Watchword for vulgarity

Consider the Rolex wristwatch. Is it not excellent? Is it not hand-crafted? Are its components not hewn with infinite care from solid blocks of metal and quartz? Can you not go into space with it, dive to the depths of the ocean in it? Is it not, surely, the best watch in the world? Does it not grace the wrist of many a top designer and architect? And are these people not all flash gits?

Yes, they mostly are. Sad but true. Choosing to wear a Rolex is rather like choosing to drive a Rolls-Royce. Never mind the excellence of the products, never mind the thousands of man-hours involved in their construction – these conspicuous icons of monetary success have “vulgar” stamped all over them. They are understandably coveted by those whose lack of taste is matched only by their desire for ostentation. For these consumers, to wear a Rolex is to scream, in the immortal words of Harry Enfield’s Loadsamoney, “Look at my wad!”

True, you can get Rolexes in stainless steel and platinum as well as brash yellow gold. But this is no excuse. It is the same as saying you chose your Roller with the chromed Spirit of Ecstasy rather than taking up the flashier option of the gilded version with hubcaps to match. Face it: the heavy lump of a Rolex on the male wrist is but one remove from the large medallion nestling in the chest-hair.

On the female wrist, I grant you, the man-sized Rolex has interesting things to say about the nature of gender and power, and is frankly a bit of a turn-on. Inevitably, the Rolex is also an important signifier among gays. However, the gangs who roam the streets mugging people for their Rolexes are not respecters of sex. To them, these watches are a mere commodity, and all those who wear them are fair game. Which makes me wonder – can the muggers spot a fake at 50 paces? Or do they mug first, and check for authenticity later?

What started this off for me was taking a long and tedious train journey, which is the only occasion I ever buy a car magazine. The mag in question was stuffed with ads, not for cars, but for watches. I can’t remember if Rolex stooped to this oily-hands market, but most of the others did: Breitling, Tag Heuer and a dozen other makes I hadn’t heard of but which all aped the same chunky, action-man style. So petrolheads like macho watches and are prepared to pay big money for them – what’s new? So I began to think about the market in fakes.

Every so often there is a well-publicised steam rollering of captured fake watches by Cartier and others. It’s a photo-opportunity which is meant to reinforce the quality image of the brands in question. But given the fact that even cheapo watch movements do a pretty good job of telling the time – and that very few of us rocket into space or dive to the ocean’s depth to test our timepiece’s capabilities – who cares? The name’s the thing, and anyone can stencil a name on a watch face. On one of the worst celebrity TV quizzes I’ve ever seen – hosted by Tony Slattery, and which barely staggered to the end of its first series – the great and glorious Jonathan Meades signally failed to detect a fake Rolex when it was presented to him, even though he claimed to wear a real one, and thus ought to know. It is all I remember from the series. Even its name has vanished.

There is, of course, a thriving counter-culture of fakes. One hip young architect proudly showed me his fake Rolex, purchased as such for just a few pounds in Hong Kong. He would, I think, never wear the real thing, but was happy with his small and deliberate act of rebellion: sporting the brand name without the associated price tag. If muggers ever threatened, he would just hand it over happily.

It’s sad in a way that design excellence should, in the end, be indistinguishable from the dubious science of branding – which has little to do with quality and everything to do with marketing hype; and that it is to be found living and breathing in every airport departure lounge around the world. I suppose I should condemn this unfortunate blurring of fact and fiction. But those who knowingly wear the fakes are somehow not flash gits like those who wear the real things. In their subversive way they are exposing one of society’s ills. Weirdly, the notion of the spiv seems to have been turned on its head.

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