Judge not a man by the expense of his timepiece

I have uncloaked a secret society in my office. The members recognise each other by a sign on their wrist.

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I have uncloaked a secret society in my office. The members recognise each other by a sign on their wrist. The giveaway is generally round, and often quite large. As far as I can tell it is an exclusively male group, although there are rumours that a few women are tempted to join. This band of brothers swaps strange words such as "Panerai" and "Omega" or even initials such as "IWC". They are not talking Greek, nor in code. But those co-workers who I thought were spending hours peering at their computer screens in search of enlightenment or checking for infelicities in my copy, are in fact looking at websites devoted to collecting timepieces.

My colleagues would have been horrified to observe, as I did one evening in the Swiss ski resort of Verbier, two Englishmen playing conkers with their Rolexes. The loser was the one whose watch fell apart first. Absurd? Of course, but so perhaps is buying something that tells you something you can get for free - and which you risk leaving behind in the gym. Most of the watches drooled over vicariously in the office cost upwards of US$5,000 (DH18,365) and that's just the entry level. One beauty, a 1933 gold Patek Philippe sold at Sotheby's in 1999 for $11 million, although I am not sure that even the salary of the chief sub editor stretches to that.

I rely on an old Longines that would probably not impress the watch aficionados, but it was my grandfather's, so for me it is priceless. Watchmakers must be worried now that more people will rely on their grandparents' hand-me-downs: if any industry is under threat, watchmaking must be at the front of the queue. I met a lawyer the other day, who told me she switched career when she was made redundant from a luxury goods firm in the recession in the early 1990s. Imagine being so scarred that you resolve to become a lawyer for the rest of your life!

The past 10 years have been good to watchmakers. As people grew richer, their tastes became more eclectic. There have been experiments with different shapes, round, rectangular, even triangular; both watches and bracelet covered in platinum or diamonds; and new technology, best typified by Hublot's giant watch "Big Bang", the Breitling "Bentley Flying B", or anything by Franck Muller. What future now for these garish beauties?

My guess is that those that can afford them will continue to flaunt them, although the style is likely to be more sombre. The Panerai that I covet is so subtle that it does not even carry its name or logo on its face. Gianna Agnelli, the Italian who was head of Fiat for many years, was more exuberant: when travelling he wore two watches, one strapped on each cuff, so that the faces were always visible and he knew what time it was in Turin.

When I was on my way to Jordan a few years ago, I had an hour or so to kill at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, so I browsed the kiosks selling watches. I settled on a simple watch with an extremely large face that cost me about $100. I could not I have made a more popular choice. Wherever I went in Amman everyone was terribly impressed by my watch. It turned out that the King of Jordan had one that was similar. "You must be very rich," they said.

Hardly. It is a mistake to judge a man by his watch. James Bond wore a Rolex Oyster Perpetual, but he often used them as a pair of knuckledusters when the opportunity arose. A few weeks ago I had the occasion to meet Baron David de Rothschild at his offices in Dubai. A suave man in a neatly cut charcoal suit and a plain tie, he wore an impressive looking watch with a black face. I tried to catch a glimpse of what make of watch it was, but was too embarrassed to ask him.

It was intriguing: what watch would a man whose name is synonymous with riches, dynasty, taste - the French talk of "le gout Rothschild" - a man who, let's face it, can probably afford any kind of watch, wear? A Patek Philippe perhaps? An Omega? I thought I recognised the last letter of the Greek alphabet on his watch, but I was not sure. After the interview, on the drive back to Abu Dhabi, I sent an e-mail to my contact. "Unusual question, I know, but what sort of watch does the baron wear? The editor would like to know."

There was some amusement among the Rothschild staff that I should ask such a question, a delay, and then came the answer: a Swatch. I was tempted to question the response - I felt sure it was an Omega - but in an age where a man's word is as important as his bond, especially in financial circles, I have no choice but to take his word for it. A Swatch. The cheapest Swiss watch you can buy, one that retails for less than $50.

Among all the reasons for the longevity of the most famous name in banking, perhaps this finally is the Rothschild's dirty secret. They know that time is money and don't want to waste it. They don't care what they wear on their wrists, as long as it is accurate and inexpensive. The Rothschilds care nothing for tourbillons, split-second hand oscillators, and minute repeaters: they know life is complicated enough. A lesson for us all, although I doubt if I will be able to wean the watch lovers in the office off their favourite pastime.