Collecting watches is good for Gary Shteyngart’s wellbeing. “The watches inspire me to go [swimming] even when the season doesn’t agree with me, so the nonsense I tell myself is that these watches are contributing to my overall health,” says the author. He swims most days in water-resistant pieces between mid-May and mid-November, and a couple of times a week the rest of the year. “That’s why I’ve spent all this money on them.”

His first watch was the Casio Melody Alarm piece he had as a child, soon after moving to the US from the then Soviet Union in 1979. It played music, including a Russian song, and was a “daily companion” in a “strange society” he did not yet fully understand.

He always wore watches after that, but it was not until he bought a Bauhaus-inspired Junghans Max Bill, his first mechanical watch, that he started collecting. Watches became his first hobby, partly as a distraction from politics in the 2016 US presidential election year.

Shteyngart says he found staring at the Junghans’s second hand helpful for a “sense of order” when he felt claustrophobic on a broken-down subway train in New York that year. “I am very punctual, so if I’m even a little bit late I get very dysregulated,” he says. The experience encouraged him to buy more watches. He now changes between the 30 pieces in his collection every few days, setting each to an atomic clock. “Precision is very important to me,” he explains.

Nomos Glashütte Minimatik champagne (c 2016)

© ©PascalPerich

A couple of months after the subway incident, Shteyngart bought his first Nomos — a “beautiful” Minimatik with a champagne-coloured dial and an orange second hand on the sub-dial. He “fell in love with everything about it” and later featured the stainless steel piece on the wrist of Barry Cohen, the main character of his 2018 novel, Lake Success, who looks at its dial to calm down. The watch-filled book drew a new audience of “watch nerds” to his readings, with some asking him to sign their watch straps.

Shteyngart, a speaker at last year’s Nomos Forum, says fans of the German watchmaker tend to be interesting people. “When you meet someone with a Nomos, you pretty much know they’re not going to be a schmuck,” he observes.

Rolex Explorer 1016 (c 1963)

© Pascal Perich

Shteyngart wore this vintage Rolex during a food tour of Montreal, one of his last trips with a friend who has since died from cancer. “That watch marked that occasion, that wonderful respite in the middle of his declining health where we lived the way we always did — in this very outrageous gourmand fashion,” he says. The writer, who was a consultant on US drama series Succession, bought the stainless steel piece from vintage watch dealer Eric Wind. It has an “exclamation point” dial, meaning there is a dot under the 6 to show the lume was made with the then new tritium, a less radioactive alternative to radium.

Shteyngart likens the gilt dial to “a soup of ink”. “When I look at it, it’s like looking into eternity, which is interesting because I associate it with a friend who passed,” he says.

Lorca Model No 1 GMT (c 2023)

© Pascal Perich

Shteyngart has made friends through his collecting. He met Jesse Marchant, the New York-based singer-songwriter and founder of fledgling Swiss-made watch brand Lorca, after he saw a mutual friend wearing the “incredible” stainless steel Model No 1. Shteyngart was gifted a piece but had to buy another after he “accidentally drowned” the first one while swimming: he forgot to screw in the crown. He wears the watch when travelling and uses the GMT hand to track the time at home in New York.

Patek Philippe Aquanaut (c 2019)

© Pascal Perich

The keen swimmer has a pool at the upstate New York home where he spends half the year, and many of his watches are water resistant to at least 100 metres. “I picked up the Aquanaut specifically because I loved the way that beautiful dial can, under different types of lights, assemble either a greyish or chocolatey sheen to it — and underwater it’s spectacular,” he says.

Shteyngart describes himself as “a bit of an outlier” because he wears the stainless steel piece on a steel bracelet, rather than the composite strap for which the model is known, as it better fits his “very small wrists”.

Grand Seiko White Birch (c 2021)

© Pascal Perich

Shteyngart also swims in his Grand Seiko White Birch, bought in New York when boutiques reopened after the pandemic lockdown. He believes the Japanese watchmaker makes “some of the most beautiful dials”. “They’re incredibly alive but, at the same time, not flashy,” he says.

The “dramatic” textured white dial of this 40mm stainless steel piece, one of his largest watches, is inspired by forests near the brand’s Shizukuishi studio but reminds Shteyngart of trees closer to home. “I have many problems with Russia politically these days but . . . Leningrad, where I grew up, was covered in birches,” he says. “Where I live upstate, I also have a couple of birches on my property.” He admires how the blued steel second hand “washes over this beautiful birch contour”. “I’ll find myself doing some extra laps so I can enjoy seeing that underwater,” he says.

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