Listen to this article
As a broadcast journalist, James Chau readily admits that his “uniform” of a suit and tie offers little scope for personality. “But I can play around with watches and cufflinks,” says Mr Chau, a special contributor to China Central Television (CCTV), the state-owned broadcaster whose channels are beamed to more than 1.36bn viewers in over 100 countries. “That’s where I try to add some colour — not only for the audience but also for myself.”
Mr Chau, who was born in the UK, was a CCTV anchorman for a decade, interviewing personalities ranging from Aung San Suu Kyi and Robert Mugabe to Diane von Furstenberg and Elton John. He is a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations Programme on HIV/Aids (UNAids) and the World Health Organisation; the latter role he shares with China’s first lady, Peng Liyuan. Both roles influence his watch and jewellery choices, whether collecting pieces on his travels or wearing them for specific occasions. “Each is associated with a time, place or moment in my life,” Mr Chau says.
Tiffany CT60 (2015)
After years flitting between a Cartier Tank Française and Bulgari Diagono, Mr Chau started wearing a steel Tiffany Atlas watch in 2007. Mr Chau, then 29, had recently moved to China, and it was “coming up to the [Beijing] Olympics”, he says, a time when China seemed particularly flush with opportunity — a mood he acutely felt too.
“I was doing the morning news and wanted something very smart to wear,” he says, and the Tiffany brand fit the bill — so much that last year Mr Chau switched to the house’s latest CT60 chronograph, in rose gold with a black leather strap.
The two watches, worn some 10 years apart, tell a larger story, he says. “I’ve seen how China has changed as a luxury market, in terms of how 1.3bn-plus individuals all have their own dreams. Here we call it the ‘Chinese Dream’, and it’s similar to the American Dream — an aspiration to lead a more magical life.”
Kienzle boys’ watch (1968-69)
When Mr Chau was appointed a UNAids national goodwill ambassador for China in 2009, the epidemiologist Dr Bernhard Schwartländer (today at the helm of the WHO in China) gave him a black plastic watch by German manufacture Kienzle. Dr Schwartländer purchased the boys’ size watch with red hands in 1968-69, around his 10th birthday.
“It’s far too small for me and not particularly comfortable,” says Mr Chau with a smile, but he wears the piece for strength. “When someone gives you something which carries enormous emotional value to them, it’s clearly a sign of the conviction and belief they have in you — and therefore what you should feel within yourself.”
The mechanical watch is worn and scratched, giving it an “authenticity and rawness” that Mr Chau finds refreshing in light of China’s lavish gift-giving culture. Asked about the national anti-corruption crackdown, Mr Chau believes it is “spot on”: “It will only create common wealth rather than just wealth for a few . . . [and] return us to a value system that is not only lacking here but everywhere.”
For watches, specifically, this means that “rather than merely purchasing a watch to satisfy a relationship, it returns us to the core of horology — which is about design, mechanisms, movements, as well as the art and science of measuring time.”
Rolex Oyster Perpetual (c1950)
Another favourite is a Rolex Oyster Perpetual that Mr Chau’s grandfather purchased in postwar Hong Kong. With a specially commissioned gold bracelet, the piece features a bubble back with beautiful inset grooves. Mr Chau’s grandfather wore it for most of his life before passing it down to Mr Chau’s father, a maker of nautical and aviation instruments.
The watch stayed in the bank for decades until Mr Chau’s father died in 2013. “We took it out of the bank and I started wearing it. The watch shows a continuity of three men in one family, and one day it will go to my son or someone equally special to me.”
SDG pin (2016)
In February 2016, Mr Chau was named a WHO goodwill ambassador for the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and Health. The Sustainable Development Goals comprise 17 milestones — from ending poverty and hunger to achieving gender equality — which countries must meet by 2030, and a special pin has been created with each development goal represented by a different colour.
Mr Chau, who picked one up at the UN bookstore in New York, notes its circular shape (see top picture). “The beauty of the SDG is they’re not 17 vertical and distinct goals, but 17 goals with some 100 targets that meld together,” he says. The many nations, both rich and poor, tasked with achieving the SDG are also inextricably linked. “It reminds us that we live in a world that is transformative — where there is Brexit, or the Syrian crisis,” he says. “Yet [it is] a world where the refugee crisis, for example, now lands in the very heart of rich economic Europe.”
This month he wore the pin while moderating an event at the UN General Assembly. “I should be wearing it everyday — on T-shirts, anything — as a reminder of how global challenges exist daily. As an SDG goodwill ambassador, you’re a footsoldier for all the challenges we face.”
Green plastic bracelet
A green elasticated bracelet, fashioned from plastic cubes with images of Catholic saints stuck on, may be an unlikely piece for a TV presenter who has interviewed world leaders and billionaires, but once more it carries personal significance for Mr Chau.
“I found it at a Middle Eastern grocery store in Switzerland, tucked between the lollipops and chewing gum at the checkout,” recalls Mr Chau. He was with his friend Michael Fischbacher, the Swiss textile manufacturer, who ended up buying the piece for Mr Chau. “It was probably all but four francs,” says Mr Chau. “But I rather love my green plastic bracelet as it was given to me by a friend.”