I Wore an Expensive Watch While Traveling, and People Treated Me Wayyy Differently

Expensive watch
Jason Hoffman/Thrillist
Jason Hoffman/Thrillist

A business mentor of mine once told me, "You can judge a man by the watch he wears." That's precisely why I never wear one; with nothing on my wrist, you actually have to listen to what I say to form an impression. Plus my iPhone tells the time just fine, thanks, and even changes time zones automatically.

But then I got an email from a company called Eleven James. This company will rent you a luxury, high-end, your-sad-sack-salary-would-never-let-you-afford-it wristwatch, one at a time, for $150 a month. Like Netflix, except if you forget to return it you're out a lot more than 15 bucks. And since I travel a lot for work -- and am judged daily by everyone from flight attendants to business executives -- this seemed like a way to test whether the old mentor knew what was up. So I set out on the road to see whether a fancy watch makes a lick of difference.

Airport ticket counter
Venturelli Luca/Shutterstock

Watches put you in a special fraternity

My questions were answered almost immediately after receiving my first watch. It was something called a Blancpain Fifty Fathoms Bathyscaphe, a dashing little bauble, waterproof to 300 meters, that retails for about $11,000. Good to know that if I somehow found myself at the bottom of Lake Tahoe, my skull might cave in, but my watch would be just fine.

That first week I had a flight home from Houston. The night I was to fly out, the city was struck by some nasty thunderstorms -- so nasty, in fact, that everyone in George Bush Airport seemed resigned to sleeping on the terminal floor. Desperate to get home, people were lining up to talk to a beleaguered gate agent, who summarily told them all the same thing: "You're not getting out tonight, we'll put you on a flight tomorrow." I expected the same when I got to the front of the line.

"Same thing," I said as I handed him my and my traveling companion's boarding passes, watch flashing on my wrist. "Any chance you can get us back to Miami tonight?"

He looked down at my boarding passes. Then up at me. Then back at my hand.

"Are you elite status with us?" he asked.

"No," I responded. He shrugged and took my boarding passes anyway.

"I've got two seats on a flight to Ft. Lauderdale at 11:30," he said. "Would that work for you, sir?" I nodded a very gracious nod, and he handed me two fresh boarding passes that I can only assume got me home half a day earlier than everybody else. As he did, I noticed he too was wearing what looked like a very expensive watch.

It was like he'd recognized me as a member of some grand fraternal order, one where instead of dues you drop the price of a Kia on Mewelery.

"That's like the watch your waiter gets when he finally has some real money." Ouch.

Couple of weeks later I found myself in Spain interviewing a cruise executive aboard his line's newest ship. The interview was scheduled for 10 minutes, max, at the onboard late-night pizza place. As he sat down, I pulled out my notebook. His eyes went directly to my wrist. He didn't say anything, but his eyes stayed there long enough that it was obvious he was trying to see what kind of watch I was wearing. His looked like it cost more than a house in suburban Fresno.

I could see the gears spinning in his head like the ones inside my five-figure timepiece: I've barely heard of this "Thrill List," but if its staff writers are wearing $11,000 watches it must be legit. Clearly this is not some basement blogger here to suckle a free cruise.

Within the first five minutes of the interview, he'd invited me for dinner with him and some other executives at the ship's fanciest restaurant. The execs I ate with also not-so-subtly checked out my watch. Halfway through, they were inviting me for a second meal and sake at the ship's high-end sushi bar. And believe me, I'm not that charming.

Over the course of the summer, the way I was treated while traveling generally improved. Hotel front desks actually seemed to care when my internet didn't work. Flight attendants gave me whole cans of soda. When I got first-class upgrades, the people I sat next to actually talked to me (watches, I later learned, are how regular first-class flyers can tell the real money from the upgrades). I wasn't sure if it was just the confidence that came from wearing an expensive watch that caused people to treat me better, or it was the watch itself. Either way, my watch and I were clearly sending a message.

Women notice watches too

Interestingly enough it was not the most expensive watches that got the most compliments. The watch people commented on the most was a Bell and Ross 03-92-S with a leather band. It retails for a mere $3,900 at Barney's, or about a third of what my first watch sold for.

At a rooftop bar in Providence, RI, a gal in the league above the league that's out of my league came up to me and said, "Nice watch."

Was this really happening? Was I really getting hit on because of my watch? I see no way this isn't worth $150 a month.

I smiled back and said thanks.

"My family runs jewelry stores," she said. "I know a good watch when I see one. See? We're twins!" She held up a ladies version of the Bell and Ross and raised her drink to toast our mutual good taste in timepieces. I toasted her back, she complimented me again on my choice in watches, then mumbled something about having to go find her friends.

So, no, a nice watch didn't get me a phone number that night. But, you know. Give it time.

Porto Cervo Sardinia Italy

Like wealth itself, watches are relative

Of course, there are limits. I wore my last watch -- a Breitling Superocean Heritage Chronograph -- to visit a friend of mine in Sardinia who makes million-dollar boats and sells them to billionaires. On more than one occasion, he has mentioned to me how important watches are for him when conducting business with the world's 1%. He, of course, noticed my watch immediately.

"So you finally got a watch," he said. I explained to him the project and he raised his eyebrows. "That's a nice watch there, but I mean it's like five grand. That's like the watch your waiter gets when he finally has some real money." Ouch. I explained to him the reactions I'd gotten during the rest of the summer.

"Sure," he said. "For people who don't know. But when I'm doing business with the kind of clients we have, something like that isn't going to work. You see that guy over there?" He motioned towards a potential client who was out on a boat with us. "His watch cost $450,000. It tells time in four different time zones at once."

I pointed out my iPhone could do that just fine. He told me I still didn't get it.

My experience with the library of luxury watches was eye-opening. An accessory I'd never thought much about clearly had an impact I hadn't expected. And though as a journalist, people are surprised if you show up in a shirt that's been ironed in the last month, wearing a nice watch made a discernible difference. It gave a certain kind of person a certain impression of me, and of the company I work for. For those who work in fields where fast impressions are important -- real estate, finance, and other worlds where you need to look like money to make money -- I can only imagine it would benefit you even more. For the traveler whose time is spent making snap-judgment impressions all day, every day, an expensive watch can be a shortcut to a kind of acceptance, however cheap it might be.

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Matt Meltzer is a staff writer at Thrillist who has sadly gone back to that naked-wrist life. Follow his watchless adventures on Instagram @meltrez1.