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For the Loser of Fine Watches By HARRY HURT III JULY 1, 2006

Continue reading the main story Share This Page Continue reading the main story Photo A watch emporium on Canal Street. Credit Nicholas Roberts for The New York Times I WENT looking for a timepiece and a measure of redemption, only to be sucked back down to Chinatown on the next to last day of spring. It was half-past noon, and the sidewalks were teeming with sweaty street vendors and sweatier tourists. The air reeked of cheap perfume, cheaper soap and the take-out lunches of roast duck, pork fried rice and garlic-slathered noodles the shopkeepers were eating at their counters.

I climbed out of a subway hole, looking and feeling like a loser. And I was a loser. Not just any old loser. I was a loser of fine watches, sunburned and bare-wristed, clutching a dog-eared copy of "The Myth of Sisyphus" like a flattened aluminum can. The street vendors immediately got my number.

"Rolex! Rolex!" exclaimed a Chinese woman in a sleek tank top.

"Cartier!" rasped a Jamaican man wearing a Yankees cap. I hung my head and kept walking. Rolex, Cartier, Patek Philippe. Over the last three decades, I have lost all those name-brand watches and then some. My wife, Alison, had recently given me an exquisite Patek Philippe dress watch with an 18-carat gold casing and a simple white face. I kept it locked in a jewelry box because I was afraid I'd lose it. Alison complained that I never wore her loving gift.

On my last two visits to Chinatown, I had come looking for a custom suit and the meaning of life. I found the first thanks to Tim the Tailor of the International Tailor Company on Mott Street, who made me a double-breasted suit for $620. I found the second thanks to Dr. Nelson Ying, the lay preacher at the Mahayana Buddhist Temple on Canal Street, who introduced me to the Four Noble Truths.

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Continue reading the main story Now I was in a no-win marital predicament that could uneasily result in permanent exile to Chateau Bow Wow, a k a the doghouse. I decided my last hope was to embark on an executive pursuit for a replica watch I could afford to lose and replace monthly. And much to my chagrin, I discovered that the best place to find one was in Chinatown.

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Continue reading the main story "At any street corner," my existential philosopher hero Albert Camus observed, "the feeling of absurdity can strike a man in the face."

That feeling struck me in the face as I pondered the due diligence I had done before arriving at the corner of Canal and Lafayette Streets. Even watches made by reputable Swiss companies were going the way of buggy whips and typewriters.

As Marshall Cohen, chief market research analyst at the NPD Group in Port Washington, N.Y, reminded in a telephone interview, the basic function of a watch — telling time — was now provided by electronic devices ranging from cellphones to P.D.A.'s and iPods.

In fact, a recent NPD Group poll found that 36 percent of people under age 25 didn't even wear a watch. According to the latest semiannual study of teenage consumer preferences by Piper Jaffray, a New York investment bank, 59 percent of teenagers said they never wore a watch. A whopping 82 percent said they didn't plan to buy one in the next six months. "Younger-generation consumers who grew up on disposable watches they could buy for $60 would rather spend on other priorities," Mr. Cohen said.

According to NPG Group research, the healthiest segment of the watch industry was fine watches priced at more than $1,000, even though sales of them slumped an estimated 2 percent last year. "Seniors are still buying fine watches as jewelry or as an investment," Mr. Cohen noted. "But they're being worn mostly on special occasions."

Photo Astute bargaining snared a genuine fake man's designer watch in Chinatown for $30, down from $35. Credit Nicholas Roberts for The New York Times Rolex still reigns supreme with annual revenue of about $3 billion and annual production of more than 650,000 fine watches, according to a report by the Stern School of Business at New York University.

Many other name brands have been acquired by luxury goods conglomerates, including Tag Heuer, now part of LVMH, and Cartier and Piaget, which belonged to Compagnie Financière Richemont.

I had visited the Tourneau Time Machine at 12 East 57th Street to inspect some of those and other upscale brands just in case I won the lottery or a magazine subscription sweepstakes. With 16,000 square feet of floor space, 100 brands and 8,000 styles, it is said to be the world's largest watch store. I told a saleswoman I was looking for the thinnest dress watch they had. "The trend, unfortunately, is thick and chunky," she replied with a sympathetic smile.

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See Sample Manage Email Preferences Not you? Privacy Policy Opt out or contact us anytime Even so, she treated me to a cornucopia of fine watches that appeared to be thinner than soda crackers. My favorites were a $5,200 Cartier Tank France, an $11,000 Vauchon Constantine, and a $15,160 Calatrava. I was not especially enamored with the $53,950 Vauchon Perpetual Calendar, despite the fact that it showed the day, the month, and the moon phase, and would never have to be adjusted for the next 100 years.

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Continue reading the main story On a sudden impulse, I hustled over to the Swatch store in Times Square, where I found what the company claimed was the world's thinnest watch. It was a so-called Skin model that measured just 3.9 millimeters deep. It had a purple face, and a chain-mail-style bracelet with steel and purple links. It came with a two-year warranty and cost only $85. So, on another sudden impulse, I bought myself a Skin.

When I boarded a downtown-bound subway, I suddenly began to have second thoughts. My shiny new Skin had looked a lot better on the store rack than it did on my wrist. Like its target audience, its design and color scheme were defiantly adolescent. The math was also totally depressing. I figured if I lost one a month, I'd be out $1,020 in a year, which was a whole lot more skins than I wanted to part with.

I had third thoughts when I prepared to bargain with the Chinatown watch sellers. They were part of a dubiously legal citywide street vending industry whose annual take Mr. Cohen of the NPD Group estimated at well over $100 million. But legitimate brands like Swatches and Casios had become so cheap that the Midtown street vendors now focused on fake designer label handbags and Pashmina scarves. Naturally, the Chinatown watch sellers took me for a fool, so I just as naturally acted like one.

Ignoring plaintive cries to consider other contraband brands, I homed in on the fakes that resembled the fine watch my wife had given me. I found one in the first stall I entered on Canal Street. Trimmed in faux gold with a fake alligator strap, it was thinner than half a pad of Post-Its. Its white face was even labeled Patek Philippe. The vendor wanted $45. I found the exact same watch at the next three stalls I visited. Their asking prices ranged from $40 to $55.

Finally, I stopped at a stall on Lafayette Street where a Chinese watch seller was sitting on a step ladder repairing steel bracelets, and grumbling in a voice that sounded like crashing cymbals. I pointed to the fake Patek Philippe on his rack. "Thirty-five," he said.

"I can get the same watch around the corner for $25," I lied.

"Thirty," he returned.

I silently did the math. If I lost one a month for a year, I would be out only $360. That seemed like a nice round number. I handed over three $10 bills. "America's a great country," I allowed. "How long have you been selling watches?"

The watch seller frowned, shaking his head. "No good English."

I was going to suggest that he learn some, but then I had fourth thoughts. I turned and headed for the subway hole, reminding myself that the best way to avoid permanent exile to Chateau Bow Wow was to pretend I'd never gone back to Chinatown and pray that my wife wouldn't be able to tell my new fake Patek Philippe from the real thing.

E-mail:pursuits@

Correction: July 7, 2006

The Executive Pursuits column in Business Day on Saturday, about buying watches on Canal Street, misspelled part of the name of a line of watches. It is Vacheron Constantine, not Vauchon.

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page C5 of the New York edition with the headline: The 12-Watches-a-Year Solution. Order Reprints | Today's Paper | Subscribe

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