Collecting Portable Time
By Sig Shonholtz
History of Collecting
Collecting antiques is not a new idea. Historical records indicate that 3000 years ago there were collectors and dealers of coins and artifacts in Egypt. Today, collecting “antiques” is different then it was in Egyptian times. For one reason collecting antiques today is a matter of semantics. According to Webster’s an antique must be 100 years old. This places many contemporary collectors’ items outside the realm of the antique; the majority of collected items today would be considered vintage collectibles. The word vintage usually refers to wine, specifically a fine or quality vintage from a particular year. The word vintage can however also refer to a year or period; a time that most defines the style, that is how we apply it to the wrist watch, as well as many other “collected items”. This word is also used to define classic automobiles, they are called vintage. “Vintage clothing” is a common one. Vintage motorcycles is also quite common, in fact the word vintage in front of these nouns is more common then not if it is about a collectable item.
The great architect Le Corbusier suggested that a house was a machine for living in, if it is so then the watch is a machine for living with, and people do live with their watches. They sleep with them, shower with them, and yes they even make love with them, literally and figuratively. Few things have consumed mans creativity more then the perfection of time. History is filled with accounts of great philosophers and scientists who spent years studying time; Henry Ford was a watchmaker and attributes his ideas in automobile manufacturing to modern watch making production. Like most of man’s creations, watches are a clear reflection of the political and historical events of the times, and like so many things in our world the watch’s development had direct military applications. In fact it is difficult to find something man has created, or invented that has not at one time or another been utilized or studied by the military, either offensively or defensively or both. Regarding the watch; one of the more fundamental applications was in the military. For example the ability to launch an attack on two fronts requires each regiment to have synchronized time. Napoleon Bonaparte wore a watch in his pocket produced by the worlds greatest watch maker, Abraham Louis Breguet, in the late 1700’s. Napoleon believed that the difference between him and his opponents was that he understood the value of 5 minutes. He not only knew what could happen in 5 minutes he had the power in his pocket to count it off, watch it pass accurately, and contemplate what he could accomplish in those 5 minutes.
Why People Collect
Interestingly, one of the reasons people collect has little to do with what they collect. The most powerful drive for most people in their collecting has to do with souvenirs, as a way to remember time. People collect because it reminds them of a time or event in their lives. The item takes them back to the moment, in the case of a watch the “machine of time” becomes a “time machine” propelling people back to the moment when they bought it. It evokes all the emotion, feeling and enthusiasm, as well as all the fears and concerns they had at the time. It usually carries with it the memory of who they were with and what their lives were like. This makes collecting a powerful force for evocation as well as a catalyst of thoughts and feelings. The renowned actor Eli Wallach for example made it his habit to wander into a jewelry or local antique store when he was working on a film and make a purchase of a watch or small travel clock. He wanted to buy something that would remind him of the films he had worked on. He recounts the time he bought a “beautiful old wrist watch with a blue enamel bezel” in Almeria, in Southern Spain while he was filming the Good the Bad and the Ugly. Eli says, “During the filming Sergio Leoni allowed a local vendor onto the set to show his wares” and “Sergio bought me a solid white gold Baume Mercier wrist watch as a gift”. Eli remembers Sergio warning the vendor “if it is not a genuine Baume Mercier I will have you shot”. Eli is not the only famous person that buys time to remember the time.
Watches are frequently purchased as gifts, Malcolm McDowell, an actor well known for his role in A Clockwork Orange, and dozens of other impressive films is an avid watch collector. He says “It started when I received a watch as gift in 1979 at the opening of a play I was in”. After that he says he was “hooked, I decided to buy a watch every time I did a play or film, or something”. Speaking of time, Malcolm shared the story about the title “A Clockwork Orange”. He had asked Anthony Burgess, who wrote the original novel, “Where did you get the idea for this title?” Anthony said he was in a pub in the East end of London, and one of the old guy regulars in there said [in a cockney accent] “Yes, e’s as queer as a clockwork orange.” “And it always stuck with him, this title. Which means he’s as peculiar as a clockwork orange, god knows, your imagination has to do the rest”, said Malcolm. Rolex watches made from 1920 through 1940 are Malcolm’s favorite models.
There are some rare collectors that are so ahead of their time that they collect before “it happens”, almost in anticipation of the future. The writer musician artist Artie Shaw, made it a habit to stop in to the Cartier shop in New York during the 1930’s, “just to see what was new” he said. “I was very successful as a musician and band leader and I bought a watch every few weeks just to confirm my success, to pinch myself”. Artie said “The entire collection was stolen from me while I was staying in a hotel in the late 1930’s”. He said “The insurance company would only pay out about $40,000, but I had spent well over that on the items”. Artie shares that “Their reasoning was that since the stolen watches, were never recovered they were not sure the robbery ever occurred”. In today’s world that would be a ridiculous argument. Artie was the kind of collector that bought only what moved him and what was considered at the time the highest level of craftsmanship, he was an artist with an artist’s eye for beauty, and based most of decisions on the esthetic impression the watch made on him.
