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
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
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.