The Unlikely Watch Collector: Columbo
Unlikely Watch Collector

The Unlikely Watch Collector: Columbo

For a man who might not appear to care too much about what he wears, it turns out the iconic TV detective likes to switch up his wrist gear, big time.

By Steven Rogers

Columbo is a TV show that, for many people (this writer included), is a joy to watch again and again. Its enduring appeal can be credited to a perfectly melded set of ingredients: The inverted “howcatchem” mystery formula, the guest star murderer, delicious period fashion and decor, and the oh-so-satisfying “gotcha” finale.

Most important of all, there is Lieutenant Columbo himself, played brilliantly by Peter Falk. Behind his sloven, bumbling appearance and his “just one more thing” catchphrase hides a sharp mind that is able to pick holes in the not-quite-iron-clad alibis of Los Angeles’ upper-class murderers, whose supreme arrogance always ensures they underestimate the wily detective.

One aspect that has made the character so likable and the show so watchable is Columbo’s relatability. He isn’t a macho, gun-toting hunk nor a swaggering, excitable genius; he is an ordinary, hard-working guy who is shrewd and diligent yet polite and sympathetic. He probably even could have moved on to a better-paid job with more prestige but remains a career cop, on a modest wage, out of pure moral duty.

In keeping with his “everyman” persona, Columbo’s favorite food is a bowl of chili, preferably accompanied by a root beer. In his free time, he likes to take his unseen-yet-frequently-referred-to wife, Mrs. Columbo, bowling or his lethargic Basset Hound – unfussily named “Dog” – for a walk.

And with these simple pleasures come simple accessories: Columbo drives a beat-up 1959 Peugeot 403 cabriolet; he smokes cheap cigars; and he is, of course, almost always wearing a crumpled raincoat over his uninspiring beige-green suit.

But here’s the thing: Despite his down-at-heel demeanor and modest attire (even being mistaken for a homeless person in one episode!), all the evidence suggests that the iconic detective is, against all odds, a watch collector. Granted, the rumpled sleuth isn’t going to give John Mayer a run for his money when it comes to collecting tickers, but Columbo certainly has a penchant for switching up his wrist gear, big time.

Eclectic Taste

In fact, over 69 episodes and ten seasons spanning three and a half decades, Columbo appears to wear no fewer than 17 different watches.

We see LAPD’s finest donning traditional dress watches, robust tool watches, and vintage-style, art-deco watches. These feature round cases, cushion cases, and rectangular cases framing white, black, and silver dials. Some are chunky, and some are slim; some are in steel, others gold-toned; some get paired with a leather strap, and some are on a metal bracelet. In addition to time-only functions, chronograph and date complications also figure.

Want proof? Well, while we’ve done our utmost to scour episodes to spot what watch the legendary law enforcer is sporting on his wrist, the good people at the Frank Columbo’s Wristwatch Tumblr page have already outdone us: They’ve compiled screenshots of every single instance the lieutenant flashes his own wrist candy. Their forensic summary of all of Lieutenant Columbo’s “time” scenes are collated in this snaking graphic.

Begin with a Bang: The Seiko 6139 Speed Timer

After two well-received TV pilots, Columbo makes his official season one debut in the Steven Spielberg-directed Murder by the Book (1971) while wearing a gold-toned dress watch (this watch also appears in a few of the early episodes). Sadly, this piece remains unknown to this day.

However, the first identifiable timepiece Columbo wears isn't seen until late in the second season as the detective pits his wits against Laurence Harvey’s murderous chess master Emmett Clay in The Most Dangerous Match (1973). And it’s a screamer: The Seiko 6139 Speed Timer.

Powered by Seiko’s pioneering self-winding movement featuring a column wheel and vertical clutch, the 6139 was one of the world’s first automatic chronographs (if not the first) when it came to market in 1969.

It also became the first automatic chronograph in space when Colonel William Pogue took his personal 6139 with a yellow dial (along with his NASA-approved Omega Speedmaster) on the 1973 Skylab 4 mission, having found the Seiko useful in training for timing engine burns.

