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Whim All the Way Down

On the watches of dictators.

Most Americans, I think, fancy themselves collectors of something or other. It is the natural consequence of our superabundant material culture; with the specter of famine having shuffled almost out of our living memory, people are free to devote a decent portion of their earnings to whim. Collecting is just rationalized whim.

I am no exception. I have my little whims—books, guns, watches—but, because of the financial strictures of family life, they tend to be modest, with the possible exception of books. (But those are part of my work, anyhow.) I mostly stick to browsing auction sites and wondering what it must be like to be a monied bachelor.

Watches, in particular, are a browsing-heavy “collection.” I generally wear an early ’70s Seiko Lord Matic, gold with a linen-finished face—a gift from my in-laws and, to my eye, a monument of elegance. It is also not the sort of watch people get mugged for; nor is it the sort that demands tens of thousands of dollars at auction. That sort of thing is for browsing.

It is probably for the best. My particular fascination, my whim, raises eyebrows in polite company. For reasons I have never been able to discover, Middle Eastern autocrats of the modern era love to give out custom watches with their names and, often, at least among the less publicly observant servants of Islam, their likenesses on the faces.

The earliest I have ever seen is a late ’30s watch bearing the portrait of King Farouk II of Egypt and his queen, Farida. Farouk was a fat playboy and was deposed in 1952 by a population tired of his antics. While he wasn’t long for this world, the custom of handing out watches seems to have met with approval from the region’s other potentates. As you’d expect, the House of Saud gives out Rolex Datejusts and, reportedly, Chopards, usually white with the national palm tree and calligraphic sigil in an elegant pale green. I have seen a handful of other brands at auction with the portraits of the first three Saudi dynasts on it, but I am not sure whether these were also court gifts or some enterprising third-party commission. Jordan’s gift watches of choice are less flashy but, to the eye, the most elegant—Longines automatics, with the Jordanian crown and the name of the monarch.

Famously (in the watch world, anyway), the Sultan of Oman, Qaboos, commissioned special Rolexes for the SAS men who supported his coup against his father. On the dial is Qaboos’s name and, on many of the watches, the scarlet khanjar—the dagger of the Sultan. These fetch as much as thirty thousand dollars at auction.

But my own interests—browsing purely, remember—run less to this fabulous, monarchic extravagance and to more questionable, if more plebeian items. Col. Muammar Gaddhafi kept up a steady stream of inexpensive quartz watches bearing his likeness at every stage of his fashion sensibility—from the young officer of the ’70s grimacing in his dress uniform to the pan-Africanist dashiki-wearer of later years. Most of these watches are frankly ugly, and the portraits more or less smudgy and dotted. It is easy to say in retrospect that something of these watches’ cheapness presaged the colonel’s sordid, inglorious end.

Saddam Hussein seems to have had a more careful eye—indeed, you get the sense almost of a connoisseur. Although more visibly budget-constrained than the Gulf monarchs, he chose respectable brands with understated styles: Seiko, Citizen, some of the smaller Swiss houses. The portraits were better selected and better printed. Occasionally, presumably for special guests, he gave out something a cut above. There is a Zodiac with the Iraqi national crest on it that comes up at auction occasionally; it is in truth one of the best-looking watches I have ever seen, and Zodiac’s movements aren’t to be sneezed at.

Rarer are the watches bearing the likeness of Hafez al Assad, the founder of Syria’s current ruling dynasty. I have seen only a few of these come to auction—Tissot, Longines, Omega. Assad evidently did not do so much entertaining as Saddam, so he did not need to spread his money so thin. Rarest of all on the market—Bashar al Assad watches. I have only ever seen one, as I was checking the auction sites for this column—a Swiss brand I have never heard of, and a somewhat wide-eyed portrait of the once and future tyrant of Damascus. Not a prepossessing object.

Why do these relics of these more or less shabby despots, the popular villains of my childhood, hold me so? I’m not entirely sure. A certain conservative affinity for the bad-but-best option, maybe—can anyone say Libya or Iraq is better off now than under their old wicked regimes? A certain fascination with the failed ideologies of the past, perhaps—the feeling one gets when looking at Tito-era monuments in the Balkans, or the great graveyards full of bronze Lenins and Marxes scattered through the old Eastern Bloc.

It may just be the bizarreness, the personal forces of pure whimsy lying under the decision to choose a particular watch and put your face on it. For them, as for me, it was whim all the way down, and the difference between us is one of means. Yet there is something in that difference; constraint can be a gift. These watch-fanciers tended to come to bad ends. I, on the other hand, am likely to die old, and peacefully.