The Dalai Lama and his love of luxury watches

His Holiness loves to tinker with the movements of his mechanical Rolex and Patek Philippe wristwatches.

Tariq Malik January 19, 2016

His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet, is probably not the first name that comes to mind when thinking about high-end watches. However, I was recently surprised to find out that he has something in common with me – a penchant for repairing and collecting fine old watches.

The Dalai Lama is best known for being the ‘King in Exile’, for speaking out on environmental issues, for his humble spiritual guidance and his charming giggles in public. Many people, from many different backgrounds love and appreciate his work. 

Concealed under those familiar maroon and yellow robes, though, is a secret passion for watches. The rare timepieces on his wrist are most often hidden from view, and fitted with inexpensive stretch wristbands. He certainly doesn’t wear them for show. It seems to be more of a curiosity than a status symbol, though he has been photographed with at least two different models on his wrist – Rolex and Patek Philippe.

Of course his main objective in life has been to lead the Tibetan people to freedom via peaceful means, for which he won the Nobel Prize in 1989. But on the rare occasion when he has a moment to himself, he loves tinkering, particularly with the delicate movements of mechanical watches and clocks. 

In fact the Dalai Lama loves all kinds of mechanical things. He once stated that if he had not become a monk, he would have been an engineer. Ever since he was a child he loved taking apart mechanical things, and had a knack for putting them back together again, including the only three cars in Tibet at the time.

In the Hollywood Movie Seven Years in Tibet, starring Brad Pitt as Heinrich Harrer, the Dalai Lama and watches form an integral part of the plot.

There is an incident where Harrer cons his fellow escapee out of an expensive watch, and much later in the movie he finds the same watch in a market somewhere, and sends it back to the original owner as a gift. It is a symbol of the change of heart that he has undergone.

In the dramatic movie the young Dalai Lama is also shown tinkering with all manner of small mechanical things – a lifelong passion of his.

The first watch that the Dalai Lama received as a gift was from US President Franklin Roosevelt: a Patek Philippe. He was only seven or eight years old at the time. In an interview with Patek Philippe magazine (Issue Number 8, Fall 2000) the Dalai Lama explains:

“The Second War was still going on, and the Allies wanted to make a road over Tibet from Assam, in India, to China. So two American military representatives came with a letter from President Roosevelt and a box containing a gold watch. A Patek Philippe.  I was very excited. It was a very beautiful, very smart model. I still have it and it still works.” 

The watch is most likely a Patek Phillipe Perpetual Calendar Ref. 1526 from around 1942. No doubt it has been opened and dismantled more than once in it’s lifetime. 

Besides this cherished first watch, His Holiness has also been photographed in public wearing a Rolex Day-Date and this two tone Rolex Datejust with a jubilee bracelet. I can only speculate what his collection might be worth should it ever go up on auction.

The Dalai Lama might be a fan of fine watches, but let’s not forget his wise words when it comes to the best use of our time:

“There are only two days in the year that nothing can be done. One is called Yesterday and the other is called Tomorrow. Today is the right day to Love, Believe, Do and mostly Live.” 

Tariq Malik is owner of Momentum Dubai, the UAE's first and only vintage watch boutique. Visit momentum-dubai.com.