We’ve all heard it: “You never actually own a Patek Philippe. You merely look after it for the next generation.” This advertising slogan became almost as iconic as the watches themselves. That’s understandable, too, considering how it tugs at the heartstrings and strongly implies superior quality. But what charges a watch with heirloom quality? And why are watches so well suited to it?

Let’s have a closer look at watches as heirlooms. We must start with the core question: what makes us want to pass objects on to our descendants? I don’t have the answer, but I have some ideas. Warning: I am about to overthink things severely and get slightly sentimental. If you are here for the water resistance and accuracy ratings, you may want to skip to the next Fratello article!

The search for significance

I think several societal developments conspire to harm our sense of significance. David Graeber published “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs” in 2013. The essay takes a prediction by John Maynard Keynes as its basis. Back in 1930, Keynes predicted that by the end of the century, technology would allow people to have a 15-hour workweek. Graeber argues that this hasn’t come to fruition because we filled our time with ever less important work — or, as he calls it, “bullshit jobs.” The premise is simple: if a nurse in a retirement home doesn’t show up for work, people die. If a communications manager at a law firm vanishes, it would go unnoticed by society.

Image: Amsterdam Watch Company

Now, the essay isn’t uncontroversial, but it sparked several studies that were quite shocking. A YouGov poll found that 37% of British respondents believed their work did not make a meaningful contribution to the world. I see it in my social circle too. My friends are all in their mid-30s, and several have radically switched careers in a search for meaning beyond merely making a salary. I am one of them, although, if you follow Graeber’s premise, you could very well argue I merely switched bullshit jobs.

For many, family provides more of a meaning than work does. I am now a father myself, and coming home with some money feels much nobler now than before I had someone completely dependent on me. I don’t have a watertight theory here, but I feel the romantic pull of the heirloom has something to do with the above.

Watch Elegance For Dummies

The heirloom as the counterweight to quick consumption

I see another possible connection with the fact that many of us are fed up with quick consumption. In many parts of the world, consumption exploded from the 1950s onward. In a never-ending bid for more material things, stuff became more plentiful and cheaper. It has brought material abundance to the masses on a level with no historical precedence.

However, much like fast food, it doesn’t truly satisfy the appetite for more than 30s minutes. We buy tons of cheap shoes until we have no more space to put them. We wear them until they go out of fashion the next season or until their plastic/cardboard construction disintegrates. We spend €1,500 on a smartphone that turns into an awkwardly shaped coaster within a few years as its software is no longer updated.

No wonder we long for something better, like one pair of properly made shoes that only get comfier over the years, that we can take good care of and re-sole when the time comes. A well-made watch is possibly the ultimate antidote to fast consumption. The right one, if properly looked after, will outlast us with ease. I find this a partly irrational but incredibly attractive idea.

heirloom Rolex Datejust

The watch as an heirloom

If you think about it, there aren’t many items made to last for decades in our daily lives. Thinking of my household, we have a couple of good steel and iron pans that will outlast us. I have some guitars that only get better over time rather than wearing out. And we have a few pieces of furniture that are solid and already decades old. That’s about it. Well, except for my watches, that is.

radium on watch dials safety heirloom

Well-made watches, especially (but not limited to) mechanical ones, are objects made to last. The oldest watch I own is a 1956 Omega Seamaster. It has developed a rich patina, but mechanically, it is almost as good as new. The moving parts have been serviced well and show no sign of approaching their “expiration date.” If I keep looking after it, the watch will plow on, seemingly indefinitely.

But that is just the cold, technical side of it. Of course, something must stand the test of time to have heirloom quality. However, to be a worthwhile heirloom, an object must also have emotional value. Watches, as it turns out, are perfect in this sense. They are worn on the body and accompany their owners every single day.

Transcending its time-telling function

Imagine wearing your inherited grandfather’s watch while browsing family pictures. You flip a page, and there is a photo of your grandfather, a young man, behind the wheel of his first car. His hand casually rests on the steering wheel, and on his wrist, you see the watch you are wearing today.

The watch transcends its function and bridges the divide in time between the two of you. It becomes a capsule for memories. You can call me sentimental, but this is a well-founded notion in the science of memory functioning. The watch becomes an anchor, a physical trigger for the associations and mental connections that form your memories. Strapping on your watch quite literally connects you to your roots in this sense. Returning to this article’s first section, it gives you context, which can provide meaning.

Patek Philippe in-line calendar heirloom

Just as feeling in touch with your ancestry can provide meaning, so can planting a seed for your successors. The idea of being the guy or gal in the picture that your grandchildren will look at 60 years down the line can provide a sense of significance and meaning. This, to me, is why Patek Philippe’s slogan is so powerful. It takes the watch out of the realm of vulgar indulgence and justifies it as something that transcends you.

Me: “Honey, I really do need a Patek in-line perpetual calendar. No, not just for me… It is for our son too! It will provide meaning, you know?” She looks back at me with a cynical smirk. “You can just go out and do something together. That will provide meaning!” she wisely replies.

What do you think of watches as heirlooms? Let us know in the comments below!