. Ms Keogh went ahead, not interested in shops, with a promise that we would all meet again at the museum store inside the Metropolitan Museum of Art at four o'clock. My mother and I moseyed up the Avenue stopping at any store that sparked our interest, stepping in whenever treasures beckoned.

At Saint Patrick's Cathedral, the sidewalks were burdened with the flow of people. We slipped one block east and continued our stroll north along Madison Avenue, which was less crowded.

We were still on Madison Avenue, the Upper East Side, when I was brought up short by the sight of a small shop with large brass letters over the doorway, "BREGUET". I dragged my mother across the street to visit the boutique with all the energy and impatience of a child for a toy store, though I am fifty-one and my dear mother is something more.

The glass front revealed a small store elegantly appointed and we went inside. A guard held the door for us and we were greeted by the two saleswomen. I had no business being there, I cannot afford their watches. Even the one I admired above all others, though it was among their lowest priced watches, was still the price of a new car - well, a new Hyundai Accent, anyway. But I have never actually seen the wristwatch in person, let alone handled it, and I couldn't resist. While I could sense my mother's anxiety over my audaciousness, I pressed on.

The watches were exhibited in small display cases built into the walls. One of the two women sat me down at a plain white desk with inlaid leather and brought out a recent version of the model wristwatch for which I lusted, the 5907BA "Classique" in rose gold. She put it in my hand. She even tried to have me strap it to my wrist, but I could not bring myself to go so far knowing that I had no intentions of purchasing the piece. I adored the old-fashioned appearance of the watch, Roman numerals on the chapter ring, and the famous Breguet hands, which are delicately tapered and decorated with small, opened circles; they are sometimes called moon hands. There is a smaller seconds dial at numeral six. The edge of the watch has an array of ridges like the edge of a coin. Turn it over and the sapphire caseback reveals the hand-wound, twenty-three jewel movement. There was also a small gauge to indicate the degree to which the watch was wound. It felt solid and I was especially impressed with the weight of it. Putting it to my ear, I heard neither a tick nor a tock. Perhaps the sound was overwhelmed by the traffic outside or my excitement.

No one would argue that a watch isn't practical. Living in an industrial and technological culture with its frequently scheduled events and coordinated rendezvous, one must be aware of the time to fulfill obligations. Also, the tool assists in the planning of things you want to happen. But why covet a mechanical wristwatch that needs to be wound?

I don't have a good answer and can only confess I am intrigued by the intricacy. To have a machine that small, a conglomeration of tiny moving parts that produces precise results, gauging time, is a constant source of wonder, as if nothing short of elves could have manufactured such a contraption. Having to wind such a gadget is an excuse to admire it, to ponder its complications working in perfect coordination. But why the lust for this particular Breguet?

A matter of personal aesthetics, the device has just the amount of sophistication to appeal to me without being gaudy. It is modest at a glance, yet posh in the details. To have such a watch on my wrist would jolt the banal routine of checking the time and force a moment to relish a symbol associated to art, science, and philosophy; all that human endeavour to "mark" time is a marvel.

I could have bought it there and then using a credit card. My credit is good enough. My mother knew this, too, and grew increasingly nervous. But I live in a desperately run-down house, have little in savings and investments, and not a very promising retirement. Besides, these days I don't even wear a wristwatch.

Ms Keogh had convinced me that to not wear one might reduce the pain I generally feel in my arm and hand, what I assume to be carpal tunnel syndrome. She was right. These days I carry a Russian-made pocket watch in the watch pocket of my blue jeans. It's a steel watch, hand-wound, eighteen jewel movement in a hunting case, and it could stop a bullet. You can buy them new for less than forty dollars.

We caught up with Ms Keogh at the museum and then we had dinner at a local restaurant. Afterwards we walked back the forty blocks in the fading light to where we had parked the car, making a point to walk across exciting Times Square, which every New Year's Eve fills to celebrate the exact moment the new year begins.

From the roof of the Port Authority Bus Terminal Station we thrilled at the view of the city lit up around us. From this parking lot we saw the narrow side of the Empire State Building, the top of which was illuminated with orange floodlights on this night. After we made our farewells aloud to the city we all three loved, we climbed back into my car and departed. Once again we avoided Manhattan's streets, drifting down the long ramp and directly into the maw of the Lincoln Tunnel. And for most of the drive home, when the conversation didn't distract me, I indulged myself in reverie, of selling the movie-rights to one of my short stories, and of buying that wristwatch.

Bruce Bentzman

This essay is the fifty-ninth in a series of regular reports from the life and times of Mr Bentzman. If you've any comments or suggestions, the writer would be pleased to hear from you.
Mr Bentzman's collection of poems, "Atheist Grace" is now available from Amazon, as are "The Short Stories of B.H.Bentzman"