Celine Yao was looking for a watch. No style in particular, no brand, and she had no expectations. She had one requirement—she needed a watch that suited her new lifestyle as an adult. In much the same way all of us look for symbols to mark milestones—whether it’s a graduation or a promotion, Celine wanted a serious watch; one that told more than just the time, it needed to reflect where she was in life. She went through the usual channels—watch stores near and far, but no suitable matches turned up. And then she came upon a collection in her own home. She didn’t so much look for the perfect watch, it seemed the perfect watch was looking for her.
Celine’s father passed away in 1992. She was a small child of five. Her recollections of him are faint, and she grew up relying on second-hand anecdotes, told to her in snippets by his friends and acquaintances.
Discouraged by her failed forays into the watch scene, Celine casually asked her mother if she’d kept any of her father’s watches. It turns out, she did not keep just one—she’d kept an entire collection. She kept them in a tattered, blue plastic bag—a place better suited to groceries and knickknacks than to prized heirlooms. That plastic bag yielded an entire range of Seiko watches—some broken and some crusted with dust and residue; all told the story of a father Celine never knew.
Seeing as they were all Seiko watches, Celine suddenly remembered that she had once joined a Seiko Facebook group, and she thought to post photos of her watches in the digital community to help her identify the pieces. What she eventually found, through the kindness of strangers, was information about her father, conveyed to her through the scratches and dings of his vintage collection. “That whole night my phone was flooded with replies and private messages. Members giving me information on the watches. Some even wanted to buy them,” Celine says, “but I especially loved the extra passionate members who gave me a chance to find out when he might have used specific watches.”
Based on her father’s DGH watch, for example, one member of the FB group told her that her father probably wore the watch when he got gritty, or when he used his hands.
He would have used his ACFI for parties or dress occasions, and his BE for lazy days—perhaps Sundays when he didn’t need to get dirty or play dress up.
“I was overwhelmed that night. I wasn´t sure if it was because I’ve uncovered some kind of keyhole into the past about my dad. Or because a group of manly men (in my mind, I was imagining they were all big, burly titos) that I’ve never met before, who were so poetic about watches. It seemed like my dad had all these people speaking for him.”
From this community, Celine knit together who her father was, through his choice of watches. He kept iconic Seiko watches that were featured in films (which revealed him to be a film buff). He was also a practical man who dressed for each occasion he found himself in. The man kept rugged divers’ watches because he liked the great outdoors. “I wouldn’t have known these things about him if it wasn’t for his watches,” she says, “though I can never be sure if the deeper interpretations of his watches are true. But I think I’d like to keep it that way.”
She´s been having them restored piece by piece. Each one reveals different facets of her father, and from these shards and angles, she hopes to build a total picture. For her, these watches are no longer utilitarian objects, they’re stories built around the man who owned them.
Collectors and specialists know that the value of a watch is born from the quality with which it was made—the materials, the technology, the painstaking attention to detail that make it work like, well, clockwork. Ultimately, quality and reputation dictate market value, but it’s the stories behind them that make them priceless. This is why every watch comes with a story—whether it’s the first watch on the moon, the Rolex that clasped around Paul Newman’s wrist as he did his rounds on the racetrack, or the Omega James Bond wore through various reconnaissance missions. Stories and mythologies surrounding watches have been manufactured for us heady consumers because we all love stories, and many of us love watches. But some of us have real stories behind our beloved timepieces, and Celine has one of the more poignant ones.
Maybe the measure of love is loss (#hugot), as author Jeanette Winterson writes, but through the pieces they leave behind, everyone we lose finds their way to us, and we to them, all at the same time.
All photos in this story courtesy of Celine Yao.