What Makes Something Rare?
One of the most exciting aspects about collecting watches is that you have the opportunity to participate in 500 years of scientific experiments, and the entire history of contemporary design spanning, Egyptian revival, Art Nouveau and Art Deco, and Modernism and this for as little as $300 or $400. Now, let’s just take a moment to consider what it means to collect something like a watch that is rare. It might be rare because there were only a few pieces made, but in many cases it’s rare because it’s still here. That might seem a strange idea, but precious metals have been used for thousands of years to finance wars and expansions. That means that exceptional and unique watches as well as jewelry have been destroyed for their precious metal value. Gold and silver has been melted down and turned into jewelry and melted down again and again for thousands of years. It’s true that new gold and silver is still being mined all the time, but old precious metal is also being refined from old jewelry and turned into new jewelry (or bullion to be used for other purposes). The newly mined gold is mixed with old refined gold, so each piece of modern jewelry, as well as old watches and jewelry, have trace elements of ancient gold. Somewhere in every ring, each watch, and every necklace are elements of jewelry that was worn by Cleopatra, Charlemagne, the Medici’s, or even George Washington. So, next time you look at your watch touch it for good luck, because you are linked to the past and the future. Maybe that is why jewelry historically has such a magical and mysterious attraction to us all.
How to Start your Collection
Today’s modern watch collector has a lot of decisions to make. If you are a new collector fascinated by watches and time (hopefully you will be after reading this) you will have to focus in on a category to make your collecting experience as rich as possible. It does not really matter what you are collecting in fact, watches, cars, clothing, or furniture the same decision will have to be made. You will also need to define your own personal style since wearing a vintage or antique watch is part of the fun of collecting them. Many types of collections, for example stamps and coins, do not relate to peoples lives, they can not be practically used, but still require safe keeping. A vintage watch can be used and surprisingly, in these modern times, actually be depended upon. The best way to start is to decide what kind of a budget you have and where your interests are.
There are many directions you can take; some people collect a particular brand by name or period. Some collect by style or country, for example American watches made before World War One, commonly called trench watches or military styles. Some collectors only buy chronograph or calendar watches. There are collectors who only purchase “new old stock” watches and do not care if it is a humble Bulova for $400 or a very expensive Patek Philippe for $10,000. You might like to collect every model made by a particular house during an era. This gets harder as your collection gets larger, but you can refine your collection by selling off the less perfect duplicates. Many collectors are in fact investors, they collect for value and some have done very well.
Personally I like to collect watches that represent an idea or a theme. I have watches in my collection of modest value worth $200 or $300, but they accurately represent a theme or idea. For example I have several watches that are excellent examples of Art Deco design, and some that represent the shapes that they are called, for instance a simple tortoise shaped watch called a tortue. I have several watches that are very valuable high quality copies of famous designer’s ideas. I also like to collect commemorative pieces; these are not necessarily expensive but define an era, or highlight an event. I have a few early examples of waterproof watches which were produced during Word War One. I also like to collect watches with great engravings, and historical provenance. I have a watch in my collection which was owned by Commander Richard E. Byrd. The Longines chronograph he wore on his expedition to the North Pole. And I have many watches owned by famous people which were given to them by famous people. I also have a small collection of very old wrist watches, really antique pieces, some as old as 200 years.
Having been in the watch field my entire life I finally decided to try my hand at watch manufacturing. This has proven to be more difficult then I imagined, producing my own watch required that I work with nearly 30 different companies in many languages on individual aspects of manufacturing and packaging. It has taken several years but I am proud to offer the premier edition of the Guillermin Mollet watch. It was inspired by a design originally produced for Patek Philippe in 1951 this striking watch is available in 3 colors of gold with a variety of dial designs. The high-grade automatic movement has a power reserve of nearly 40 hours! The house of Guillermin Mollet was located in the historic Place Vendome in Paris. They designed exquisite jewelry and watches for international film stars and European royalty.
There are still some bargains out there but you will have to look carefully, I think that the Omega line offers a lot of great styling and affordability, as well as Longines, and Le Coultre, and of course Gruens. In addition the Bulova watch company made excellent watches with hundreds of models, all very dependable and very sophisticated. These lines are all accurate, high quality, and serviceable, and are all affordable. As a beginner collector it is very important to be patient, and stay within your budget, try and buy watches in good condition from a reputable dealer who will give you an opportunity to have the watch checked out with a refund policy of one week. My last piece of advice is; buy what you like and what you will enjoy wearing, and always spend a little bit more for the piece you really want, do not compromise, after a month or two the extra bit of money you would have saved will not matter but wearing a watch that does not move you will, and remember collecting should be fun, if it is not fun then it is not worth it.