I bought my first luxury watch to honour my hardworking grandfather
Written by Mike Mah
Illustration by Valentyn Babiiets
My grandfather was my biggest role model. You could call him an artist, and his canvas was boots. He was an artisan that repaired tired and worn down leather shoes to their past glory so that they could be put back to work on the rural farms of Alberta.
Like so many immigrant stories, my grandfather came to Canada in search of a better life, to seize the rich bounty of opportunities that called out from afar. He was the youngest of the brood and the first to make the journey from a small village (at the time) called Taishan in the southwestern province of Guangdong, China. He landed in Canada, bright-eyed and optimistic for the beginning of something great. But times were different back then. Racism and xenophobia ran rampant (even by today’s standards), forcing him to work much harder than the locals to even be seen on a comparative level, especially in a place like rural Alberta. The opportunities that were promised to him weren’t exactly what they were made out to be.
Nevertheless, he was a resourceful man armed to the tooth with grit and determination, which would eventually land him in a job assisting a respected shoe repairman. Years would pass full of long and hard days where my grandfather would work tirelessly, head down, to learn the ins and outs of the trade. So much so that pupil soon eclipsed mentor, eventually leading him to start his own business. Having a pair of sturdy boots was essential to everyday life in his community. They carried you throughout the day, assisting in the hard, rugged conditions that were part of the jobs that put food on the table – having a pair of boots that you could rely on was essential, and my grandfather became known for his ability to resurrect and restore them.
Artistry comes in many forms. In my grandfather’s case, his art wasn’t so much in the final product as it was in the process to get there. When I used to help him in his workshop I would notice his hands, coarse and rugged, thick with layers of callous. He had a shortened stubby fourth finger, severed from a bootlace that got caught in a spinning polisher, and his back was always in a constant state of tension, locked in a mangle of knots and tangles that he would often ask me to undo after a long day of work. His body bore the toll and often served as a physical reminder to me, in the many days that I spent kneading his tired body, of his tireless work ethic and passion.
When my grandfather passed there was a void that I wanted to honour. He was part of a working immigrant generation that gave up everything for the betterment of their families. Every opportunity I have had to succeed, I owe to this sacrifice. To me, a symbolic way of honouring his artistry and the years that he spent building a foundation was to get something that represented both. Shortly after my grandmother’s passing, I purchased my first serious timepiece – a Vacheron Constantin Overseas. As one of the big three Swiss watch brands (Patek Philippe and Audemars Piguet being the other two), it was a big deal for me. But I bought it mostly for what the brand stands for, as a reminder that I could carry with me every day.
As one of the oldest timepiece companies still in existence (its founding dating back to 1755), it represents tremendous legacy and the continuity of passionate craftsmanship, much like what my grandfather employed when he got his opportunity. While it is true that a Vacheron is certainly much different than that my grandfather’s boots, artistry comes in many different forms. At the heart of them both stems a mutual commitment to quality, passion, and hard work. I doubt that my Overseas will see much action on a farm anytime soon, but its brilliance in pedigree is something that will no doubt be passed down in my family to continue that respect for my grandfather’s work.