Dirt: Fancy watches on YouTube

Hodinkee's timepiece interview series went from an accessible niche to purely elite.

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Watch: Talking Watches (YouTube). A review of Hodinkee’s rich-dude YouTube series by Osama Shehzad.

"Talking Watches" is Hodinkee magazine's YouTube video series featuring watch collectors — mostly rich, and often famous and well connected, men — talk about (read: show off) their watches. The most popular interviews have millions of views. These videos have a calmness to them and are somehow strangely soothing yet captivating. Watching these stylish interviews one feels admiration for the collector and an inevitable envy for the lifestyle of the rich and famous. But they also make the viewer question: What’s the true motivation for these watch collectors to sit down for the interviews? 

The videos often follow a similar pattern: a sharply dressed Hodinkee writer sits next to the collector in a tastefully decorated living room and the watch collector fondly recalls how they got into watches; they share an anecdote of how they used to be fascinated by watches as a kid (“Second or third grade my dad bought me my first watch and it was a Seiko”); they show the first real watch that they got and tell us where they were in their life at that moment ("The day before I got drafted in the NBA") and how it started their collection; and finally they go on to show off their rarer and more expensive pieces. For those new to the strange world of watches, these videos show how to talk watches with authority, demonstrating the proper vocabulary: "fifty-five seventeen sub"; "big pilot"; "a Paul Newman Panda."

The first "Talking Watches" video appeared in September 2013 with John Mayer, in a quaint Soho cafe, sharing his then-surprising enthusiasm for watches. Slightly embarrassed, Mayer reveals something he knows most people will not understand nor appreciate: his obsession for Rolex Daytonas. "Yes, there is an excessiveness to it, but there is an excessiveness to ambition as well," he says. The video interview has since been watched by over two million people. The next month, in October 2013, J.J. Redick showed up to the same cafe with five of his watches (six if you included the one on his wrist) and since then there has been a steady stream of these interviews, a total of over fifty, amassing millions of views and catapulting Hodinkee into "the foremost destination for all things in the world of horology." 

The proudest these collectors appear is when they talk about a watch that was once widely viewed as not tasteful enough but has since become a hard-to-get watch — one that only they had the foresight of adding to their collection. Mayer refers to this genre as the “sleeper hit.” (An actually heartwarming video of a sleeper hit would be this one from Antiques Roadshow where an elderly Vietnam vet falls to the ground in disbelief when he is told that his Rolex, that he purchased in 1975 for $350, is now worth an astonishing $700,000.) For those that have been collecting watches for decades, these interviews act as a kind of final vindication that they weren’t crazy for splurging on them. 

The novelist Gary Shteyngart, who wrote about how the Hodinkee website helped him get into the world of watches in a New Yorker essay and has not-so-subtly dropped his new watch knowledge in his latest fiction, says that “the devices in our pockets have obliterated the need for almost anything else and will continue to do so.” As the camera pans over an iPhone strategically placed over Shteyngart's latest novel, he adds: "I think of watches as this big FU to all of that."

"This is a watch, if you wore to dinner," Mayer says holding a Rolex "Comex" Submariner in 2013, "it's invisible to people unless they know what it is. Those are my favorite kind of watches." But with watch appreciation going mainstream is it possible to wear a luxury watch without anyone noticing? Interestingly, the prices of the watches are almost never mentioned. But it is worth thinking, as the prices of watches, especially vintage watches that used to be “accessible,” have skyrocketed out of reach of ordinary collectors — a £24 million Patek beat the $17 million Daytona, which was once owned by Paul Newman, as the most expensive watch ever sold — what it means for these interviews. Watching these videos now, almost a decade since they first started, one wonders who that big FU that these watches offer is directed at? Is it at us, the viewers?

Probably the most revealing is Mayer’s follow-up interview with "Talking Watches" five years later in 2019. "Here we are... since then it has become more understood, the notion of showing your watches off, being more of a historical based... passion based thing and not like hey look what I got." Mayer then shows off his most famous watch, one that he hadn't in his first interview: a unique Patek with luminous hands on a salmon dial custom made specially for him with a "Mr. J.C. Mayer 2012" factory engraving at the back. "I just can't stress enough, it's not about having money or not having money, it's about that little whisper of enthusiasm," Mayer, now arguably the most influential watch collector in the world, states. But why has he come back on the show? And then as a big FU to those who have questioned his sanity for being strangely obsessed with robes, he reveals, "I, right now, am enthusiastic about collecting clothes, people look at me and think I am crazy the same way they looked at me when they thought I was crazy for collecting watches."

In the past, when friends would ask me about, as Mayer articulates it, "the watch thing," I'd recommend "Talking Watches" to them. I still do. But now, watching these videos in their eighth year, I often find myself lamenting on the progression of watch enthusiasm — which has always been about wealth, to a degree — from passion for the watches themselves to a scene that is exclusively dictated by wealth and status guarding access to the watches being talked about. — By Osama Shehzad

The Dirt: Elitist culture is never accessible.