Columbo’s “Seiko Pogue” looks to be an early blue-dialed reference. At over 40mm in diameter, its cushion-shaped and short-lugged case, not to mention its recessed crown and Pepsi-style tachymeter scale on the bezel, ensure plenty of presence on the policeman’s wrist.

I Don’t Want a Watch, Just the Band

During the remainder of the original, classic Columbo run on NBC, which ended in 1978, we don’t see any further recognizable watch models, though the detective swaps out various timepieces. That said, Columbo does make a few references to his unspecified personal timekeeper.

For instance, in A Friend In Deed (1974), the lieutenant’s investigation takes him to Van Cleef & Arpels’ Beverly Hills boutique, where, in addition to inquiring about the murder victim’s phony jewelry, Columbo asks about a replacement band for his watch.

“Do you happen to sell watch bands? This is a very good watch, only five years old. Waterproof and shockproof,” he says, passing it to the saleswoman who patronizingly notes its seven-jewel movement. “We have a large selection starting at 25 dollars,” she replies. To which Columbo quips: “No, I don’t want a watch, just the band.”

Poor old Columbo can take solace from the fact that he’s possibly not the only one to have been treated snootily by sales staff in an upscale retailer

Later, in Old Fashioned Murder (1976), Columbo notices that the snazzy triple calendar chronograph worn by slain stooge Milton Shaeffer (played by the author and screenwriter Peter S. Feibleman) appears to display the wrong date.

“His watch is wrong!” exclaims Columbo. “My watch cost $30. His must have cost a couple of hundred, and it’s wrong. It says May 1st. Goes to show you money doesn’t buy quality.” When it’s pointed out to Columbo it is the lieutenant’s date watch that is out of step, he quips: “Well, what do you expect for 30 dollars?!”

Tough and Practical: Victorinox and Timex

After an 11-year hiatus, Columbo returned to television screens in 1989, this time on ABC. While this revival period didn’t quite reach the glorious heights of the original run on NBC, there is still plenty to enjoy about it.

Like his series debut in the 1970s, Columbo begins the reboot mainly wearing a gold-toned dress watch, either round with a day-date function or an art-deco-style, time-only tank piece. Come the mid-1990s, though, and he begins sporting something tougher and more practical, as befits a cop active in the field.

First, Columbo wears a “Swiss Army” watch with a red bezel and a blackened case. Unbranded, this time-and-date quartz piece is almost definitely from Victorinox, quite possibly made for Marlboro Adventure Team, the cigarette brand’s erstwhile outdoor gear line. Columbo wasn’t the only TV sleuth to strap this on: Fox Mulder wore the same watch – with a natural steel bezel and then a blackened bezel – in The X-Files.

Then, from the late 1990s onwards, in three of the final four episodes, Columbo chooses a Timex Expedition Indiglo with oversized numerals, a notched bezel, and an 8 o’clock pusher that activates the Indiglo function, perfect for those nighttime assignments.

The Watches Peter Falk Wore in his Private Life

In real life, it’s fair to say that actor Peter Falk’s sartorial style was quite a few rungs above his onscreen alter ego. Still, he tended to keep his wrist game relatively low-key.

After Columbo’s final curtain call came in 2003, the native New Yorker continued to enjoy pursuits like golf and drawing in his twilight years. There are even some cool pictures of him on the fairway wearing a slim, quartz Emporio Armani AR-023 Tank and in his art studio sporting an Aluminum Trail Timex Expedition Indiglo T43101 with heavy-duty bezel. Columbo would surely have approved!

If this article has helped fire up your appetite for Columbo, you can visit Peacock’s YouTube channel to watch classic clips, poke around the Columbophile blog for in-depth episode reviews, or just head on over to Frank Columbo’s Wristwatch Tumblr page to check out more of the lieutenant’s varied wrist attire.

And we’re not done yet! Keep your eyes peeled for our follow-up article on the timepieces worn (or used) by Columbo villains and their victims – many of which hold the key to our hero cracking the case!

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