Once upon a time, man marked his days in cycles of light and seasons. Then came calendars with months and weeks, days and years. Next there were sundials, then hours, minutes, seconds. Each fraction of time moved mankind a step further from Mother Nature's monotonous grip.

How strange, then, to find time paired once again with seasons -- fashion seasons.

Gone are the days when people would treasure one gold watch for years. In the affluent Eighties, people are buying watches for every day of the week, to match their outfits and "disposable income."

According to John Molloy, author of Dress for Success, the workday pace requires trim, business-like timepieces. Watch sellers will tell you the cocktail hour calls for a bit of sparkle, a dash of pearl. And most popular of all are the "funky" throwaway watches found on every wrist, neck and finger.

"A watch is not just a functional item, but a major fashion accessory," says Mary Jane Ruckdeschel, fashion coordinator for Nordstrom's department store in Southern California, where watches run the gamut from chic plastic to thousands of dollars' worth of gold and pearls.

"People just don't buy one watch, they buy many," says Becky Gonzales, watch seller at Nordstrom's. "It's a must-have as an accessory, just as you have earrings and jewelry." Among novelty watches, one of the newest is Le Clip, a 2-inch-long Swiss-made timepiece that resembles a plastic clothespin. It's the brainstorm of Michel Jordi, a Swiss watchmaker's son who found a table-size version in a Geneva design studio, purchased the blueprint and scaled it down to fit the fashion market.

Jordi touts the $35 quartz Le Clip as a watch that "eliminates suntan lines," and promotional photos show it clipped on just about anywhere -- lapels, necklaces, pockets. The company's collection includes "Tutti-Frutti, " a tropical scene featuring bananas, watermelons, a pineapple and an orange; "Baseball," in star-studded red, white and blue; nautical striped "St. Tropez," and a blue-demin "Jeans."

The darker shades of Le Clip's winter collection debuted on the East Coast last fall. Not surprisingly, this season, plastic isn't just found on Le Clips and the ever-changing inexpensive Swatch Watches and their ubiquitous spinoffs. Le Montre gives pocket watches a new, lighter look -- pink plastic with plastic clip and plastic telephone-like cord. That timepiece sells for $25.

Moon watchers and astrology buffs can choose from several styles by Exactly, which has beefed up the standard moon watch so that it also records the signs of the stars. Faces range from big to small, with prices averaging about $80. Rock climbers may prefer Tissot's RockWatch, a $200 timepiece whose story, as the promotional brochures tell it, "began 100 million years ago." The RockWatch is carved from solid granite, in salt-and-pepper mixtures or shades of blue, green, rose or gray. Its hands are red and yellow, the same colors as the stakes that mark mountain trails in the granite Alps.

Such a novelty will surely appeal to the more-than-one-watch crowd, but it won't eclipse interest in standard wristwatches. This year, there are dozens of wrist styles to choose from.

Several of the most forward styles this season take us back in time -- to classic styling, rich leathers and the ruggedness of the Old West.

To match the fashion season's interest in Southwestern looks, one watch company, named, appropriately enough, West, features faux turquoise, tooled metal trim and tooled leather bands, details sure to mix well with denim, faded chambray and boots. Prices range from $33.50 to $42.

Another return to time past is the old-fashioned elegance of "retro" styles -- antique looks, ostrich skin and crocodile bands, and big faces. "In a way, it's a return to the luxury skins and leather," Ruckdeschel says.

Watch faces painted to look like zebra or leopard skin patterns are the domain of Gottex, an Israeli company that makes swimsuits to match. Swimsuit-watch combos are also offered by Swatch, whose tropical Bora Bora theme features swimsuits emblazoned with the words, " ... the natives are restless ... "

In the oversize department, Anne Klein sells a round gold model, with ornate hands and Roman numerals, for $95. Says Gonzales, "The big face is in and it's really classic looking, with big numbers. It makes a big statement." Plenty of smaller, sporty teen styles are still being sold, including a high-domed watch whose palm-studded, beach-scene face features a second hand in the form of a silver airplane flying overhead. The watch is made by a company called Out of Time. "They're out of date now," comments Lisa Broyles, a seller at the May Co. department store in Southern California.

Fashion watches should be worn with caution, says John Molloy, who berated the sporty-watch-with-a-business-suit look in his newspaper column. Seems a 24-year-old businesswoman with an eye for management caught heat from the boss for switching watchbands to match her clothing. "Leave your fashion watches at home or save them for the weekend," Molloy advised.

Laura Tuchman is a staff writer for The Orange County Register, from which this article was adapted.