I purchased my first real watch when I was 22 years old. It was a Rolex Submariner bought with money I won in Las Vegas from a longer-than-usual run at the craps table. Little did I know, that would be the start of a passion (watches, not gambling) that now spans close to thirty years. During this journey, I have added and subtracted multiple timepieces to and from my watch box, as well as encountered many other ardent watch lovers, some with truly amazing collections. Truth is, watch collectors are a peculiar group, and those who do not suffer from the “watch bug” have a difficult time understanding our perplexing and often expensive addiction. While some even refer to watch collecting as an affliction, at the heart of it is the need to satisfy some of the most essential human conditions: the thirst for knowledge, the hunger for love, and the oft desire to be transported to a different place and, well, a different time.
In order to delve deeper into the psyche of a serious collector, I reached out to a good friend (whom I’ll call Ryan) who has one of the finest personal watch collections on the West Coast (if not the entire nation). The thrill he gets sharing his collection with other watch lovers is palpable, and it might even be (dare I say) a turn-on when he sees that look of total astonishment on another watch-lover’s face. For the record, Ryan is not a pretentious person. It’s never been about the price of a timepiece, rather, it is about the story and personality surrounding each and every watch in his stable, going back to the very first real watch purchase.
We meet at a sushi bar near Ryan’s house and get to talking about watch collecting, how it all started, what captures our imagination about this brand or another, what we like or don’t like, etc. After the ritual of passing around and inspecting the watches worn by those at the table, Ryan shares a story about his first real timepiece purchased with some money left to him by his father. It was a Maurice Lacroix – simple, handsome, and Swiss. Since that fateful day, his collection has blossomed with watches from Jaeger-LeCoultre, Ulysse Nardin, A. Lange & Söhne, Omega, IWC, and F.P. Journe, to mention but a few. Each piece has its own story, its own style. We are talking about living art, after all, and every member of the collection carries a very personal meaning for Ryan.
Speaking of personal, Ryan has close relationships with independent watchmakers, such as Thomas Prescher and Roger Smith – not to mention some of the larger brands again – and has become more of a patron of the art of watchmaking by investing in the watchmakers themselves. To be clear, it is our collector who is now sought out by the brands, and in most cases, an independent watchmaker (who manufactures 30 to 40 unique pieces a year) relies on patrons/collectors like Ryan to make a living. Particularly fond of the tourbillon escapement, Ryan jokingly refers to the whole business of watch collecting as “going down the rabbit hole.” Once you’re in there’s no turning back.
We arrive at Ryan’s home where a package awaits. Inside are matching His and Hers Jaeger-LeCoultre “Chocolate” Reversos for his wife and him – each one custom engraved and simply beautiful. Ryan smiles with quiet appreciation as his wife moves to try hers on. It looks like it was made just for her! We make our way to a guest room where every watch in the collection has been carefully laid out. I mean, I always knew Ryan had a lot of watches, but nothing could have prepared me for the sea of timekeepers blanketing the bed; and on display on the counters around us. It was a bit difficult to absorb, with all the heart palpitations and mild hyperventilating, but when we finally settled down, we are able to take in the treasure trove that lay before us. Ryan playfully giggles at our obvious glee.
Um, is that a Spherotourbillon? Wait, is that the Ulysse Nardin “Stranger” watch? I’ve only seen one of those on YouTube. There’s a Tuscar – I think there’s only like ten examples of that one. Holy crap, it can’t be… but it is! Thomas Prescher’s tourbillon-on-a-stick.
It is almost hard to believe, but every example we encounter seems to outdo the previous. And with each piece, Ryan shares a story about how and why it came to be part of his collection. He picks up one of the watches and starts to wax poetic about the acquisition of the George Daniels 35th Anniversary piece, one of the most sought after watches in the world – a true grail. Ryan’s body language shifts while telling us how the odyssey began with a visit to Roger Smith’s workshop regarding commission of a timepiece. During the visit, Roger informed our friend that he could take him to meet the master himself. Needless to say, the necessary plans were immediately put into place to make the trip to the Isle of Man.
