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What We Talk About When We Talk About 'Mall Watches' ADVERTISEMENT

When I was a kid, one surefire way to get a rise out of someone was to say they had cooties. We're talking Central Pennsylvania in the 1970s so admittedly you can't expect the kind of precociously elevated derisory discourse I'm sure you can get from today's social-media enhanced, globally acculturated eight-year-olds, but we worked with what we had. (The term "cootie" is attested as early as 1898 ... but perhaps that is a digression for another day). The interesting thing about the word ?with its non-specific connotations of dirtiness and contamination ?is that nobody knows exactly what the word means. It is sufficient to understand that saying someone has them, makes them an outsider and deserving of rejection and scorn. I once asked someone (I think I was seven or so) who told me I had cooties that I didn't know what the word meant, and I suspected that they didn't either, which only made them repeat the accusation more loudly.

The reason I bring this up is because many different subjects have similar expressions. You don't exactly know what they mean, but what they might or might not denote is much less important than their function, which is to label something as beneath contempt, worthy of rejection: Unclean, in a word, in its old sense of something not proper to human society. We don't say a fake watch has cooties if we don't like it, but we do say other things, and one of the vaguest, and yet most damning, things anyone can say about a fake watch is that it "looks like a mall watch."

The Mall

For all that they are stigmatized as cultural deserts, I liked malls when I was growing up. The mall, to quote Jake Blues in The Blues Brothers, had everything. On hot summer days when the municipal pool grew irksome, playmates tiresome, and the heat was too much even for squirt gun fights, we went to the mall for not just a shot of air conditioning, but to be entertained. We could stuff ourselves silly on free cheese and sausage at Hickory Farms, and then swing by Spencer Gifts and gawk at the blacklight posters (and sneak a glimpse of the minimally cordoned-off "adult party games" section).

Mall Of America, Bloomington, Minnesota: the third largest mall in America. Image, Wikipedia.

And, we could look at all sorts of things that we had no intention of buying but which it was fun to think about buying. One thing I remember looking at quite a bit were wristwatches, which back in those days still meant mechanical watches, but with quite a lot of quartz coming in, and more and more every day. They were sold everywhere, including traditional fine jewelers, but also at hardware stores, drug stores, dedicated kiosks along the main drag ?you name it. (I've been around long enough to remember that "drugstore watch" was as damning a thing to say then, as "mall watch" is now).

The Watches

Malls continued to be a regular presence in my life until I went off to college in 1980, and they became much less of a feature of life when I graduated and moved to Manhattan in 1984. I can, however, remember one retailer in particular: fake watch Station & Sunglass Hut. I had little interest in sunglasses, but the replica watches were pretty cool to window-shop, and the variety was remarkable. I can remember seeing Tissot and Hamilton (even a couple of ETA cal. 6824-equipped pocket watches) and a slew of other brands, including both fashion fake watch brands and more expensive "fine" watches.

A Sunglass Hut store, in 2013 (Image, Wikipedia). Formerly fake watch Station & Sunglass Hut; fake watch Station International was sold to the Fossil Group in 2007.

Mall jewelers also carried a full range of mechanical watches, up to and including Replica Rolex and Omega. You didn't ?or I didn't, anyway ?see a whole lot of the top tier Swiss brands like AP, Vacheron, and Patek but at that point, they were all three a small fraction of their current size. "Mall watch," in other words, didn't mean any particular kind of watch, and in fact, the term probably wouldn't have made sense to use at all. The fact is, unless you were in a major city, or close to a family-owned fine jeweler stubborn enough to keep, say, a Patek 2499 in the case, every fake watch was a "mall watch."

"I Know It When I See It." ?Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, On Recognizing Pornography.

