Thinking Out Loud - What Do Watches Represent?

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What are these objects that keep track of time? Why do we like them, and what do they represent to us? I like to think about my motivations, and I like to ponder the underlying meanings behind things that influence me in life.

Humans are metaphorical animals. Because we evolved this thing called language, we developed brains that organize reality into symbolic structures. We think in proxies, in models, and we habitually create metaphors to substitute an object, symbol or sign for an idea.

For many of us here on a forum about watches, it is clear that watches and clocks have a pull on our psyche. For us, watches have a metaphorical power, a strength of attraction. I think that the fascination we have for timekeeping devices becomes stronger due to the fact that these devices serve multiple roles. Watches act as symbols for more than one thing at a time, and this makes them more potent. They represent a range of human behaviors, aspirations and endeavors.


An anthropologist might view our interest in wrist-watches as an aspiration to status symbols that make us feel good about ourselves, or to place us as equals among a group where we wish to belong. Humans have long used objects as a measure of social rank, and watches might be no different than a talisman, sword or chief’s staff to represent power or elite status. We can add consumerism, marketing and materialism to this ancient pattern, as we live in a culture that has taught us to crave acquisition as a path to happiness.

At its most extreme, haute horology becomes an unobtainable reminder that a class of people will always stand above us, with more power and money than normal people. We might crave a $6,000 Rolex because it approximates the status of $40,000 Patek Phillipe (or something even less attainable) and reminds us that we, too, have a satisfactory place in the hierarchical social structure.

But true watch lovers recoil at this thought, that their favorite timekeepers are merely symbols of power or wealth. We use different language. We refer to their beating hearts. We say they represent high engineering achievements, or mechanical artistry. We say they have a soul. We say they are practical, sometimes necessary for success or survival. One might argue that we are simply trying to rationalize our materialistic cravings with more subtle justifications. Instead, I think we are using watches as metaphors for deeper meanings.

Technical Aesthetics

Looking at the beauty of watches in terms of technology and human engineering achievements, we see them as things we can own and wear day to day, which represent a mastery of miniaturization and calibration. In particular, mechanical watches harken back to a dream of simpler times, as they are easier to understand than the almost-magical digital technology that surrounds us now. Their mechanical rhythmic pulse and precise machining gives us a sense of comfort and control over the elements, which aligns to the pace and scale that we as animals can understand on a visceral level.

In fact these tiny machines are mirroring the motions of earth around sun, and by abstracting those motions into the ratios of precise gears and springs, we take something huge and cosmic, and place it directly into human dimensions and under human control. We each carry a partial model of the solar system around on our wrist. In doing so, we announce our mastery over the sky, and we regulate our motions by a new system of our own device.

If human science represents our attempts to understand the nature of existence, human technology represents our attempts to control reality and manipulate our universe to suit our desires. Watches seem especially beautiful to us in part because they miniaturize this mastery; they make it affordable for us to carry a model solar system as a wardrobe accessory.

The Pace of Life

Adding to this technological beauty, watches can represent for us a management of the day-to-day randomness of life. Many of the people I know who collect time-keeping devices are rather meticulous - myself included. Humans have a wide spectrum of time sensibility. Many of us treasure punctuality, and a good watch symbolizes an adherence to schedule, a sense of responsibility to commitments we make, to efficiency.

Stanford University psychologist Phillip Zimbardo wrote several research articles about time-sense differences, showing variance in people that have past, present or future orientations. He found that elderly people and those suffering depression often become past-oriented and base much of their belief structure and expectations upon memories of previous eras. He found that people in poverty or under stress (also in many traditional cultures) often show more present-oriented thinking, and while they might not have much sense of punctuality they also can experience more unfiltered joy and happiness. He found that many successful people in western culture show a strong sense of future-orientation, with a goal-oriented mindset; and while this helps with deferring happiness in exchange for success it also interferes with the sense of present-tense, and can mask joy and creativity

As we treasure the meticulous punctuality and order that our beautiful devices offer to us, it might be worth considering the cost they exact upon us. This adherence to an artificial grid in life, and a tendency to judge others for their lack of adherence, takes a toll on us. Every time I stand ready to leave our house, admonishing my wife to “hurry up, we’re late” I sacrifice an element of happiness for an abstraction of a grid-like day. Does this scenario sound familiar to any other horology hobbyists? I suspect I’m not alone.