Mr. Daniels was rather frail at the time and actually scheduled for hip replacement surgery the next day. During their time together, Ryan was confronted with a most fortuitous opportunity: number 35 (out of 35) of the George Daniels 35th Anniversary timepiece had miraculously become available and needed to find a home.
At the same time, Ryan was already committed to a piece from Roger Smith, but it was actually Roger who suggested he take the Daniels watch in its stead. If that’s not story enough, George and Roger agreed to engrave something just a little bit different for Ryan on the bottom of the bridge by marking it 35/35; when all thirty-four examples before it were simply numbered #1 through #34. (An absolutely stunning handmade watch, highlighted here on aBlogtoWatch.) As the story goes, having lived a very full and meaningful life, Mr. Daniels passed away shortly thereafter.
Despite all of the amazing timepieces in an otherwise unparalleled collection, it is the two Omegas that were gifts from his wife that Ryan treasures above all. Just a little bit earlier, it was great to see her joy trying on her new Reverso – it is truly special how Ryan’s wife shares and supports his passion. They are true companions and it was an honor to have been invited into their home. Utterly surrounded by watches, with a nod, Ryan makes the comment, “Depending on my mood or sometimes what I’m wearing, I manage to wear each and every one of these.”
Like many prolific watch collectors, he has his dislikes – in particular, the ubiquitous Rolex. When asked why, he huffs, “They just make too damn many of ‘em” – a sentiment echoed by many other collectors of similar stature. From my experience, even those with vast collections have, at the very least, a Paul Newman Daytona squirrelled away somewhere. Not so much for Ryan. As for his preference, the more complicated, the better. From Svend Andersen’s Secular Calendar to TAG Heuer’s MikroPendulum, Ryan is always intrigued by what is possible in such a small amount of space. In fact, he has mentioned more than once his belief that Perpetual Calendar watches are actually little time machines, providing the wearer immortality. More than just part of his psyche, like watchmaking itself, the timepieces have become part of his DNA.
Some of the standout pieces in the collection include a quartet of Jaeger LeCoultre Duometres: the Chronographe, Quantieme Lunaire, Universal Travel Time, and the truly mind-boggling Spherotourbillon. The lineup of pieces from Ulysse Nardin rivals the offerings at a boutique, including the Stranger, Freak, Manafacture, Moonstruck, GMT, Tourbillon Skeleton, and the totally and absolutely amazing Michelangelo Hour Striker. There’s a trilogy from TAG Heuer’s concept line, including the V4, the Mikrograph, and the Mikrotimer.
And while Ryan has since spoken directly with TAG Heuer who have agreed to complete the quartet by making him a Mikrogirder, the problem here is that the same folks refuse to provide any kind of warranty for the (uber expensive) watch; the makings for yet another cool story. One could compare this rare opportunity to getting a call from Porsche and being offered one of their concept vehicles. No warranty. No guarantee. If on the very next day, the engine blows up and the wheels fall off… oh well.
One of the take aways from this evening was seeing the sheer joy Ryan experiences while sharing his collection with others, particularly when a fellow collector realizes the genuine importance of what they are looking at without the necessity of having it explained. When I think back (way, way back) to that first watch I bought, I realize it had its own story, and whenever I wear it, it takes me straight back in time to that craps table. Reflecting on the watches in my collection, I think of the unique bond I have with each and also realize the evening has been more about a collection of stories than a collection of watches.
This is what makes me proud to be a watch collector. As Ryan will attest, some of our best friends have been made just because of our mutual love for watches. We have come to define ourselves by these examples of living art, and collectors like Ryan are not only an inspiration, they are also a great wealth of information – and most of them will go out of their way to share it.
Ask an art collector about a piece of art or why these particular examples hang on their walls, and you’ll likely get a lesson in art history and probably insight into his/her personality. Ask a car collector how much horsepower is under the hood of their ’67 Shelby Cobra, and he’ll offer to take you for a spin. Ask a watch collector to share their passion, and the next thing you know, you are buying your first real watch.
And so the story begins.