A heirloom watch is there to remind you of the person who gave it to you—most crucially, after they’re gone. If the watch has already seen use by several generations, it can become a symbol of continuity. Its ticking is a reminder to cherish your own time for when you are the one remembered by an heirloom.
But perhaps the father-son watch tradition has to do with the kind of artifacts men have traditionally collected. In decades past, a man might hand down his rifle, his revolver, a Zippo lighter, his best pipe, and a collection of fine leather-bound books. Historically, these were male accoutrements, though they need not be now.
Anyway, everyone shoots and smokes and writes by hand and—sadly, in this writer’s opinion—reads bound books less than before. These kinds of inheritances are in decline, because the generation prior doesn’t necessarily use these objects anymore.
Men might give their fine suits to their sons, but that’s more utilitarian. Such a bestowal would rarely survive more than one generation. For one, fashion changes. My grandfather’s college suit from 1918 would look strange on me; not to mention it’s probably moth-eaten and made of some unbearably rough fabric. My grandfather’s watch, however, will look elegant and at home on my wrist no matter which of my custom suits I’m wearing.
The nice things most people buy today could be inherited, but we’d hardly think of them as heirlooms. A smartphone might have all your personal data on it, but it doesn’t say much about a person’s lifestyle. Nearly everyone has one. More importantly, our sacred technologies are built to become obsolete, so you can buy new devices. Not so with watches.
This is not to say that a watch handed through the generations needs to be a bejeweled museum piece requiring a second mortgage on your house. The thing that gives an heirloom watch its true value is the person who wore it. For instance, the otherwise classically designed Creon has a hint of ocean blue that might bespeak a fondness for sailing. Or it might just remind me that blue is my father’s favorite color—and the color of his eyes.
If my watch has meaning to me, it has meaning to pass it on to any subsequent generations.