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Is Time Running Out For Wrist Watches?

As a boy, I liked to unscrew the back of my wrist watch (and anyone else’s I could get my mitts on) to see whether the “17-jewel movement” advertised in tiny letters on the watch face really contained 17 jewels.

Usually, only four or five tiny industrial-grade garnets (the “jewels” touted by watch marketers in my price range) were visible without disassembling the watch. So I tried pulling everything apart to find the missing jewels, once or twice, with predictably unfortunate results.

I may have been hard on watches, but those early explorations made me appreciate the design and craftsmanship of fine machines. The best timepieces of any era have always been fine machines. These days, I like to visit a certain antiques store in Vermont that has a nice display of century-old pocket watches. Many have polished gold cases, and they all have jewels inside, though nobody is letting me get close enough to take a look.

I got my first watch (a genuine Mickey Mouse model) when I was in the second grade or so, and I have had something on my wrist virtually every day since. At this point, I can hardly imagine getting dressed in the morning without putting on a watch. My six-year-old Seiko has an analog face and an up-to-date, highly accurate electronic movement that contains a set of weights that charge the battery whenever I wear it, so I never need to get a replacement.

Though it contains nary a jewel, that Seiko is probably the best watch I have ever owned. But I have to wonder whether it, too, might be bound for the display case of an antiques store.

When I look around, I see fewer people wearing watches. In online discussions, commenters make proud declarations like, “I remember vividly the time when I stopped wearing my watch.” One person noted, “I haven’t worn a watch in a couple of years, and I’m noticing that more and more people aren’t.

These days, we can get a digital readout of the correct time almost everywhere we look — on our computer screens, our cell phones, our TV cable boxes, our microwave ovens, our coffee pots, and even in some cases on our refrigerators and dishwashers. And, on those rare occasions when the time is nowhere in sight, you can always pull out your cell phone.

A few companies have tried to capitalize on the use of cell phones as time-keeping devices by making watches that also serve as cell phones. The LG GD910 watchphone has a full color screen, makes and receives calls, and can be worn on the wrist. But the phone-on-your-wrist idea has, not surprisingly, failed to catch on. Even the tiniest of phones is still a lot to have strapped to your wrist and even the biggest of watch faces is still a pretty tiny surface area for trying to navigate menu screens and peck out text messages. So, with the watch unable to take the place of the cell phone, the cell phone is taking the place of the watch.

Watches that fill roles not easily performed by cell phones are probably more likely to stick around than those that simply tell the time. In a 2007 article in Jewelers Circular Keystone, most jewelers interviewed reported that they had not yet seen a significant drop-off in the sales of high-end watches. Keith Rivenbark of CMI Jewelry in Raleigh, N.C., remarked that, even though, “the practical use of a wrist watch is declining with the universality of cell phones, fine watches will always have a place in one's wardrobe as a fashion item.”

Specialty watches used by divers and other outdoor enthusiasts will probably also endure. As one blog commenter remarked, “It's much easier to tell the time using a wrist watch when you are surfing than trying to check your, um, rather wet mobile phone.” There are no cable box displays or computer screens you can easily glance at when you’re hiking the Appalachian Trail.

So the wrist watch may stick around for a while, as a fashion accessory and as an outdoorsman’s tool, but the remaining life of the utilitarian, everyday watch is probably limited. As long as old geezers like me are around, I don’t doubt that there will be wrist watches, but there will probably be far fewer of them. Checking the time on a wrist watch may soon become the equivalent of carrying a cloth handkerchief — either old-fashioned and stodgy or retro-chic, depending on who’s doing the dabbing.

I will keep wearing my wrist watch. But I won't be surprised if one day my grandchildren visit an antiques store to see a self-charging Seiko men's watch on display, a relic of bygone days.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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