One Watch Fan Went to Switzerland for a Retirement Keepsake

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By Margaretd. Regina

In 2022, several months after Joseph Barreto retired as a high school guidance counselor in East Harlem, he got a keepsake gift: a 42-millimeter stainless steel Omega Constellation watch with a grayish-taupe dial and prominent date display.

But getting the timepiece wasn’t as straightforward as, say, walking into Omega’s Fifth Avenue boutique. Instead, the Hackensack, N.J., resident traveled to Switzerland to buy it.

“Buying a watch in Europe is just a whole other experience,” said Mr. Barreto, 57. “They sit you down; there’s Champagne, there’s chocolate. It’s just an event.”

Many of the former students Mr. Barreto worked with over his 34-year career had given him money on his retirement, saying he should spend it on things to help commemorate the occasion. (“They’re family to me,” he said.)

His first purchase was a custom-made 14-karat gold pendant with diamonds and sapphires that he wears every day in memory of his father, who died in December 2019. “I had money, believe it or not, left over to buy the airline ticket for the trip,” Mr. Barreto said, “and still some left over to buy a watch.”

Mr. Barreto, who grew up in a blue-collar household, said his interest in watches was a personal thing. As he put it, “I’m a Puerto Rican from the Bronx — that’s not a Bronx thing, to get a watch that’s high-end.”

“When we were kids, if you had a Timex, that was a ‘good watch’ — that’s what they called it,” he said.

Over the years, he bought watches by Bulova, Movado, Swatch, Victorinox and others. Then, during his first trip to Europe, a journey he made in 2017 to visit a cousin, Noel Matos, Mr. Barreto bought a 42-millimeter quartz Rado Centrix watch in black and gold.

“He got here and fell in love with Europe,” said Mr. Matos, a food industry executive in Basel, Switzerland. “That trip really changed his life. He started eating differently; he started looking at the world differently.”

And during the pandemic, Mr. Barreto began using online resources to learn more about watches, primarily by watching YouTube videos from the likes of the watch retailers Teddy Baldassarre and Federico Iossa.

When Mr. Barreto retired — a few dozen pounds lighter than in recent years, thanks in part to a Swiss-inspired diet — he started planning another trip to Europe, but this time with his wife, Teresa, and their son, Joseph.

“He really felt like he had to share his first-time experiences with two other people who had never been to Europe,” Mr. Matos said. “It was really to kind of open that Pandora’s box to his wife and son.”

When the Barretos arrived in Europe, they embarked on a road trip, covering six countries in 14 days in a rented Mercedes-Benz E-Class station wagon.

Mr. Barreto had a list of contenders for his retirement watch including models by Rolex, Tissot, Rado, Oris and Omega, a brand he had long admired.

And one morning’s itinerary was planned to include a stop at Omega’s boutique in Interlaken, Switzerland, as Mr. Matos knew someone working there. Mr. Barreto, a James Bond fan, said he walked in leaning heavily toward getting a Seamaster. But when he tried on the watch he ultimately purchased, “There was something about the face of this Constellation watch: the texture, the color,” he said. “When I saw it, that was it completely.”

Mr. Barreto, who has been keeping himself busy in retirement as the chairman of Somos New Jersey, a nonpartisan political action committee that focuses on Latino voters and representation, said he now had a total of about two dozen watches.

As for the Omega his cousin purchased, Mr. Matos said: “It makes his wrist complete. Not only does it look good, it works with everything he wears. It works with how he carries himself.”

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