This was good, but I needed wristwatches to work on. I tried Edgware Road but it was all old Hi Fi – valves, tubes etc, another of my interests, but no watches. Now, just down the road towards Paddington Station is Praed Street, and just opposite to where there is a plaque commemorating the site of Sir Alexander Fleming’s discovery of Penicillin, there was a pawnbrokers shop. Pawnbrokers were then a very good source of reasonably priced quality watches, even nowadays you may find a gem. At this shop I literally struck gold, an 18ct Universal tri-compax for £25.00. I could not afford it, but my father could – I cajoled him into buying it and of course I got to restore it as it was in a fairly poor state. I took it to Switzerland with me when I studied at Wostep and brought it back into perfect condition.
Needless to say I visited this pawnbroker whenever I had a chance and another great find was a mint, boxed stainless steel IWC Ingenier on bracelet 1966 vintage. I had to have it!
I sold almost everything I had – watches, clocks, bicycles etc. I had nothing left – but what a watch!
Pawnbrokers were a good source for watches, but not the cheapest.
For value, the place to be was Tottenham Court Road, this road contained many electronics and modern Hi-Fi shops, sprinkled amongst them were some strange stores selling optical instruments, government surplus watches, binoculars and the damn right weird. There was a fantastic emporium called Proops that sold almost anything technical – bits of aircraft/tanks/military vehicles, gyro compasses and boxes of gadgets that very few people could identify. Whenever I visited Proops, I came away having bought something for just shillings and pennies that I really did not need. One time I came out with a navigator’s mechanical computer control panel from an Avro Lancaster – unused, beautifully made, loads of Bakelite switches and buttons but totally useless! I did buy from Proops an item that I still use to this day – a large slab of Arkansas stone, which is wonderful for sharpening gravers, screwdrivers, etc. Strangely, this slab looks just like Kendal Mint Cake – but not as tasty!
There were two main stores that drew me back again and again to Tottenham Court Road. Lind Air Optronics – electronic goods and watches and my real favourite UTS – United Technical Supplies. This shop had a huge, rapidly changing range of ex-government watches available at, for me, very reasonable prices. During my years as a student in London I visited this shop at every opportunity and I bought more than 25 watches there. These were all quality watches , some I still have – my IWC Mk10 for seventeen pounds and ten shillings and my Eterna WWW for seven pound and ten shillings. Numerous Omegas, Longines, Jaeger Le Coultres, Timors, Burens, Lemanias, Pierce Chronographs etc. I would buy these watches, service and tidy them up then sell them to friends for a small profit. Then I would buy another one for more practice, this way I got to work on many of the very best Swiss watch movements.
So, this was how I got my hands on all these superb watches and also developed my love of walking around big cities – later in the early 1980s I went back to Tottenham Court Road and IWC Mk 11s were for sale for £25 – £35 each. Those were the days! But do not be disheartened, although we are all more knowledgeable and aware of the value of old wristwatches, it is still possible to find watch gems in the backstreets of the world’s great cities. I have my own secret places and streets that I always go back to when I am travelling – I never know what I might find.
This type of “watch hunting on foot” is more healthy and much more fun than just scrolling through eBay!