My first watch: How one man found his first serious timepiece through Milan, hockey and his father
Written by Ash Elwood
I understand that the story of a gift from father to son is much too often used by advertising agencies to sell products, but in reality, there really is magic in that moment.
I completed my Bachelors of Architectural Science at Ryerson University, and although I believe that this accomplishment will inform the rest of my life (architects are the presumptuous kind, of course), a work life strictly devoted to design didn’t seem like something that I wanted to resign myself to. It was a seductive combination of my deep cultural roots and the promise of unfamiliar adventure that led me to pursue a Masters of Science in Economics in Milan, Italy—where this story begins.
Milan is an extraordinarily unique city. Far from the stunning museum that is Florence and the majesty of the Roman capital, Milan exists as an anomaly in Italy as both a financial and cultural stronghold. If discovered thoroughly through its enchanting nooks and corners, Milan provides a quality of life and hidden magic available only to its inhabitants. There's an old anecdote in this city that states (in a much more romantic delivery, mind you) that the people of Milan function quite like its streets—grey and unapproachable at onset, but once you've been welcomed, offer gardens and friendships that are overwhelmingly beautiful. Charming, no?
Milan has long been a city of trade, fed decades ago by numerous canals. Leading up to the Second World War, Mussolini filled and paved over many of the old waterways to modernize the city for automobiles. Although many were lost, the two most important remaining canals have become hubs of commerce and social activity. It is here where you will find some of the most beautiful restaurants and pubs in the city, where old friends and new comrades will come together to break bread and drink into the night.
As a passionate watch collector and enthusiast, Milan is a particularly special place for me. It marks the genesis of my timepiece collection, the introduction of a family heirloom that bonded father and son. Sure, it’s an experience that may be many parts predictable, but it’s my own, and was my personal introduction into the world of watches and watchmaking.
Years prior to my own academic sojourn in Italy, a dear friend of mine had completed an exchange in Milan and passed along one contact (Matteo) who would inform a large part of my stay in that city, especially my evenings. Matteo had recently opened a bar on one of the canals, a place that would become my post-class hangout and where I would end up meeting the majority of my Italian best friends. It just so happens that this bar was also where a number of regulars would meet before hockey games. Of course, once they found out there was a Canadian in their midst, they insisted that I accompany them to a hockey game. The Milano Rossoblu (the "Red-Blues") would be my team for the following two years and their stadium, the location of innumerable inextinguishable memories. Of all things, who knew that it would be an Italian hockey team that would later inform the choice of my first major timepiece?
Not far from my friend's bar was a lovely old Milanese street lined with eclectic antique shops and boutique fashion storefronts. It was also the location of a watch shop—I Signori del Tempo—that became a place of fascination and frequent visits over my two years in Milan. It would also end up being the shop where my father and I would find my graduation timepiece. I have been very fortunate to have a wonderful relationship with my father, and much more relevant to this story, I was lucky enough to have him both visit me in Milan and accompany me on my hunt for that first timepiece. The shop was a watch lover’s dream—the shelves were populated with clocks, storefront signs, and case displays from the past, and the drawers behind the counter were filled with a dream-state collection of watches I'd only read about, as if the heroes of horological lore.
Now I will admit that, while I have deep respect and interest in the world of vintage Rolex, it has never been my favourite brand as a whole. But on that particular day, when a tray of vintage Rolexes were brought out for viewing, I found “the one”—a 1978 Rolex GMT Master with a Pepsi bezel—red and blue—just like my favourite new home team, Rossoblu.
The history of the GMT is one of the watch world's most celebrated and continues on to this day. Originally developed in conjunction with PanAm airlines to allow their pilots to have a watch that displayed two time zones simultaneously, this particular one possessed a softness to it that could only be the result of having been worn frequently before. You could tell that it had stories—that the previous owner had loved and lived with it, as evidenced by its imperfections. Being an older model, it also had a smaller, subtler case size. Perhaps the more interesting choice of the Jubilee bracelet (over the much more celebrated Oyster bracelet) was a gut reaction to my memories of an old wristwatch my grandfather was never without. The subtle “flaws” and aging that this magnificent specimen showcased had imbued in it a charm that no factory could produce.
If one is so fortunate, there are few items that are irreplaceable and cherished for a lifetime. The idea of a watch as an heirloom is so much more about the love and adoration one has for the individual than it is about the actual watch itself. I couldn’t possibly begin to write about the admiration and love I have for my father, but the fact that he travelled to celebrate an accomplishment of mine and a most beautiful gift was born from time spent together has resulted in an item that is a constant reminder of an astonishing bond. I do not yet have a child, but if I’m so privileged and when the time is right, I hope that we will find ourselves walking down a shop-lined canal in Milan, and from my pocket will appear a gift that my father and I discovered together so many years before—its charm further developed, its magic so very real.