Top Gears: Watch Collectors in the Age of the Internet
When I was a boy, my grandfather gave me a Timex watch with a blue face and a rotating bezel as a birthday present. I wore it to bed that night. It disappeared into the attic one spring, and I haven’t seen it since.
In the ’90s, I bought my last watch.
When I selected the relatively inexpensive timepiece at the Swatch store on lower Broadway, it was a step above the ones I would normally buy from the vendors who sold cheap watches out of suitcases at the South Street Seaport.
As an undergrad, I’d read “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” and something he wrote stuck with me: “I have less patience with someone who doesn’t wear a watch than with anyone else, for this type is not time-conscious. In all our deeds, the proper value and respect for time determines success or failure.”
A year later, I purchased my first cellphone, a Nokia 3310, and never wore a watch again.
In recent years, watches have experienced a resurgence. A generation that’s painted as digitally-addicted is ogling Hublots, albeit on Instagram. Before trendy websites such as Hodinkee ignited a new fervor for collecting, our region played an outsized role in the world of international horology.
To understand how watch collecting came to the Merrimack Valley, we need to turn back the clock to 1917. Louis Cartier was observing a parade of tanks along the Champs-Élysées and was struck by their rugged design. The rectangular Cartier Tank was born. Andy Warhol would famously say of it, “I don’t wear a Tank watch to tell the time. Actually, I never even wind it. I wear a Tank because it is the watch to wear!” The Tank remains in production.
As the century wore on, wristwatches replaced pocket watches in popularity, but not everyone could afford Cartier.
Rolex watches appeared on the wrists of icons from Ted Williams to Air Force pilot Chuck Yeager. Johnny Cash wore an Oyster Perpetual, and the fictional James Bond wore a Rolex Submariner. Other brands entered the public consciousness. The minimalist Movado Museum appealed to lovers of art and design. Seiko produced quality watches that were more affordable than Rolexes. They became popular with GIs on leave in Japan during the Vietnam War.
When Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon during the Apollo 11 space mission, he was wearing an Omega Speedmaster. At that time, 15-year-old Steve Leed assumed the watch bench at his family’s business, Royal Jewelers, which was located in Lawrence. As with many others of his generation, his fascination with watches was connected to the space program. Leed would later own the Omega Speedmaster worn by Russian cosmonaut Vladimir Vasyutin during his 65-day space mission in 1985.
By the time Royal Jewelers moved to Andover in 1993, watch collecting in the United States was centered in cities such as Los Angeles and New York. Still, the store stocked collectible watches, and the Merrimack Valley became an unexpected destination for serious watch enthusiasts.
Leed is now the co-owner of Royal Jewelers, along with his sister, Paula, and his notable clients have included painter Robert Rauschenberg and comedian Robin Williams. He is seeing more young collectors, and more collectors looking for value-oriented watches. Brands such as Oris are offering watches with great movements and excellent builds that retail for $1,200 to $8,000 — much less than an equivalent Rolex.
While there is a market for value, there are also collectors who look for the rarest and most unusual watches. Royal sells a Jaquet Droz that Leed helped design called The Royal Edition. Leed shows me serial No. 1, crafted in a limited series of eight — the design is based on Jaquet Droz’s 18th century double circle, but the face includes a gray carbon fiber that gives it a three-dimensional look. It makes me think of the first time I held a shell to my ear and heard the ocean. It retails for $26,500.
Royal Jewelers currently offers two different watches by the Swiss-based Finnish designer Kari Voutilainen. The V8-R retails at $69,000. Its exposed mechanism is detailed to the point of being dreamlike — the escapement moves with a smoothness and delicacy that seems impossible. Looking at it through a jeweler’s loupe was almost frightening, as though the watch spoke to me and said, “You will never fathom the mind of a Kari Voutilainen.”
Raised in Thompson, Connecticut, home of the Thompson Speedway Motorsports Park, Mike didn’t grow up with the sort of advantages that typically lead to a hobby such as watch collecting. However, he says he was “always particular about dressing well.”
His first major watch was a Movado he bought in college. Then his wife gave him a Cartier Tank Francaise as a wedding present.
He didn’t get serious about collecting until 10 years ago, when he began to travel internationally for his job as a real estate investor.
When we met, he was wearing a watch designed by Greg Stevens. Mike became a fan of Stevens’ watchbands and tracked his story as he moved into small-run independent watchmaking. While Mike admits that Stevens’ watch is nowhere near as striking as the “epitome of bling” Breitling Super Avenger that he impulsively bought on Grand Cayman Island, it reflects the personality of its Utah-based maker. It tells a story.
Mike currently owns about 17 watches and estimates the value of his collection to be $70,000. Still, he doesn’t see his watches as investments to be stored away. He wears them. One of his favorites is an Italo Fontana U-BOAT — its big, nautical design has proved to be an excellent conversation starter while traveling. To explain what makes that World War II-era naval watch special is to step into the pages of European history.
As he speaks, he sighs and says, “I wish I had more wrists.”
Charlie, 25, is the youngest collector I spoke to. When he was a student in UMass Lowell’s sound recording technology program, he discovered online videos of guitarist John Mayer, a noted watch collector, and was inspired to study watch history. He got a job selling watches at the Burlington Mall, which precipitated a career shift from music to sales.
His first vintage watch was a Universal Genève from the late 1960s. It cost a mere $200, and he purchased it online from an Etsy dealer. “It doesn’t scream luxury,” he notes.
As his collection grew, Charlie became a member of the secretive RedBar Group, an international society of watch enthusiasts, and admits that watch collecting can be risky. “There are a lot of Frankenwatches out there. Not necessarily fakes, but watches that aren’t described properly.”
When I met Tom, the Tom Brady limited-edition TAG Heuer Carrera Calibre Heuer 01 chronograph was lying on his living room table. Only 466 were made, in honor of Brady’s total passing yards in Super Bowl LI. A signed few were presented to collectors by Brady himself at a special event after the Patriots’ victory over the Houston Texans in September.
The Brady TAG Heuer, and his other timepieces, are about more than their materials. “It’s not the watches,” Tom the collector notes, “but all the experiences.”
Tom isn’t much interested in antiques. He favors steel watches with uncluttered dials and strong power reserves. He roughly estimates his collection to be worth over $300,000.
As we spoke, Tom showed me the Ressence Type 3 timepiece on his wrist, a peculiar watch that uses an oil substrate to make the face appear unusually bold and clear.
I press him on what makes watch collectors different from other people. “Our lives are filled with heightened experiences,” he states. As I scanned his collection, the watch that seemed to most embody this sentiment was a Romain Jerome timepiece with an outer bezel crafted with rescued steel from the Titanic. The face was designed with petrified coal.
“If I was born in another time, I would probably have been an explorer or a wanderer,” he notes. Although Tom speaks without an accent, English is his third language, and he adorns his home with Spanish furniture and models of Russian ships. His automobile collection favors English and German models. His watches are mostly of Swiss design. The more he speaks, and the more I listen, the more I begin to see worlds opening up among the spinning hands and rotating crowns. I reach for my wrist and feel underdressed.
Onward, the gears turned.