A few years ago, I was giving a talk at Watches of Switzerland’s Canary Wharf showroom when I found myself starting to well up. I’d been invited to say a few words about Rolex and to illustrate a point about how a watch is as much a capsule for memories of people we love as a device for telling the time, I’d chosen to wear my grandfather’s Air-King, a watch he’d been given by his parents during the Second World War. His story got stuck in my throat and still chokes me now.
Denis Furnivall Swithinbank was 19 when he left the warm bosom of home and went to war. He was captured, sent to a prisoner-of-war camp in Greece, and later presumed dead. It appeared his story had come to an end.
But it hadn’t. During a camp visit by a trio of high-ranking Nazis – Heinrich Himmler among them – my grandfather and some of his fellow servicemen escaped, making their daring exit through a latrine. They then spent six months in hiding, starving, sleeping in barns and relying on the kindness of strangers to keep them alive. After a number of abortive attempts to get back to allied territory, one day, the group befriended a sailor with a broken boat. Being good with his hands, my grandfather stripped the engine down and rebuilt it, and in return was offered passage to safety.
Even as a father myself, I struggle to imagine the relief his parents must have felt on his return, although they put a value on it I can begin to understand. For his 21st, our family believes, they gave him a hand-wound Ro lex Air-King, a token of their love for their long-lost son. I don’t make a habit of questioning my existence, but knowing I’m descended from a man the world thought was dead is a head-spinner, and the watch is the trigger.
The Air-King stayed with my grandfather. Despite his neardeath experiences in the military, he went on to join the Royal Navy, where he excelled, rising to the rank of commander before he retired. We have black-and-white pictures of him in which we think we can see him wearing the watch during postings in Singapore and Turkey. And my uncle has uncovered details indicating that, later in the war, he may have worn it during sorties in the North Sea and off the beaches of Normandy in 1944. What stories that watch could tell.
My father inherited the watch when my grandfather died, a quarter of a century ago. I was still a teenager at the time, and not prone to bouts of enthusiasm, but I remember being immediately fascinated by it. More than my grandfather’s weathered stud box full of old-fashioned gold cufflinks, or the tie collection my father didn’t quite know what to do with, the watch seemed to keep my grandfather’s story alive. By then, the watch was heavily patinated and it barely worked, but even the slightest flicker of the seconds hand was a reminder of the man that once wore it.
About 15 years ago, my father, seeing how my career was developing, gave me the watch, which had long since given up the ghost. I had it restored in one of Watches of Switzerland’s workshops and set on a tan ostrich strap, which I’d learned may have been what it came on originally. I’ve shown it to Rolex experts who have nodded approvingly, although largely because of the story it tells.
The watch is an heirloom, a portal to another world and a symbol of a rich life that was so nearly snuffed out by a hideous war. Every time I look at it, it reminds me of my father’s father, a man whose story I now tell to my own son, before my memories of him fade any further. I always wear it on family occasions, during the Christmas holidays, and when I get invited to speak to a group of people about the lasting value of a Swiss watch. I love it. It would just be handy if it didn’t make me cry in public.
CREDIT: Robin Swithinbank is a former editor of Calibre Magazine, and now writes for The New York Times, British GQ, The Financial Times and Robb Report