Why True Watch Heads Never Set the Time on Their Watches

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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.

Trying to figure out the time at a collectors get-together like Rolliefest would drive you mad.

Preserving a vintage watch by avoiding its winder just makes good sense. “More wear and tear I don’t love,” O’Dell said. Sure, O’Dell’s watches can function. But as they start to push into retirement age, he saves their remaining lifeforce for when it really counts. “If I’m going out for dinner or where I need to keep track of the time I do [wind], but never for day-to-day errands.”

Some collectors have watches that are too far beyond repair but still look fantastic. One former GQ staffer, who didn’t want to be named, spent several years wearing a Rolex that looked amazing—but no longer actually worked.

Good Old-Fashioned Laziness

Oh, yeah, now we’re talking my language. Who needs a practical reason to not set their watch when I can always run into the comforting arms of laziness? “I hope this doesn’t get me kicked out of the Watch Illuminati, but in terms of any complicated watch—whether that be a perpetual calendar or a day-date—I am incredibly lazy when it comes to setting,” said Owens. (If anything, this behavior seems to only cement her Watch Illuminati status.)

Tony Traina, an editor at Hodinkee, is only able to muster slightly more energy. “I set the time, never really the date. I’ve been wearing this calendar watch that I last set in November,” he said, sending through a very pretty image of a Girard-Perregaux with the month set to November and day cycled to Wednesday (it was Tuesday). Why? “Just laziness. Even on those simple Seikos with day and date, I forget which way is day and which is date, so I don’t bother!”

Traina's Girard-Perregaux
Traina's Girard-Perregaux

Laziness is largely why I don’t bother setting my watches. My theory for why most of my fellow freaks fall into this same camp is that we typically won’t wear the same piece every day. With just one in the rotation, it might make sense to set it and let it do its thing. But it doesn’t seem worth it to me if I’m switching my watch out for a specific ocassion or part of the day. (Wow! I’m insufferable!)

Even watchmakers fall victim to incorrect settings. Etienne Malec, the founder of Baltic watches, said that he mostly gets his pieces on track, but more often than not, he finds himself with one out of order. “Recently I’ve been testing a lot of prototypes, and I keep them quite often on 10:10 to get a non-disturbed dial view and that can last for few days,” he said. “Not to mention, I wear two watches daily and only one is on the right time.”

So, When to Set a Watch?

I only spoke with one person who was adamant about keeping up the correct time: Perri Dash, founder of the Wrist Check Pod. “I definitely fall into the group that sets a watch each and every time I switch up,” Dash said. “I'm a watch romantic in that way, and I just can't wear a watch with the incorrect time or date.” I asked if it would grate at him to have it wrong. “Absolutely! I just can't do it. Even if I'm not looking at it, the thought that it is incorrect bothers me. I have to set it.”

One of my Dash’s favorite pieces—a Patek Philippe Calatrava ref. 5054G—needs its time, date, and moonphase to be properly set if he doesn’t wear it for two days.
One of my Dash’s favorite pieces—a Patek Philippe Calatrava ref. 5054G—needs its time, date, and moonphase to be properly set if he doesn’t wear it for two days.

Dash will go so far as to avoid certain watches if they’re too far off from the actual day or date. “With manually wound watches with dates—or even those automatic watches without a quickset date feature—if the date is too far off, I may wait until I get closer to that date before I wear it so that I'm not standing there, spinning my wheels, trying to get from, say, the 5th to the 25th date of the month.”

No one else was as sacrosanct as Dash, but many had their rules. Traina, as mentioned above, likes to at least have the time—if not the date—right. Nouveau felt that certain types of watches must be on time: Cartiers are about design, but others are more purpose-built. “If I am wearing a perpetual calendar, I want it to be 100% correct, including the moon phase,” he said. Others find that it’s the occasion that matters, like O’Dell if he’s going out to dinner. Owens sets her watches when she travels, she said, ”just to not be completely disoriented when I look at my wrist.”

Watches have long outlived their purpose as simply time tellers. They are keepers of stories, objects of beauty and design, great accessories, incredible feats of mechanical engineering, pickup-line delivery machines, and mega status symbols. Knowing if you’re on time to a meeting or not comes secondary to all this. As Owens put it: “If all I cared about was timekeeping, I’d get a digital watch!”

Originally Appeared on GQ