Earlier this year, I published an ebook about watch collecting (paper version coming in a few months). While watch-related books are not uncommon, the particularity here is that it’s fiction. The novel is about a watch collector, Herbert, who finds his grail watch and needs to sacrifice his entire collection if he wants a chance to acquire it.
The book is in French. The title, “Une course contre la montre”, is hard to translate adequately in English. Literally “a race against the watch”, or more commonly “a race against the clock”, the expression is the standard term for “individual time trial” in cycling, like on the Tour de France. To be clear, the book is not about cycling, I’m just trying to explain how the title sounds better in French!
Because the text was entirely “made in Bienne”, and inspired by my time here, I thought it would be okay to tell you a bit about how it happened, especially for those who, even if they wanted to, could not read it in French. The genesis of the project was basically threefold: unsuccessfully searching for “watch geek” fiction, wanting to explain to my kids when they’re older why their dad was so obsessed with watches, and my own dad passing away.
Searching for horological fiction
As much as I love reading about watches, my brain was getting a bit tired of reading “serious” stuff during supposed down time. Watch reviews, technical reading or industry history are fascinating, but not always, to me at least, the most effective way to unwind.
So I started looking around for watch-related fiction. Not stories where a watch is at the center of the plot but most of the content is unrelated to watchmaking. No, something for the watch-obsessed, where the intricacies of movements, dials, cases, bracelets, clasps, crowns, power reserves, chronometric precision, original papers and unpolished lugs are front and center.
Maybe I didn’t look in the right places, but I just couldn’t find anything in the Kindle store or even through a broader online search, at least in a language I speak. I’m not saying nothing exists, just that I didn’t find it. If you do have any recommendations, please share! Until then, this was the first step in making me think: maybe just write one myself?
Explaining my obsession to my kids
Another kind of reading I unsuccessfully searched for was something about the psychology of watch collecting. Sure, there’s plenty written about collecting in general, but what about watches in particular? What is it that makes so many of us argue, dream, lose sleep and keep on learning with such passion and intensity? How is this fondness connected to our sense of time, art, engineering, success, belonging, control and who knows what else?
I wanted to learn more about this not just for my own benefit but also to explain, one day, to my kids. There is no way their childhood memories won’t associate me (let alone the city where they were raised) with watchmaking. My hope was that they would understand why, despite my egalitarian, non-materialistic and minimalist principles, I became so deeply entrenched into the world of (mostly) luxury watches.
As I’m certainly not qualified to write a proper psychological analysis, I thought I could at least try to explore my own thoughts on the matter via a fictional character, projecting my own experience and the observation of so many friends. I like to think that Herbert, the main character, has a bit of each of us watch enthusiasts in him.
Saying goodbye to my dad
I’m fortunate my dad lived a long life that enabled me to have him around until I was about to turn 40, considering he was almost 50 when I was born. He was a publisher and had always encouraged me to have a go at writing.
One of our last conversations was about this book project. And while he could not speak much by then, he directly contributed to shaping the plot. I had already decided the story would be about a collector having to give up all his watches to acquire his grail, but I was not yet set on what that grail would be.
For those of you who may read the novel one day, I won’t go further into my dad’s critical input. That would remove the suspense about why his grail watch is so special to Herbert. But let’s say the book is in many ways a tribute to my dad.
If you’ve read so far, you may want to know just a bit more about the actual story. Herbert is a middle-aged man, married, with a teenage son. Everything in his life is pretty normal, aside from his devouring passion for watches. He managed to tame it over the years, saving his marriage along the way, into a consolidated and perfectly orchestrated collection of 12 watches.
But one day, the watch he had been hunting for decades and had lost any hope of finding surfaces his way. The only chance of acquiring it requires selling his entire beloved collection in just over 3 weeks, fighting off competition from a powerful collector, and hoping his wife and son won’t hate him for sinking so much time, energy and funds into a single watch.
I won’t tell you now if Herbert ends up succeeding in his quest. But, by my book, pun intended, he certainly succeeds in growing as a person. And, timekeeping aside, isn’t that the best thing any of us can ask of a watch?