So how in the world did we come to start using "mall watch" pejoratively, and what exactly is it supposed to mean? Clearly "mall watch" cannot merely mean "a fake watch sold in a shopping mall." The American shopping mall is now a shadow of its former self but the one I haunted as a kid still exists, after a fashion: It is simply called The Camp Hill Mall, and it's fairly run-of-the-mill (although you have to give them credit for having survived the so-called Retail Apocalypse, which got started more or less in earnest in 2010, and which has put the ominous term "dead mall" into the vernacular). Surely a second-tier mall (the more glam Capital City Mall is just ten minutes or so further along Route 15) in 2021 is as good a place as any to find a real mother lode of tasteless, gaudy, cheaply made, fundamentally disposable "mall watches?"

As it turns out, no. The anchor tenant is a department store called Boscov's, and they have a surprising variety of watches. Sure, there are lower-end offerings like Geoffrey Beene, Fossil, Invicta, and Tommy Bahama (and even among those four there is an enormous variety of designs and choices in terms of functionality) but there are also fake watch fan favorites like Bulova, G-Shock, Citizen, and Seiko, including the beloved Seiko 5. "Mall watch," parsed as "watch sold in a mall" is as descriptively useless as ever, if not more so than ever.

And yet it persists. I remember the term coming up earlier this year in the comments on an article we did about the Chanel J12, which was when I first started thinking about what we mean when we say it ?and which was when my older son Zach, whose appraisals of the world I live in have become increasingly pungent over the years, said to me, "Do you really not know what 'mall watch' means? I've never even heard the term before, and I know what it means." Fair enough. But the term plainly does not mean what it says, and what it says is not what it means.

ADVERTISEMENT It's Called Fashion, Look It Up

So, if "mall watch" makes no sense defined widely as "watch sold in a mall" perhaps it refers to a type of fake watch which is characteristically sold in a mall? I'm not sure what that means either, but for the sake of argument let's take a hypothetical case: The "fashion watch." First of all, if what you mean when you slander a fake watch as a "mall watch" is that it looks like a fashion watch, you are as it turns out on scarcely better ground than if you had just stuck with "mall watch." If you want to dig deep on the history of the fashion watch, I can recommend Joe Thompson's history without reservation, although it is worth bearing in mind that inexpensively made replica watches worn mostly for their design are much older than the term "fashion watch," (think, for instance, of the pin-pallet character replica watches from the 1920s).

So when one says, disparagingly, that a fake watch is a "fashion watch," bear in mind that one could mean this:

Or maybe this:

The world of Guess.

Or this:

Nothing comes between me and my Calvins.

Or heck, even these guys:

Fossil watches: collectible, fun, and extremely varied.

Whew. Okay, if "mall watch" is bad, "mall-watch-interpreted-as-fashion-watch" is even less helpful. What on earth is a fake watch enthusiast looking to tar a fake watch in broad strokes to do?

It's worth remembering, by the way, that even so-called fashion watches, or mall watches, or whatever you want to call them, have their fans. Another thing people like to call replica watches they don't like is "Michael Kors watch." I get that they, and their ilk, have as much to do with fine watchmaking (after thirty years in the game, I'm not sure I know what that means either) as a rubber duck does with an aircraft carrier, but they also cost less than three hundred bucks and they have probably created more genuine pleasure, in their varied millions, than all the Patek 5711s in the world put together. I have always thought the tortoiseshell ref. MK5839 "Bradshaw" chronograph was kinda snazzy.

Sure, some mall replica watches are as hastily and thoughtlessly brought into the world as the progeny of a 19th-century gin-swilling lush, but you can find unimaginative, fearful, thoughtless, repetitive, clichéd design at any price point. There is nothing as democratic as mediocrity. And anyway, a lot of what people mean when they say "mall watch" is actually not available at malls nearly as much these days ?opportunistic, flabby fake watch design seems to have long since moved on to Kickstarter. I suspect people will continue to use the term though, as it has passed into the wider watch-fan vernacular as shorthand for, "Thanks, I hate it."

I'm not saying we should revere Two Buck Chuck as much as a Domain Romanée-Conti La Tâche 2005 (or whatever) but if we can't recognize that the cheap-and-cheerful deserves its place in the sun too, maybe the problem isn't the replica watches ?we might be humorless snobs who could use a trip to a damned mall once in a while.

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