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Watch Collector Profiles: Nameless in Manhattan

We sit down with a New York City–based watch collector who prefers to remain nameless.

When approaching collectors in the watch industry (as well as in other industries), the request of anonymity is often present. Whether out of fear of theft or simply not wanting to wave their wealth around in public, this request is a constant battle when wanting to dig into the collecting hobby.

After careful consideration, we’ve decided to launch a new series of collector profiles dedicated to these collectors, starting with an acquaintance in New York known on social media as @nycwatchguy. His collection runs the gamut from Richard Mille and Audemars Piguet to an incredible assortment of chronographs from the ’60s (primarily Universal Genève and Yema, among others). Here’s what he had to say about his love of the hobby.

An Audemars Piguet Double Balance Wheel Openworked.

An Audemars Piguet Double Balance Wheel Openworked.  Photo: Justin Mastine-Frost

What triggered your interest in watches and watchmaking?

I’ve always been obsessed with gadgets. Even as a kid, I always wanted to know how things work from the inside, and was especially excited by electronics, and therefore digital watches. To me, the Casio calculator watch was the ultimate grail watch, but I could not afford one growing up [approx. $100]. Only the rich kids in my class had one, and I always envied them. After the Casio, I grew up a little bit and really wanted a G-Shock. The “illuminator” lights captured my imagination, and I always thought it was so cool that you could have a little bulb inside of a watch. Again, I could never afford a real G-Shock, but I would buy fake ones for $10 and take them apart once they eventually broke. My parents say I even used to try and sell the broken ones, but that’s a story for another day.

When I graduated high school, my dad bought me my first “big-boy watch,” which was still quartz but an analog Timex with hands and sub-dials. I wore that watch for many years through college, and even though I bought other digital watches during that time, the Timex that my father bought me always remained special to me. Since I never thought I’d ever become this obsessed with watches, I unfortunately lost that Timex somewhere along the way. I sure wish I had taken better care of it and kept it somewhere safe, as it would be the watch that started it all.

A vintage Zenith El Primero chronograph, reference A385.

A vintage Zenith El Primero chronograph, reference A385.  Photo: Justin Mastine-Frost

What was the first “real” watch you purchased? Do you still have it?

In 2011, I was wearing an outrageously large 45 mm quartz Movado chronograph on a steel bracelet. I had purchased it in my senior year of college in order to impress a girl. Having worn it for a few years, I was getting antsy to replace it, when I saw a Zenith El Primero Chronomaster Open Heart in an online magazine somewhere. I was immediately enamored by it, especially with the opening in the dial that allowed me to see a part of the movement. Mind you, I still didn’t even know the difference between a manual wind and an automatic movement at this point, but I knew that I must own this watch. I did not have much money at the time, and $6,000 was well outside my means. I decided that there must be some way to procure a used piece for less. At the time, not knowing much about watches, I was hesitant to trust eBay or another online marketplace. A chance trip to Rome presented an opportunity for me to canvas Italy’s pre-owned stores in the hopes of finding the watch. An entire day was spent in Rome, walking from one store to another.

By the end of the day, I had no watch and a very angry girlfriend. Heading back to our hotel, we stopped at a jewelry store in order to catch our breath and get a little air conditioning before heading back out into the Italian sun. On a whim, I asked the old woman behind the desk—who barely spoke English—if she had a Zenith watch, even though this wasn’t a watch store. The woman told me she wasn’t sure, but she had a few watches in the safe, and she’d bring them out. Two minutes later, a watch roll emerged, and inside was the exact watch that I wanted—the El Primero in the size and dial color that I had been looking for. The woman said she had bought the watch some years back from a customer since she had thought it was a very beautiful piece and that someday someone might want it. It was fate. I struck a deal with her for about $3,000—which was probably more than I could afford to spend at the time—and walked out with my first real watch, which I still wear to this day.

@nycwatchguy's first serious watch purchase — a Zenith El Primero

@nycwatchguy’s first serious watch purchase — a Zenith El Primero.  Photo: Justin Mastine-Frost

Do you have a favorite genre or era of watch that you’re more focused on or interested in?

I have a great appreciation for many different types of watches but am very picky at the same time. For me, the watch must be aesthetically pleasing first and foremost. If it doesn’t look good, I don’t care how complicated or special the movement is; I probably won’t buy it. With vintage pieces, 90 percent of my collection is chronographs, mostly stuff from the ’60s and ’70s. I feel like that was the golden era of chronographs, with the pieces finally reaching 36 mm to 38 mm in size, something that I can still wear today. Anything smaller than that, and I am out.

With the modern stuff, I feel like we are in the golden age of “sport-y” watches, and while I do own some dressier stuff, I have found myself really gravitating towards the watches that can be worn on anything and at any time.

