Flipping through the pages of a society magazine one Sunday, I saw an old ad I was familiar with, and was filled with the same kind of awe I felt when I first saw it half a decade ago. It was an advertisement for a Patek Philippe watch. In this iteration, a handsome father with just the first signs of white lining his groomed temples sits in his executive chair and takes a call on his office phone. His son, aged maybe seven or eight, sits opposite him on his desk, and looks at his father with an art-directed smile on his face. “You never actually own a Patek Philippe watch,” the tagline reads, “You merely look after it for the next generation.” It’s a $40,000 watch—a travesty for someone living and working in a third world country like mine. It’s a watch I’d have to sell a kidney to afford, which makes it all the more desirable. What I desire more than the watch, however, is the gaze father and son share—it's one of pure understanding. It says, one day all this will be yours; if you don’t blow your trust fund, I’ll even throw in the watch. The son sees his father at work, in a space lit by wealth and sunshine. His father’s chair is one he’ll maybe occupy someday. And his father’s swanky watch—which the ad leads us to believe the boy will inherit—is coiled comfortably around his father’s wrist. All is well in the first world—the ad absolves anyone wanting to buy the legacy watch from first world guilt (it’s for the next generation!), and for the rest of us sitting on our work chairs—some executive, most not—it’s something to aspire to.
My father had exactly two watches in his bathroom closet, and neither of them a Patek Philippe. He had a Casio calculator watch which he used everyday—he was a runner and he used to time his sprints. He also had a Movado Museum Watch which intrigued me no end when I was a kid. A watch with no numbers? A scuffed, black leather band? It had one marker for twelve-o-clock—a single dot meant to symbolize the sun at high noon; any other time was left to your better judgment, given the tiny spaces that separated one hour from the next. Designed by American artist Nathan George Horwitt in 1947, it’s the only watch in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art—a timepiece selected for its simplicity and tastefulness.
My father wasn’t a corporate guy. He didn’t need the social currency his contemporaries needed in the boardroom—in that way he was extremely lucky. His obsessions were running and his five children, who showed diverse talents and interests, all of which made him proud. He also had a vast library that held everything from the complete works of Shakespeare to the complete Nick Joaquin. He also collected degrees—one of which was an MA in Development Economics in Williams College, a small liberal arts university in Massachusetts. Development Economics was a new field that aimed to use economic theory to lift third world countries out of poverty. All the students in the Williams program were young, smart technocrats from the third world. All his classmates were the best and brightest from their respective government jobs—among them was Goh Chok Tong, who succeeded Lee Kuan Yew as prime minister of Singapore.
Of his degrees, this is perhaps what served him best as sometime Undersecretary of Finance.
By today’s standards, he would perhaps be looked upon as an old world curiosity—a well-read, well-bred man. With a two hundred dollar watch. It was perhaps the best legacy he could have left his children, because it told us exactly who he was. He was the kind of man who didn’t think of heirloom pieces, which only meant that he never thought the possessions he would leave behind could be taken as proof of his position in the world. He was also the kind of man who didn’t think that his kids would ever be corporate enough to need a Patek Philippe to validate their worth in a boardroom. He was mostly right about that—of his five children, there might be three of them who do, standing up as they do to big CEOs, and their impressionable cohorts, in at least two international venues. But that’s all beside the point. That there’s more to a man than his watch seems to be the point he was making, but that only works for executives who are so assured of their positions in the world, they use old school Nokia phones, and wear Swatches. And, I might add, Movado Museum Watches.
His watches have since been lost in the shuffle of his passing. Had at least one of them been a Patek, we’d have perhaps paid more attention. We go on missing the point, don’t we, marveling at that father in that Patek Philippe ad—the father I never wished I had, but perhaps the parent I want to be, knowing what I know of the way the world works, and wanting my own child to have his place in it. His grandfather would have shown him a scuffed timepiece, and my son would have asked how in the world you could tell the time with a numberless watch. Kid, he would have said, it’s whatever time you want it to be.