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This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter‘s second annual Watch Issue.
Jeanne Yang received her first Rolex at 14. But it wasn’t because she was wealthy. Quite the opposite. “My mom worked three jobs when I was little,” she says. “We lived in a garage, and I slept in a drawer.” Now a top stylist who designs with Katie Holmes the chicly tailored Holmes & Yang label — recently worn by Rihanna and Katy Perry — Yang learned as a teenager the iconic significance of watches. “Like a lot of immigrants, my mom bought a nice watch once she had enough money. It showed she had made it — she had accomplished the American dream.”
Yang, a first-generation Korean-American who grew up in L.A., recalls receiving that Rolex, an Oyster Perpetual Datejust, just before catching a flight at LAX to attend boarding school in Massachusetts. “My mom said, ‘This is my most prized possession. You’ll be in classes with billionaires, and I don’t want anyone treating you poorly.’ ” Yang understood the object’s power when “the one cool girl in school, who wore Versace, said she had the same watch as me.”
Yang — whose past includes stints as an editor and publisher at Detour magazine and as a stylist for cover shoots at GQ and InStyle — went on to stylist stardom, creating a timeless chic with a hint of edge for such clients as Christian Bale, Henry Cavill and Evangeline Lilly.
When it comes to watches, the appeal runs contrary to fashion’s ins and outs. “All of my timepieces are about a particular time in my life that I want to remember forever,” she says.
Her clients are acutely aware of that. When Robert Downey Jr. won a supporting actor Golden Globe in 2010 for Sherlock Holmes, he held up the statuette, exposing the Harry Winston watch that Yang not only secured but also made space for by altering his shirt for more cuff room.
Yang’s husband didn’t know it, but when he presented his then-fiancee with a Cartier Tank for Christmas during the ‘90s, he earned major points from Yang’s mother. “In Korean culture, one of the big things you do when you get engaged is to exchange watches,” says Yang. “My mom said, ‘This guy’s OK!’ ” When Yang opened the scarlet box under the tree, he said, “Whenever you look at it, I want you to think of me.” He chose wisely. The frills-free Cartier is in keeping with her personal predilection for menswear.
Which is not to say she doesn’t love the occasional bling. Brought out from the safe for special occasions is an unusual Patek Philippe, another gift from her mother. Bought in Switzerland, it features a square, black opal dial bordered by diamonds. Even more ostentatious is a Rolex Daytona, a chunky chronograph customized by her brother, jeweler-to-the-stars Ben Baller. “He likes to throw on diamonds and change out the bezel. It weighs 4 or 5 pounds. It’s the perfect thing to work out with!”
If there’s a diametric opposite to that pricey piece — but of equal value in Yang’s eyes — it’s a lightweight, slightly tarnished octagonal watch with the brand name San Marino. “When I was about 20, I had an opportunity to visit North Korea — via Austria and Russia, using a fake passport! — and I got to meet my grandmother. She didn’t have a lot of belongings, but she wanted to give me something. She said, ‘I’m an old lady, and I don’t have a schedule to keep. So I want you to have this watch that your father gave me.’ “
While that heirloom is destined one day to become the possession of one of Yang’s twin daughters, these days her everyday watches are by IWC. She toggles between a black-faced Portuguese with a rose gold case and an Ingenieur, in stainless steel, with a white face. Both were gifts from clients. “Watches are a very personal gift. You’re giving something that someone will wear, maybe even every day. So it’s very meaningful to give them or receive them as a gift.”
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