Nina Runsdorf at home in New York
American designer Nina Runsdorf: “I don’t ever wear a watch to tell the time, I wear it as a piece of jewellery” © Pascal Perich/FT

It was Mickey Mouse that inspired Nina Runsdorf’s “wild obsession” with watches. The Disney character featured prominently on the US jewellery designer’s first watch, which was a gift from her great uncle when she was 11.

Her relative, an avid collector, taught Ms Runsdorf about his watches and let her try them on. She was captivated by the mechanics. “The beauty of how the inside operates fascinates me, and how intricate it is and how each one is different,” she says.

Ms Runsdorf, 57, who launched her eponymous fine jewellery brand in 2005, has since assembled a diverse but not necessarily functional collection. “I don’t ever wear a watch to tell the time, I wear it as a piece of jewellery,” she says.

Vintage Mickey Mouse watch
Vintage Mickey Mouse watch © Pascal Perich/FT

Unsigned watch (1914)

first world war trench watch
© Pascal Perich/FT

Ms Runsdorf inherited her great uncle’s collection. He used to wear this first world war trench watch, but Ms Runsdorf does not know which country’s military used the Swiss-made piece.

Its numerals were picked out in luminescent paint so as to be seen in the dark (though the glow has long gone) and an ornate hinged guard protected the glass during combat. “It has a decorative feel even though it was functional, which is so beautiful,” says Ms Runsdorf.

She also designed and commissioned a new saddle-brown leather strap to replace the original “wrecked” band.

Cuff watch, Tiffany & Co (circa 1960s/1970s)

Cuff watch, Tiffany & Co (circa 1960s/1970s)
© Pascal Perich/FT

Despite doing her “homework”, Ms Runsdorf has been unable to find a photograph of a model matching her vintage Tiffany watch, which has an oval gold face set into a flexible black leather cuff. She has, however, imagined its past.

“I dream that this watch somehow was at Studio 54 [the 1970s New York discotheque] and somebody was dancing the night away wearing it,”
she says. “It’s a fantastic, fantastic watch and I feel like it had a fantastic life.”

She says the watch, bought at an antiques fair in Miami, “has all the markings”, including a serial number. She plans to take it to Tiffany to learn about its provenance.

Hopalong Cassidy watch, US Time (1950)

Hopalong Cassidy watch, US Time (1950)
© Pascal Perich/FT

Ms Runsdorf’s mother taught her how to “hunt for treasures”. She was in her 20s when she found her Hopalong Cassidy watch at the 26th Street flea market in New York.

She used to visit the market every weekend and often saw Andy Warhol, the artist. “He was also a huge collector of stuff and so I would always say, ‘Hi’, to him when I saw him,” she says.

Ms Runsdorf loves the “sense of humour” of her US watch, which has the fictional cowboy hero Hopalong Cassidy on the face and a black leather strap reminiscent of a Western-style belt and buckle. She is still looking for an original display stand for the watch. This was in the shape of a saddle and came with the box.

The aesthetic appeals to Ms Runsdorf, who grew up in upstate New York on a farm with horses. She does not wear the piece, but says: “It’s a really fun, interesting watch that reminds me of my childhood.”

GMT-Master, Rolex (circa late 1960s/early 1970s)

GMT-Master, Rolex
© Pascal Perich/FT

Ms Runsdorf’s husband, Jim, who died in 2005, was wearing his Rolex when they met at a party when she was 23. A nervous flyer, his father had given him the watch on a flight from Denver to Aspen when he was 16.

Launched in 1955 to enable the wearer to tell the time in two time zones, the Rolex GMT-Master went on to become the official watch of the Pan Am airline.

“Jim kept asking his father, ‘Dad are we landing yet? What time is it? Are we landing yet?’” says Ms Runsdorf. “Finally his father got so frustrated he took off this watch, threw it at him and said, ‘Here, take it, it’s yours. Stop asking me what time it is.’”

The stainless steel piece, which has a black dial and distinctive red and blue bezel, became his everyday watch. “It’s a really, really special watch,” says Ms Runsdorf. “This is probably the watch I am most sentimental about.”

Nautilus, Patek Philippe (circa 1991)

Patek Philippe Nautilus duet
© Pascal Perich/FT

Ms Runsdorf’s in-laws gave her and her late husband a “matching duet” of Patek Philippe watches as a wedding present in 1991. His was gold and stainless steel; hers 18-carat gold.

They wore them throughout their marriage and Ms Runsdorf, who likes large watches, now wears her late husband’s two-tone piece.

She gave their two daughters the choice of one of their father’s watches as a 21st birthday present, and also plans to pass on her own collection.

“I really buy things that I love that I want to either wear [or] keep and then give to my children,” says Ms Runsdorf, who would like to collaborate with a watch brand to design a timepiece. “I’m not a person who collects to make money on a watch . . . I keep it to pass it to the next generation.”


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