I do not remember exactly when it became important to know how attendees at the Met Gala were able to tell the time. But over the last five or six years, the watches on display here have integrated themselves into the news cycle around the Oscars of the Upper East Side.

This year, even before all the attendees had reached their tables, wrist-watching social-media feeds, watch-spotting Web sites, and brand P.R. departments had cranked into action, making sure this vital news was ready for consumption when the world awoke.

I remember the horological impact of the Met Gala first registering, back in 2017, when tennis legend Serena Williams wore the Audemars Piguet Diamond Outrage: a still-to-my-mind underrated, spiky bling-fest of a timekeeper. Now the M.A.M.G. (Morning After Met Gala) would simply not start right for me were I deprived of the information that the director Taika Waititi had accessorized his pectoral tattoo, double strand of pearls, and satin dinner jacket as dressing gown with a Cartier Santos-Dumont (sleeve helpfully ruched up to help horologists make a positive ID).

“A spiky bling-fest of a timekeeper”: the Audemars Piguet Diamond Outrage was Serena Williams’s choice in 2017.

Cartier had a strong night with the actor Rami Malek, in surgical whites and black trousers; the Hong Kong rapper Jackson Wang; and the partially blind Australian actor Kodi Smit-McPhee—all Santos’d or Tank’d up.

Other favorites were the rapper Pusha T, wearing a Rolex Day-Date with an outfit that appeared to be sending a message in the dots and dashes of Morse code, as well as the unusually unawkward actor Jeremy Strong, going gender fluid in a women’s Richard Mille RM 07-04, the apple-green bezel of which picked up his sage frill-front dress shirt.

This obsessive interest would have been unimaginable in the 70s, when I first got into watches. I admit I was a slightly unusual schoolchild. I recall having a heated discussion with a friend about the virtues of the sub-seconds dial being situated at six o’clock: my chum was an inchoate minimalist and felt it was an unnecessary distraction, but I have always craved distraction, and argued in its favor. Almost five decades later, I can remember the argument, even the watch, but not my friend’s name or face.

Pusha T sports a Rolex Day-Date 40 at the Met Gala.

Back in the 1970s, the mechanical watch was yesterday’s technology, and that is why I loved it. In a world of L.E.D. and then L.C.D. modernity, these objects from a pre-digital past spoke to me. Time had cruelly overtaken them, and they found themselves washed up on the shores of obsolescence, which suited me just fine, as I like the past and loved the fact that I could buy really elegant watches at yard sales for pennies.

I have always craved distraction, and argued in its favor.

At first, I wore them because they went with the secondhand (this was so long ago it was pre-vintage) 30s and 40s suits I bought. When, as was inevitable, some of the watches proved unequal to the modern world and fell to pieces, I marveled at the mechanical microcosms locked within those coin-like profiles—interior landscapes of springs, toothed wheels, jewel bearings, arbors, pinions, bridges, barrels, and countless other components of whose names I was ignorant.

I set them aside when they broke or I found another I liked. Just how many watches I accumulated became clear a couple of years ago, when my younger son discovered a bag of them in the shed. It is eloquent testimony to the long-dead craftsmen whose hands assembled them that he was able to coax quite a few back to life by mere application of thumb and forefinger to the winding crown.

Rami Malek chose a more subdued look with his Tank Louis Cartier.

Alas, I did not demonstrate a scrap of precocity in my purchasing, so there were no barn-find Patek Philippes. My watches were quotidian makes, but I was genuinely happy to have them in my life. To my eyes they possessed a special kind of beauty that magically improved my experience of the human condition ever so slightly.

The first time I visited Geneva and the Vallée de Joux, where many watch factories are located, I felt like I did on my debut trip to Bordeaux, where names known only from their appearance on the labels of expensive bottles of wine took real and tangible form as vineyards.

When I lurched from the wine trade into journalism, I tended to write about things that interested me and was thought somewhat eccentric for covering watches—although less so now.

Over the years, growing familiarity has brought understanding of, and respect for, the culture that creates these little windup marvels on the wrist. The more I looked, the more I found that a watch is not a world of its own; it is a series of worlds. Each of the individual components represents a discrete culture with its own vocabulary, specialized skills, and unique manufacturing processes, requiring entire factories to be built so that, say, a watch dial or a set of hands can be made.

Taika Waititi flashes his dazzling arm candy—a Cartier Santos-Dumont—next to partner Rita Ora.

Much like William Blake saw a world in a grain of sand and heaven in a wildflower, I have come to view human achievement through the prism of the timepiece. The ability to tell the time, at first by noticing the recurring solar and lunar patterns, learning when to sow and when to reap, and then inventing hours, minutes, and seconds in order to coordinate our increasingly complicated lives, is what separates us from the other species with which we share the planet. But then I would say that because I enjoy watches.

That feeling from youth has never left me. I count myself extremely lucky that every time I visit a watch factory, browse a watch auction, or spend a week attending the annual Geneva watch fair—and, yes, even when I look at watches on the wrists of people wearing clothes I would never wear to a dinner across an ocean, to which I am not invited—I experience that same buzz.

Nicholas Foulkes, the author of more than 20 books on the arts and history, is a London-based writer and editor