I Spent $400 On A Man’s Watch — And I Feel Great About It

Buying a watch for a man is a bit like getting him an engagement ring. The purchase is expensive, freighted with significance, and nerve-racking, because a person has to really like, and even identify with, anything that’s going to take up valuable, hand-related real estate. Yet, if you want the purchase to be a pleasant surprise, you cannot ask for help from the only person who could give it to you. You must fumble in the dark, alone.

The first time I bought my then-boyfriend, now-husband a watch, we were in our early twenties and living together in a tiny outer-borough studio. He was a grad student and I was a terrible office manager / receptionist working ten-hour days at a casting agency. Since neither of us had money, I did the shopping for his present on my desktop at work, using Amazon to zoom in on the watch that seemed to be the best combination of Affordable, Attractive, and Highly Rated. The casting assistants in my office—whose shopping bona fides including going to Bloomingdales after work and running up impressive loads of credit card debt—advised me.

This time, the stakes were higher and the calculus more difficult. My now-husband was leaving a job that had given him plenty of gastric as well as emotional distress. On the plus side, it had also given him several hundreds of thousands of dollars. For his seven years of loyal service, he deserved some token of appreciation from them. Of course, that is not how employers operate these days. They probably wouldn’t even take him to lunch. If they wouldn’t get him a watch, I decided, I would.

But how? 

Through listening and paying attention over the course of months, I picked up on his general preferences: white gold or stainless-steel casing, to match his wedding ring; off-white face; dark brown band. Handsome but not ornate. Striking but not ostentatious. Minimalist but not so minimalist that a person glancing at it couldn’t tell the time. Do not show me an oval with hash marks on it and tell me it’s a watch. A box on wheels is not a baby carriage.

Something like this Stuhrling Original or this Earnshaw, only, you know, in some ineffable way, better.

I did what anyone would do, or, at least, anyone who didn’t have cool, debt-ridden casting assistants around anymore to help. I read lists. Did research. Walked into stores and walked out again. Fretted. Asked my older brother for help. I came close, a couple of times, to buying a Shinola from Steven Alan because those upscale hipster Detroit-made timepieces are impressively self-assured; they make one want to rise to their level. But $500+ is a lot of dollars for something not tried-and-true. I wanted a watch that conveyed immortality like diamond engagement rings and Swiss watches do. Like my father’s watch did, the gorgeous century-old railroad watch he inherited from his uncle Jack.

“What happened to Dad’s railroad watch from Great-Uncle Jack?” I asked my mom.

“Oh, I’m sorry, sweetie,” my mom replied. “I sold it.”

Back to the drawing board.

One afternoon, I found myself in midtown Manhattan, where I had been helping my friend K. shop for wedding dresses at Saks Fifth Avenue. Still giddy from all that Austin Scarlett, I wandered into a vintage jewelry store. The store itself was vintage, dating back to 1976, and it had a homey feel. I began browsing the cases.

“Those are for tourists,” a salesman said. “You are from here, if I’m not mistaken?”

“Brooklyn,” I said. “I’m shopping for my husband.”

“Ah!” he said, beaming. “Allow me.” He turned away, poring over the other not-for-tourists racks, and then picked up a watch.

This was, I remembered, how I had found my own wedding dress: I had wandered into a small store without first browsing Yelp or Google for background information, without any sense that I was about to make a vital purchase, and put my fate in the hands of a seasoned salesperson. Beverly, the expert who picked out my gown, had listened to my vague, general ideas of what I wanted and didn’t want and had come back from the racks with something so perfect I could never have identified it on my own. Of course she did: she had made her career out of matching women with the right dresses.

“What’s your name?” the jewelry salesman asked me, and when I told him, he clapped his hands in delight. “I love Old Testament names! My name is Moses.”

With the same amount of pride as Moses in the Bible, no doubt, demonstrated, as he handed down to the Israelites the Ten Commandments, Moses handed me a Swiss watch from the ’70s. Retooled and in good working order. Cream face, stainless steel bezel. The right size for my husband’s wrist: sturdy but not cumbersome. Classy. Classic. Cost: $375, with an extra black leather band thrown in and a warranty.

“Let’s do it,” I said to Moses. Moses rejoiced.

More importantly, when I presented my husband with the watch, he rejoiced too. I had worried he wouldn’t, because after all of my careful planning I had acted on impulse, and $375 is a lot for a watch, though not a lot for a good one. We don’t often buy each other extravagant gifts. But he was touched that, at a time when he was feeling uncertain and not valued highly by his workplace, his wife gave him a gift to say, “I’m certain of you, and you’re of value to me.” I felt as though I had proposed and he had accepted, and that would have been worth twice as much to me, easy.

ETA: Okay, here’s a picture of the watch.

ben's watch

This story is part of our relationships month series.

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