One particular patron of finer timepieces is an unlikely one—the current (14th) Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatzo. Folks have been acknowledging his penchant for fixing and rebuilding mechanical machines ever since he was dubbed the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people. His known love for the art of mechanical hands-on labor has led him to be gifted well-built timepieces from international fans around the globe. Indeed, the Dalai Lama doesn’t necessarily rock fine mechanical pieces for fashion. Often sporting inexpensive bands on otherwise pricey pieces, his main focus (according to interviews) are on fixing and maintaining them. Since we work on watches here at Times Ticking it’s kind of exciting to hear that such a well-known world leader shares a similar taste for watch maintenance. Ahead, we’re going to highlight a few of these holy horological pieces and touch lightly on their individual significance.
Back when Swiss watches were seen more as a utility than a luxury item, young Tenzin Gyatzo was gifted a Patek Philippe by Franklin D. Roosevelt (not to date His Holiness too much). The year was 1943, WWII was still going strong, and the U.S. needed a road over Tibet. What better form of diplomacy than a Perpetual Calendar Ref. 1526 (the supposed model)? This pocket watch was the beginning of a long history of receiving watches from various celebrities and heads of state who learned that young Tenzin was incredibly intrigued by mechanical engineering.
The Dalai Lama’s current collection boasts somewhere just above 15 watches. Aside from his original Patek Philippe his most notable watches are his Rolex Datejust and Rolex Day/Date watches. Day/Date watches from Rolex appeared back in the 1950s and were the first automatic-mechanical watches to have both the day and date on the dial—a pretty good reason for Tenzin to take one apart and see how it works. Though these watches are relatively opulent, Tenzin tends to keep things pretty low-key. So much so that most of his other watches remain a mystery to even the keenest of horological eyes.
A more comical addition to His Holiness’ watch collection came from late night TV show host John Oliver. Back in March of 2017, Oliver landed an interview with the spiritual leader for a segment on Tibet’s relationship with China. While the interview remained primarily on that topic, John closes the interview by offering Tenzin a gift—a Casio calculator watch (we didn’t quite get the model on this one). Oliver cites the original FDR Patek Philippe gift and offers his own timepiece as a sign of respect. The Dalai Lama’s response? He says that perhaps the Roosevelt watch is “old fashioned” and that the Casio calculator watch is “new fashioned”. To this John Oliver responds (paraphrasing), “…well, it’s from the 1980s”. Not sure what Tenzin would make of the quartz/digital movement compared to his mechanicals, but he accepts the gift with as much grace as anyone could expect.
It could be pretty easy to draw a negative conclusion about the Dalai Lama regarding his watch collection. To be sure, someone who’s supposed to be dedicated to a life of ascetic spirituality seems out of place wearing a thousands-of-dollars valued wristwatch (Casio aside). Despite appearances—which he keeps well muted by wearing inexpensive bands and his dials on the bottom of his wrist—Tenzin Gyatzo’s passion for his timepieces goes well beyond their monetary value. Considering that most of them are gifts, after all, his intentions bend toward the meditative side of life. By practicing the deconstruction and reconstruction of their movements, he draws inner wisdom. So much so that in his 2001 book Ethics for a New Millennium he wrote on how he’s learned to overcome certain frustrations through the art of watch care. It’s something that we here at Times Ticking can relate to—on a personal level.
On a final note: In interviews the Dalai Lama has said that if he was not born into his role he would have liked to be an engineer. Maybe in his next life Tenzin Gyatzo could get a job with us. That is, of course, if he doesn’t ascend to nirvana and leave this world entirely behind.