Tim Marlow, wearing a dark-coloured suit,
Director Tim Marlow at the Design Museum in London © Anna Gordon for the FT

Tim Marlow remembers the “absolute joy” of receiving his first watch. His parents gave him a Timex for his ninth birthday that he never wanted to take off. “It made me feel adult and slightly more self-contained,” he says. “It became a family joke that I’d always be the timekeeper.”

More than five decades on, he feels “naked” without a watch. As one might expect from the chief executive and director of the Design Museum in London, it is the design of watches that appeals. “They’re this beautiful combination of functionality and elegance,” says Marlow, who covets a “modernist” Braun AW10 (1989) by Dietrich Lubs.

1. Mappin & Webb dress watch (early 1980s)

Mappin & Webb gold dress watch
© Anna Gordon

The piece that means the most to Marlow is his gold dress watch from Mappin & Webb, an English jeweller that is now part of the Watches of Switzerland Group. His younger brother gave it to him as a 21st birthday present. “I treasure it,” he says. “I can cope with most watches being lost . . . but this I’d really hate to lose, so I don’t wear it that often.”

It is the longest-standing piece in his collection, and established his love of Roman numerals on a dial. “It’s a slight affectation, but I think Roman numerals look really elegant on a watch because of the graphic design of them,” he says.

2. Rolex Oyster Perpetual Air-King (2002)

Blue-faced Rolex Oyster Perpetual Air-King
© Anna Gordon

One piece Marlow did lose was the first “proper watch” he treated himself to when he had a holiday job in his early twenties. He wore the Tag Heuer Aquaracer on holiday with friends in Oman in 2002, but it came off his wrist when he jumped into a sinkhole, an oasis in the desert. His friend captured the leap in a photograph. “That’s the split second before I lost my pride and joy, my first Tag,” says Marlow. He decided to replace the lost watch with a steel Rolex Oyster Perpetual Air-King with a blue face. “It reminded me of the Tag in a sense, but it was more streamlined and elegant,” he says.

3. Tag Heuer Aquaracer Professional 200 (2005)

Tag Heuer Aquaracer Professional 200
© Anna Gordon

Having replaced his Tag Heuer with a Rolex, Marlow, who used to do a lot of swimming and surfing, decided he still needed a sports watch. “There was one occasion where I jumped into a swimming pool with [the Rolex] on and it’s water resistant, but it freaked me out that I’d be so stupid,” he says, “so I now have to remember what watch I’m wearing.”Marlow bought a new Tag Heuer Aquaracer, which he wears for cycling and on holiday. “I go quite a lot to certain countries where you’re advised that jewellery and expensive things are not a smart thing to have,” he says. “So, although a Tag is a really nice watch, it’s not a magnet in a way that a Rolex would be.”

4. Rolex Oyster Perpetual Datejust (2010)

Rolex Oyster Perpetual Datejust
© Anna Gordon

In what he says his wife described, with irony, as an act of “supreme selflessness”, Marlow decided to commemorate the birth of his son in 2010 by buying another Rolex Oyster Perpetual, this time a Datejust. His intention is to wear the watch frequently and then give it to his son when he turns 21. The case back is engraved with the boy’s initials and date of birth.

As an art historian and previously artistic director of the Royal Academy of Arts, Marlow is interested in a work of art not just in itself but also in its “layering of human experience” — the people who have seen it — and its “cultural resonance”, both when it was made and over time. For that reason, he is interested in pre-owned watches with a history.

“I like the fact that, in a very modest way, my son will inherit something that was from his father, but had been on his father’s wrist and he will wear on his wrist,” he says.

But Marlow cautions against “fetishisation” and becoming too attached to watches, because of their vulnerability to being lost or damaged. He has explained to his son, now 12, that the piece is “symbolical and a gesture”.

5. Cartier Tank (2022)

A steel Cartier Tank
© Anna Gordon

Marlow marked his 60th birthday last year by buying himself a steel Cartier Tank. “What does a man do when he hits 60 and gets his free travel pass? I thought this was the thing to do to start the third third of my life,” he says.

Last May, the Design Museum displayed the OAK watch collection, owned by French entrepreneur Patrick Getreide. “I love the fact that, when he made his first significant amount of money, the first thing he did was buy himself a Cartier Tank of considerably more value than [mine] . . . [For] every serious watch collector — and not serious watch collector — the Cartier Tank is a classic,” says Marlow.

He says he is “not a serious watch collector”, but likes having pieces to wear. “My watch collection spans from my 21st birthday to my 60th with a few things being lost in between,” he says.

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