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Robin Williams, watch guy
Watch Stories

Robin Williams, watch guy

Friday, 29 May 2020
By Frank Rousseau
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Frank Rousseau

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8 min read

He was one of the most brilliant American comedians of his generation. On August 11, 2014, age 63 and suffering from Parkinson’s disease, Robin Williams took his own life. In one of his last interviews, he talks about his passion for watches and his admiration for the people who make them.

In 2018 Robin William’s second wife, Marsha Garces Williams, offered her former husband’s watch collection for auction at Sotheby’s. Possibly the biggest surprise of the sale was a gold-plated quartz Hamilton that sold for $32,500. This was the watch the late entertainer had worn in Dead Poets Society. You can’t put a price on nostalgia.

Where are you from?

I was born in Chicago but grew up in the Midwest. Then we moved to San Francisco. I was 16 and needed to give myself a kick up the backside. I know, you wonder how that’s physically possible, but I did it! Comedy is in my blood but I’d yet to pluck up the courage and get out there.

Robin Williams
Robin Williams
Tell us about your first watch...

My father worked at Ford Motor Company and spent most of his time at the office. When he did come home, it was often only a few minutes before he had to go out again. He felt guilty and tried to make up for his absence by bringing me a toy car or a toy tractor or a model, something that would let me know he was thinking of me. One day he came home carrying this little metal box. Inside, there was a Hamilton watch. It was twice the size of my wrist but I didn’t care. Wearing it made me feel grown-up. I was 13. You can’t imagine the effect it had on me. People were taking me seriously!

Meaning?

Deep down, my father was telling me I was no longer a child. Giving me that Hamilton was his way of saying, “You’re a man, now.” I packed my Woody Woodpecker watch into an old shoebox and never took it out again.

Robin Williams
Robin Williams
Do you still have the Hamilton?

I don’t, sadly. We’ve moved around a lot as a family and somewhere along the way, I guess it got lost. I looked high and low but eventually had to face the fact it really had vanished.

Is that how your passion for watches began?

My passion for watches actually came through cycling. I love cycling as a way to get around but also for the physical exercise. And it’s great for letting off steam. The only pressure when I’m riding is in the tyres. You know, I’m a huge fan of France. I got married there, I vacation there, and every year I go there to follow the Tour de France. I love that the French call a bicycle la petite reine,”the little queen”! Anyway, as someone who enjoys the competitive aspect of cycling, I’ve always looked for watches I can use to time my rides with precision.

So you're a sports watch fan?

Yeah, although I quickly graduated to more sophisticated mechanisms. When you start to show an interest in an object, any kind of object, there’s always the risk that you only want the best, the most beautiful, the rarest. The fascinating thing about the world of watches is that it never stands still, as though watchmakers have some kind of internal mechanism that pushes them to always want to surpass themselves. I imagine it must be a competitive industry so perhaps they don’t have a choice. When you dig a little deeper, you realise the thing that really drives watchmakers is the love of a job well done, and a desire to always move forward without forsaking tradition.

Robin Williams
Robin Williams
You're one of Hollywood's highest-paid actors. Do you remember what you spent your first pay cheque on?

A mountain bike. After all, an actor’s career is full of ups and downs. Actually, I’ve been pretty lucky in that respect. I also bought myself a watch. A second-hand Cartier Tank.

You once said the most interesting thing about a watch was on the inside...

As someone who loves watches, of course I care about the shape of the dial, the hands, the numerals, what they’re made from, the strap and how it fastens, but when you look under the hood you can’t help but be in awe of all those tiny, meticulously assembled parts. The movement in a complication watch is a window onto what human intelligence is capable of achieving, and in such a small space.

I get the feeling you're like an automatic watch yourself; the laughing and joking never stops…

My mother suffered from depression. Whenever I saw she was down, all I wanted was to make her laugh. I’d put on these little skits where I imitated my grandmother, in a kind of Mrs. Doubtfire way. Her face would light up and the colour would come back to her cheeks. Little by little, I got caught up in the whole humour thing. Clowning around, telling jokes, doing imitations made me more confident when deep down I was quite shy. I think I still am, but time and my comedy experience have taught me how to hide it better. When you’re making people happy, when you’re putting a smile on their face, you just want to keep on. Laughter is addictive.

Robin Williams
Robin Williams
Are there times when you feel like pressing the pause button?

Never! That’s like asking a weightlifter to hang his muscles on the coat-rack when he comes home. It’s the same for a comedian. Laughter is a muscle he has to work. It’s part of who he is, an extension of himself, not something he can switch on and off. Having said that, there are situations I don’t find funny at all. Seeing kids who are starving or dying from cancer. The bastards that siphon off humanitarian aid…

Does watch collecting make you happier?

People who go looking for happiness never find it. As for the ones who truly find happiness, I’d like to know who they are. I think we shouldn’t ask too much of life, we shouldn’t expect the impossible. Take what life gives you and enjoy every bit of it.

Carpe diem, to borrow a theme from Dead Poets Society...

Yes. The vast majority of us want to live our dreams and make the most of every moment life offers. Sadly, nothing is set in stone. How do you make God laugh? By telling him your plans! Who was it who said happiness was a myth invented by the devil to make us despair [laughs]? But yes, I’m fortunate enough to own a watch collection that brings me a certain satisfaction.

What would you have done if you hadn't been an actor or a comedian?

I’d probably have a wholesale business selling vibrators! At college, I had my sights on a career as a political scientist. My father had me lined up as a welder at the Ford factory where he worked in Detroit. Don’t ask what that has to do with politics, it doesn’t. I also thought about becoming a proctologist-magician…

A proctologist-magician, really?

So I could pull a rabbit out of someone’s ass! Otherwise I could have sold watches or bikes. I’ve become fairly knowledgeable about both over the years. Obviously I’ll always be an amateur compared with the real experts but I could have kept up the pretence for a good…. five minutes. Of course, if you asked me to come to Switzerland, to Rolex or IWC, then I’d be a laughing-stock. It’s best that I don’t. You can’t joke around when you’re a master watchmaker adjusting tiny parts through a loupe. It’s verboten! [laughs].

Which is the best watch in your collection?

I couldn’t say. It’s like asking me which of my bikes do I prefer or, even more delicate, my favourite child. My watches are all different. I have watches by Frank Muller, IWC, Bell & Ross, Cartier or Panerai. Each one has a story behind it, a history. They’ve been a part of my life and part of my acting career too, as I’ve often worn them in films. They’ve actually played an important role, as what I wear on my wrist helps define the character I’m playing for the audience. My entire life, I’ve been a kind of chameleon and my watches have followed me along that road. Whatever situation I’ve been in, they’ve adapted to it.

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