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I was recently confronted with the revelation that I am possibly a weirdo. Why? Because I rarely, if ever, set my watch. I spend a large chunk of my life dedicated to timepieces, documenting the complex and enchanting machinery whose raison d’etre is to accurately track the time—and yet, none of the many watches in my collection display the correct hour and minute. When I shared this quirk with two editors here at GQ last month, they were aghast, leaving one so concerned that he messaged me: “I’m afraid to ask but…………can you………tell the time?” (I can.) So I set out on a mission driven by the purest of intentions: vindication and the ability to say “I told you so.”
This whole ordeal kicked off because Mike Nouveau, a vintage watch dealer and the King of WatchTok, posted an interview with Cartier ambassador-slash-coffee empress Emma Chamberlain. Both admitted in the video that their respective Cartiers were not set to the correct time. As the Wall Street Journal documented in 2018, a certain subset of stylish guys—Andy Warhol notably among them—haven’t concerned themselves with correct timekeeping for decades. But what about more hardcore collectors like Nouveau, who don’t just see a watch as a style accessory? As I found in talking to a handful of people across the watch world, there are plenty of good reasons not to bother with a winder at all.
Design Over Functionality
It’s not unusual for Nouveau’s Cartiers to only be right twice a day, although they’re an exception to his general rule. The funny thing I found in reporting this story is that everyone has their own standards for when to set or not set a watch: some do if it’s a certain complication or brand; others won’t if it’s the exact same complication; a few will if they’re traveling or going to a dinner. It’s all completely up to personal taste.
For Nouveau, a Cartier isn’t really the type of watch that needs to be set. “If I’m wearing a vintage Cartier, I don’t care as much,” he explained. “It’s more about the case, the design, the shape rather than 100% timekeeping.” This speaks to the broader trend among even the most diehard watch lovers. There’s an acceptance that, no matter how technically proficient a piece is, its accuracy ultimately pales in comparison to our phones. Even Roger Smith, who painstakingly handmade a watch so beautiful it sold for over $1 million at auction, conceded this when I interviewed him last June. ”I do use my phone,” he said. “I’m guilty as everyone else. But a watch is just a lovely thing to own, isn’t it?”
Prioritizing the watch’s design was a reason I heard a lot. “The time-telling utilitarian aspect of my watches is secondary to its beauty and design,” said Jessica Owens, founder of Daily Grail. “I’m never going to wear a watch that I don’t aesthetically love, so to be blunt, everything comes second to the design.”
Beating Father Time
Another good rationale to not set your watch? “These watches are old,” said dealer Kevin O’Dell. I reached out to O’Dell looking for counterarguments, assuming he would be a hard-nosed purist. But he, too, admitted that he rarely sets his watches. In fact, he goes one step further: “Most of my watches are manual wind and I don’t even wind them 70% of the time,” he said.
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