by Alexander Freeling

For twenty years, Patek Phillipe has sold watches using the idea that you never actually own one of them, but “merely look after it for the next generation.” This might seem a risky ploy: Patek sells new watches, and does not profit from such inheritance. But the watches worn in the ads are current models, and their promise is not an heirloom exactly, but a watch that is simultaneously a mark of family history and available to buy today. The ingenuity of the celebrated slogan is that it re-frames a potentially self-indulgent purchase as an act of generosity: what you are really buying is an old watch for someone else, that you get to wear in the meantime.

Beyond marketing though, age beautifies. This thought came to mind when I received a new cordovan watch strap this week. The leather, in burgundy-toned “color 8,” was stiff and shiny from its factory glaze, contrasting with the other piece of hide I carry daily: a small card-holder I’ve owned for years. The strap appeared uniform in color and almost laminated, whereas the card-holder had become darker and more supple, the edges turned from chestnut brown to deep chocolate. Leather ages in multiple ways. It dries out and cracks in heat; it oxidizes in the air; and the tanning chemicals—particularly modern ones—break down and react with the hide. Unchecked, these processes destroy leather, but when cared for, shoes can last a lifetime, and books for centuries.

Cordovan is the ugly duckling of leathers: it begins life with a homogeneous glossy finish that can be difficult to distinguish from the polymer coating of corrected grain leather, but like the swan, it becomes the most graceful. With time, the color and feel change; the piece begins to shape to its user, as when a newcomer to a city finds his habits adapting to the surroundings, and his movements becoming easier and more direct. To see the beauty in new cordovan is to anticipate the tone and softness that age will impart.

The beauty of aging is not nostalgia. The nostalgic believes that that what he loves has fallen into disrepair, or else been violently destroyed, and loves what he has lost. To enjoy aging, by contrast, is to see what is new with an underlying sense of its future.

Good shoes and tailoring rely on organic materials: wool, horsehair, horn, silk, leather, cork. One reason why the synthetic cloths and fittings which outperform them in toughness and tensile strength have not replaced them is that synthetics do not break in or adapt in the same ways. A certain level of technical fallibility—stretching, fading, softening—is salutary. If we have chosen them well, clothes become less crisp and yet better fitting. They take on the shape of the bodies they cover, but also learn our postures and habits, as we in turn adapt to them. The beauty of aging is that things change and become more familiar.

Photo from Frank Clegg