Lhamo Thondup was born to a Tibetan farming family on July 6, 1935. Little did his parents know that only two years later, he would be identified as the 14th Dalai Lama.
Since he was a young child, the Dalai Lama has loved taking things apart and putting them back together. When he wasn’t meditating or studying texts, he was disassembling a radio, a projector, or even a car. But there’s one mechanical device the Dalai Lama finds more fascinating than any other: watches.
The Dalai Lama received his first watch in 1943 from an envoy of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. But it wasn’t just any watch—it was a Patek Philippe pocket watch, reference 658. The particular model is very rare. Only fifteen pieces were ever produced. The Dalai Lama’s was most likely created early in the watch’s production based on subtle details, like the Arabic numerals and the longer signature reading “Patek Philippe & Co.” as opposed to just “Patek Philippe.” To this day, the Dalai Lama still has the yellow-gold pocket watch in working condition.
Given his fascination with precision mechanics and the timely gift, it’s no surprise the Dalai Lama became an avid watch collector.
At first, it may seem contradictory to his spiritual beliefs and teachings that speak against materialism. But the Dalai Lama’s interest in timepieces doesn’t come from wanting to flaunt a status symbol. It comes from a genuine curiosity and admiration for the art of watchmaking. In fact, he goes above and beyond to obscure his timepieces when he wears them—often replacing the original bracelets with inexpensive stretchable bands and turning the face to the inside of his wrist.
In addition to the iconic Patek that started his collection, the Dalai Lama owns fifteen other timepieces. He’s primarily seen wearing a Rolex—either a yellow gold Day-Date or two-tone Datejust.
Even at the age of 81, the Dalai Lama still enjoys dismantling and rebuilding things. He performs all the maintenance and repairs on each of the watches in his personal collection. Had Thondup not been reborn as His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, he may have become one of the world’s great watchmakers.