The Big Picture

As we fixate on the miraculous beauty of small machines that measures time, we rarely stop to think about this thing called time. Are we counting down to the day of our own death? Are we counting forward from the birth of the universe? Can we even quantize this eternity into fractions defined by the length of a thought?

Physicists are still puzzling over the cosmological meaning of time. So far, most of the equations that explain our universe can work regardless of whether time moves forward or backwards, yet we only see time marching forwards. One equation that seems to go in only one direction is the second law of thermodynamics - entropy. Entropy measures the disorder of a physical system (or the complexity of information - something slightly different) and every reaction in the universe appears to increase this measure of overall randomness.

Life is no exception to this global rule of entropy. Life concentrates matter and energy into a very complex localized system at the expense of huge amounts of energy, dissipating as heat into space. The amount of energy consumed (and heat dissipated) approximates a 10:1 ratio to maintain the amount of energy within the living system, for most organisms on our planet. We humans are also subject to the laws of entropy; and as our living clock moves forward in time, it moves forward towards a final state of disorder. In other words, we too must die.

To what extent do we enjoy the measurement of time because it gives us some semblance of control over this unstoppable road to death? I wonder if - at some deep symbolic level - our ability to measure the ineffable subtleties of change allows us to feel some power over the mysteries of existence? Certainly, in the history of human culture, it has been the priests and elite who controlled the calendars, measured the passing of stars and seasons, told people when to plant crops and when to go to war. The control over clocks and calendars held power over life and death.

Historically we saw the British spread their empire across the planet, after the invention of a chronometer accurate enough to measure longitude allowed them to win pivotal naval battles. Likewise, the U.S. military devised the GPS system with atomic clock accuracy, to navigate smart bombs against precise targets. Accurate timekeeping not only symbolizes eternity and entropy, it offers a literal tool for controlling who dies and when.

Perhaps we have not progressed so far from our ancient mystical conceptions of time, as we wonder about eternity, nor even beyond the militaristic power that more accurate timekeepers can wield. If time determines life and death, perhaps we feel at some subliminal level, that our more exact measurement of time could give better understanding of our own finality. We build clocks to impose some semblance of structure upon a mystery.

We might crave these measurers of change for the status they symbolize, or for their beauty and ingenuity, or for their metaphors of planetary motion, or secretly as we try to cling to some illusion of control over our own random existence. Perhaps, we do all of these things at once, to different degrees. Clocks and watches remain metaphors for something that we really don’t understand - the passing of time. I feel that the multiple levels that this metaphor operates give our hobby a certain sticking power, an intensity, that few hobbies share. We are drinking from a very deep river.

Updated Sep 14, 2015 at 06:26 AM by skywatch



  1. Dan R's Avatar
    Most likely a combination of all of the above? I wear a quartz watch when I need to know the time but acknowledge that I may have to put my hand in the chute of a lawn mower and do not wish to mar my even my Seiko 5S.

    I mostly wear a mechanical watch and never even look at my cellphone for time, mainly because I want to say that I don't rat's patootie about precision time keeping. Life is much easier without it.

    But I wear a watch because I need to know when I have to start work, when I can end it, and how much time do I have before I need to be there.

    I think the hobby part starts when you have more than a couple.

    Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

  2. is that my watch's Avatar
    great read and something to ponder
  3. skywatch's Avatar
    Thanks for your comments, guys! Indeed, Dan, I'm mostly discussing the hobby mindset, when it becomes a bit more engulfing than just telling the time. There's a certain point when I realized that for me at least, the very idea of time is interesting. And thanks for reading, Ismy. I probably spend too much time pondering. But then, I enjoy a bit of reflection from time to time.
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