The branded-watch culture in the UAE can be bewildering

If you want to fit in with the nation's high-maintenance residents, a designer watch is key

NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 19: Rita Ora, watch detail, ring detail, tattoo detail, visits the Music Choice studios on June 19, 2017 in New York City.  (Photo by Taylor Hill/Getty Images)

I’m hunting for a new watch online. I like the idea of the face being of a slim rectangular shape, perhaps with Roman numerals decorating the dial.

A white or mother-of-pearl dial would be nice, but I'm not too picky – as long as it fits nicely, costs under Dh800 and has a vintage-inspired aesthetic.

After a quick search on, I find the perfect watch. The brand is one I’ve never heard of – Bulova – but I don't mind, I add the timepiece to my cart and a week later, it’s on my wrist.

I've since discovered that my method of watch-shopping is somewhat unconventional – at least to many other UAE residents. While I prefer to buy affordable designs, so that I can match different styles to my outfits on a daily basis, others, I’ve learned, take the selection of their timepieces far more seriously.

It’s said that you can tell a lot about a man by his watches, and his wheels, and men in the UAE are particularly in tune to the world of timepieces. Women too, are fond of splurging on watches; Emiratis especially are keen to flaunt their brand-name buys, since, it’s one of the few jewellery pieces that is displayed while robed in an abaya.

For many, a new watch is given as a token that marks a new milestone. It’s a popular gift for those graduating school or getting married. And while I’d settle for a spur-of-the-moment Swatch design equipped with a transparent PVC strap while browsing a shopping mall kiosk, others spend months researching their dream wrist designs. For them, brands like Omega, Cartier, Bvlgari and Rolex even, are household names.

Being a lifestyle journalist, I have to remain somewhat versed in what the latest watch trends are. Still, there are very few timepieces that have stopped me in my tracks.

The Poetic Complications by Van Cleef & Arpels, which show a transformation in scenery or situation as time ticks away, are real treasures, and space-inspired timepieces by MB&F are impressively avant-garde.

But I’ve never really considered splurging on a designer watch for myself – perhaps because the exorbitant prices are so drastically outside of my budget, but also because I’ve never been attracted to the grandiose, in-your-face designs.

When I find myself as an exclusive watch-unveiling event in Dubai, I realise how ignorant I am about their inner workings. A presentation is projected on a wall of the boutique, featuring the specs of two new watches, produced exclusively for the Middle East market.

As journalists ooh and aah I stare on, helplessly confused, wondering what all the fuss is about. I see nothing special about yet another gold or stainless steel watch, with a round dial and see-though case exterior, showcasing the movement, which featuring intricacies beyond my level of comprehension.

It's not long before members of the media line up to try on the watch and snap photos of their wrists, before sharing them promptly on Instagram and Snapchat.

I skip this part, and instead make my way over to the live demonstration, where a watchmaker is assembling key components of the timepiece. It’s when I observe his painstaking precision, coupled with an utter lack of emotion and overall absorption into his craft, that I realise there’s a whole lot more to watch-making than the fancy exteriors.

The brand director tells me customers usually buy a watch just as they'd buy a rare painting, and that it's this inherent appreciation of art, that's at the core of watch-buying.

Still, the fact that consumers are willing to drop thousands and hundreds of thousands of dirhams on a watch that they’ll have to manually wind, blows my mind.

And although there is a breadth of skill and technique that goes into producing one of these luxury timepieces, I remain sceptical about buyers' intentions. Are they paying for the craftsmanship, or for the valuable gemstones, or, alas, for the designer name stamped on it?

The most expensive watch in the world was sold at a Christie’s auction in Dubai earlier this year, for more than Dh1.8 million. It was a 1981 Patek Philippe design, that at first,  second, and third glance, doesn’t look all that extraordinary.

Whether they’re bought as prized collectors’ items to be stored away, or, worn every day, the region’s deep-rooted watch culture remains lost on me.

When it comes to fashion, there are few things more functional than a watch – yet the watches often seen in the UAE are anything but practical.

Set with countless diamonds, some are real blinders – and others are just so ostentatious that you have to wonder if their wearers even use them to serve their fundamental purpose – to tell the time.


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