As I admired the pink gold 1930s Rolex that Paolo fastened around my wrist -- a vintage men's style -- I recalled how my father proposed to my mother with an art deco watch instead of a diamond solitaire. Years after their divorce, I remembered their engagement watch and wondered if it was the reason I only wore men's timepieces and if it had predetermined my romantic fate.
I met Paolo on a blind date when he lived in New York. Milanese-born, I was attracted to his large blackish-brown eyes and mop of brown hair, his curled vowels, dry wit and the way he looked at me, always as if it was the first time we met. We stayed up all night talking and connected while singing and dancing around his apartment to old Motown.
Six months into our relationship, he was transferred to Rome. Yet, we kept our relationship going after he was back in Italy.
As a jewelry/style editor, I received invitations to European jewelry fairs. The first year Paolo and I were together, I went to Italy six times and he spent his summer vacation in New York.
In between visits, we spoke almost every night. Conversations turned into transatlantic dates. Calla lilies arrived when I had two wisdom teeth pulled, orchids to simply say buona notte.
Early on, he surprised me by flying across the ocean to spend my birthday weekend with me.
We hated to leave each other. "Why do we always fight the night before we say goodbye?" I asked once while visiting him.
"It's unbearable to come from work and find you gone," he said.
I hadn't planned on a long distance relationship, but learned to argue, laugh and have make-up phone sex all during one international phone call.
Yet after five years, I grew anxious about the stay-leave dynamics of our relationship. When I offered to move to Rome, Paolo said, "You have a full life and a career and I can't asking you to leave that." On my last trip to see him, I left his keys and a note on his bed saying simply "I think this is it," then spent 10 hours on plane, sobbing the entire time.
For the next six months, he left voicemails almost everyday to keep communication going. I didn't answer. Then a text arrived. "Do you believe how much I miss you? Please, Bella, speak to me!" After all the time spent trying to separate from him I invited him back into my heart and to New York for Christmas.
When he arrived, he pulled me close and held me for a very long time. We were usually in bed, on the couch or living room floor, within 20 minutes of saying hello.
We went to our favorite New York City spots. He said that without me, he felt like a big piece of him was missing. After only a day or two, it felt natural again, as if I we had never stopped speaking.
While shopping, he saw the Buccellati store and said, "We have to go in."
Through my work, I'd learned about Buccellati, the multi-generational jewelry company, born in Milan, just like him. I had shown him the intricately designed wedding bands that looked like they were spun into lace with small diamonds.
Inside the New York-based shop, he asked me to try on different rings. As I slid them on, I thought about my mom's engagement watch.
While my peers were playacting romantic scenarios with their mothers' sparkly diamond solitaires, I was buckling my mom's watch around my wrist. By six, I learned how to tell time. I knew that dinner was when the big hand was on the twelve and the little hand on the seven. I knew if my dad wasn't home by then, he was staying in Manhattan, where he worked. I knew that on those nights my mother cried herself to sleep.
When I started dating, I was obsessed with guys being late, convinced that after 10 minutes, they weren't showing up, a concern I still battle today.
As far as my parents, there was no enchanting engagement story, just the tale of how the met. My father owned textile mills. He spotted my mom, a runway model in garment district delicatessen. "I'm going to marry you," he walked over and said.
One year later, there was traditional wedding in a temple.
The only explanation I received from my mom about the watch was, "much more practical." Although it was beautiful, something basic and true seemed missing.
I wondered how my mom felt when her peers were upgrading to better and bigger diamonds while she received Mikimoto pearls and Van Cleef & Arpels' brooches to smooth over arguments.
To the outside world, my parents embodied grace and style. But the arguments grew louder inside our home. I'd hear my mom question my dad about phone numbers on matchbook covers.
After 15 years of my father's infidelity, my mother tucked the watch into a drawer. During my career in jewelry, I realized that the diamond on an engagement ring symbolizes longevity, while the band means continuity. The watch came to represent my father's inability to form a lasting bond.
When my parents divorced, I was 12. I wanted the father back, who, when "This is Tom Jones" was on television, would goofily rip off his tie and sing along to "It's Not Unusual."
Right before my dad was diagnosed with bone cancer at 62, Tom Jones was playing at Webster Hall. I took my father and we danced. I felt closer to him than I had since the divorce. While putting on his pain patches, he confessed, "Although I loved your mom, I couldn't get close to any woman."
I was able to process this over the years although I continued to fear loss in my own romantic relationships.
During a visit to the doctor, while checking his favorite watch, a Cartier Tank, he asked, "how much time left?"
"A month at most."
His body was shutting down, just as he was opening up to me. "I have always been so proud of your independence and your heart." He took his Cartier and strapped it around my wrist. A week later he was gone.
"Do you have a favorite?" Paolo continued to choose wedding bands for me to try on. We left Buccellati with color Xeroxes of my favorites, but no ring. My heart sank but I didn't show it.
"Where is that great watch store?" Paolo asked, a novice collector of timepieces himself. We headed over to Manhattan's Aaron Faber Gallery, where I noticed the pink gold Rolex. Paolo bought it for me, without hesitation.
That night, I was in love with both Paolo and the watch. But by morning, the joy wore off and I was left with the irony of time. I had found a man, much like my father, who could only get so close. Paolo was unable or unwilling to give me the commitment I needed. I finally broke off our six-year relationship. I've learned to accept loss and move on and I am also hopeful that there is a left hand ring in my future from the right man.
Follow Beth Bernstein on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@bethbjeweled