The first good watch I received was thanks to my father. It was a Montine given to me as a child by Lord Thomson of Fleet, proprietor of The Times, my father’s employer. My mother sensibly took it away from me until I was 16. On my 21st birthday, my father gave me an Omega Speedmaster, and I got plenty of mileage out of the engraving on the back. It says, “Flight Qualified by NASA for All Manned Space Missions” and “The First Watch Worn on the Moon”. “What, this actual watch?” my friends would ask. I wouldn’t say anything – just smirk knowingly.
My father used to wear an Omega too, a Flightmaster. As a child I was fascinated by the crowns and pushpieces. It has a flat sapphire crystal glass, which he loved because it caught the light, and when I was a small child sitting by him on an aeroplane, he would hold it up to the window and direct the light into my eyes – typical of him, he a was true professional when it came to knowing how to annoy people.
He loved watches and I have now inherited some of his collection. There is one in particular that I cherish: a Breitling Co-Pilot. It is a model that has become quite desirable, but that is not why I like it. He found it difficult to see the hands, so he painted them red. I spoke to a collector about changing the hands and he advised against it as it would “destroy its historic value”. Historic value – that would have amused him.
There are very strict rules about how Christie’s staff buy at Christie’s auctions – you have to leave a written bid at least 24 hours before the sale. Nevertheless, over the years I have bought a Patek Calatrava, a large titanium Panerai and an FP Journe. They all went to finance the purchase of a Patek Philippe Nautilus in white gold, which I got a few years ago and could definitely not afford now.
I am a great admirer of the work of Gérald Genta, and I would love to get an old Audemars Piguet Royal Oak to remind me of my youth, when all my father’s really stylish friends had one. Another watch I would like from almost the same period is the Cartier Crash. Sadly, my father did not leave me one, but he did have what he thought was a Cartier wristwatch from which the sapphire on the winding crown fell off, and he sent it to Cartier with a very brisk note. It was returned, looking perfect, with a letter: “Dear Lord Snowdon, Your watch was not made by Cartier, nevertheless we are delighted to have been able to add a sapphire to the winding crown as you request.”
The Cartier he gave me on my wedding day had been given to him by my mother on their wedding day: it is a pocket watch on a fine yellow- and white-gold chain with a gold pencil at the other end. I don’t wear it often, but I use it when I have to wear a waistcoat. It is currently being serviced by Cartier and I hope they get it back to me in time for Ascot and Trooping the Colour – somehow, I don’t think my red‑handed Breitling will be quite as appropriate… whatever the historical value.