Cocktail Hour: The Curious Story of My Mom’s Weber Watch
This is the story of how one daughter’s treasure hunt for the perfect gift for her mother led her down the rabbit hole into the world of tiny timepieces.
A few years ago, I wrote about my Dad’s Wolfsburg watch for Father’s Day. It was a piece that was presented to Volkswagen Beetle owners when they clocked 100,000 kilometers without service. The twist was that my dad got the watch in a roundabout way – from my mother’s father, Thomas Bissett, who was a mechanic and watch guy.
For Mother’s Day this year, I thought I’d share a more maternal story – although my grandfather, Tom, plays an important role in this tale as well. It’s also about mother-daughter bonding and the horological history of the cocktail watch.
So, mix up a nice G&T (I recommend some Aviation Gin, elderflower tonic, and a nice wedge of lime on the rocks) and settle in for a happy ending.
When my mother, Heather, turned 12 or 13, her parents presented her with her first watch. “It was for my birthday the year my sister got married,” she says. And as anyone who has seen the movie 16 Candles knows, it’s easy to feel overlooked when there’s a big wedding near your birthday – “getting a watch was a big deal.”
As I mentioned, her family were watch people. And growing up in a working class-slash-mercantile neighborhood in the early 1960s, watches were also a signifier. So for my grandparents, this meant that nothing less than a Swiss-made watch would do.
The watch she received was a tiny square timepiece with fancy scrolled lugs. The display had gold, leaf-shaped hour and minute hands. The dial had applied Arabic numerals. And all of this elegance came in a tiny, 15mm across, gold-filled case. “I loved it! It was from all the family,” recalls my mom.
So, what exactly were my grandparents thinking when they gave a 13-year-old what is colloquially known as a cocktail watch?
Small is Beautiful
Women wore wristwatches way before men (thanks, Breguet). This is a fact. And these timepieces fell into two general categories: practical (ladies were running businesses and households) and decorative, high jewelry pieces (usually hidden watches because looking at the time during a formal function was considered rude).
In the 1920s, a third option emerged – a small, decorative timepiece worn after hours but not for formal evening events. An invention of the Jazz Age, this genre became known retroactively as the cocktail watch.
Of course, my teenage mother was not going to cocktail parties. Her parents were teetotalers, for one thing, and cocktail watches were not just frivolous flights of fancy. In 1929, for example, Jaeger-LeCoultre introduced the calibre 101, which is still, even in 2023, the world’s smallest mechanical movement ever made.
And in 1955, Omega introduced the Ladymatic, which featured the maison’s most miniature automatic movement. The brand reissued the Ladymatic collection in 2011, proving that there is still an enthusiastic audience for small timepieces.
While her parents appreciated the mechanical precision of a Swiss-made timepiece, teen Heather’s tiny watch was also a way to express her individuality and an object that made her feel grown up. That is, until she lost it.
The post-WWII era was the peak of cocktail watch time. The 1950s, in particular, were a boon time for the middle class, and, in a sign that wartime deprivations were over, folks snatched up Swiss watches like they were hot cakes.
If you watched the Netflix series The Queen’s Gambit, you may remember teenage chess prodigy Beth Harmon receiving a Bulova American Girl as a graduation present. Well, my mom’s petite timepiece was also a gift and equally meaningful. “It was a watch that was supposed to be for the rest of my life.”
Then my mom misplaced the watch on a trip to Toronto. “I was afraid to tell my parents, and when I did, they told me I wasn’t getting another watch and I accepted that.”
That isn’t to say my mother went watch-less for the rest of her life. “I had to get one when I went into nursing school,” she says. She also has a nice Seiko – her retirement gift from J.M. Schneider’s. But she would often speak wistfully of her first grown-up wristwatch.
So, I decided to become a horological Nancy Drew (not to mention the best daughter ever) and find a replacement piece for her.
There is one blurry photo of my mother dancing with her brother and wearing her cocktail watch. Unfortunately, it does not provide enough information for a positive ID. Fortunately, my mother has a good memory. She was able to recall many details about the timekeeper. It had a square case, stretchy bracelet, and the single, scrolled lug that was super common in cocktail watches of that era.
The tricky part was matching the style to the maker. Anyone who has dabbled in vintage knows that a lot of Swiss brands didn’t survive the Quartz Crisis; thus, their names and records have been lost. To add to the confusion, the signatures on the dial are sometimes that of jewelers or department stores, not manufacturers.
In this case, the name on the dial was Weber. My mother remembered this detail because it was also the name of a prominent family in her hometown.
For a year, I set eBay alerts and made regular Google searches. I found images online and finally found at least a picture that my mom said looked just like hers. So, like a true crime podcaster, the minutiae of the Weber became burned into my brain. I think this is why, a couple of years later, I was able to easily spot its twin sitting in a bag of broken jewelry in a thrift shop.
I also developed a greater appreciation for smaller watches. “In my day,” my mom says, “even men’s watches were small.” And it’s true. One of my favorites – a mid-century Eterna – is a man’s watch that measures 32mm.
My mother was very happy to be reunited with her personal Rosebud. At the same time, she never wears it because of a metal allergy (the caseback is stainless steel, but the case is rolled gold plated base metal).
However, it becoming her daily beater wasn’t why I embarked on this journey because it’s what the watch represents that makes it a real treasure. This single watch links at least three generations of my family together, and that’s what lasts.