An assortment of vintage Universal Geneve watches.

An assortment of vintage Universal Geneve watches.  Photo: Justin Mastine-Frost

How do you evaluate your watch purchases? Are you guided more by emotion, or is it more of a game of numbers?

I spend a lot of time researching pieces before buying them. Once in a while, I make an impulse buy, and I almost always come to regret the decision. So at this point, it’s truly a painstaking process. With vintage watches, I’m generally buying rare pieces that I believe will continue to appreciate in value. I have a lot more fun chasing rare birds and acquiring them than I do actually wearing the watches. It’s almost a game to me, spending time combing through forums, eBay, and Instagram to find a piece before anyone else does.

With modern watches, it’s about two things—what will actually get wrist time, given the rest of the collection, and what will hold value. I am not in a financial position where I am okay losing 50 percent of the value of a watch once I put it on. Unfortunately, this means there are many amazing watches out there that I would love to own, but given that secondary market resale value of the brand, I simply cannot buy them. I certainly go through phases where I might buy a handful of pieces in a short period of time and then go months without buying anything. I do feel like I am maturing as a collector, though, and being more careful about ensuring I really want something before pulling the trigger now.

How many watches are in your collection right now? And of those, how many do you see as ones that you’ll never part with?

It’s hard to keep track, but I would estimate I have somewhere north of 80 pieces. I used to have pieces that I said I would absolutely never part with, but having recently watched a documentary on minimalism that left me embarrassed by my general hoarding, I have decided that there is no such thing as a piece I will never part with. I also put that out there as a challenge to every watchmaker, to come up with that one piece that will make me part with a kidney before I part with the watch. The closest so far has been my Kari Voutilainen Vingt-8. In my opinion, it is the closest thing that I have seen to the “perfect watch.”

Kari Voutilainen Vingt-8

A Kari Voutilainen Vingt-8.  Photo: Justin Mastine-Frost

Do you have a favorite watch complication?

I think it’s a tie between the perpetual calendar and a retrograde time/date for me. The fact that a watch movement can keep track of the number of days in each month, and then know the difference between a leap year and a non-leap year, always blew my mind. I recently got to understand the actual inner workings of a perpetual calendar from a Patek watchmaker, and it was actually amazing to see how just one wheel is able to do the job of keeping track of 48 different months.

As for the retrograde, there’s just something awesome about seeing a retrograde hand bounce back. I especially love Journe’s implementation of this complication in the Octa Calendrier, and I also love what HYT is doing with the liquid retrogrades. As a special mention, I do think that the casino complications that Christophe Claret makes are just otherworldly. If I was a (winning) gambler, I would definitely buy one of those.

An F.P. Journe Octa Calendrier.

An F.P. Journe Octa Calendrier.  Photo: Justin Mastine-Frost

Is there a watch out there that you’re hunting for at the moment?

I’ve managed to build a substantial collection without ever buying a Rolex or a Patek. I’ve finally come around to considering adding a Rolex Daytona 6263 to the collection. The prices have gotten ridiculous with the bubble that the auction houses have created, and there are a number of franken pieces out there, so I have been fairly tentative about pulling the trigger. But at the right price, in the right condition, I would love to own a 6263 Big Red.

Three watches for the rest of your life . . . go.

Oh boy! I started this thing on Instagram called #OneWatchBox. Unfortunately, it didn’t catch on as much as I had hoped, but it really did force me to think about what my collection would look like if I could only have nine pieces. It was painful just to get to nine, so getting to three seems nearly impossible. But here goes.

  1. Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Quantieme Perpetual with a blue dial in stainless steel
  2. Kari Voutilainen Vingt-8 with a bespoke dial in white gold
  3. Romain Gauthier Logical One in titanium

The AP takes care of daily wear in any condition. The Kari is the ultimate dress watch, so on the off chance that I ever get married or have to dress nicely, I have something for the occasion. It was a tough choice between Romain Gauthier and MB&F for the final (crazy) piece, but I think Romain’s fusee chain just marginally beats out the cool factor of MB&F’s dial-side split escapement.

 

An Audemars Piguet Perpetual Calendar in steel.

An Audemars Piguet Perpetual Calendar in steel.  Photo: Justin Mastine-Frost

When we set up this meeting, your immediate concern was anonymity. Why is that?

 I think many people out there buy luxury items to show off their wealth or to attract attention. For me, I buy watches because I truly enjoy wearing them, learning about how they are made, and building a relationship with the watchmakers—mostly the independents. I have no reason for people outside my small circle of watch-nerd friends to know who I am and attract unnecessary attention.

Also, in my line of work—technology—the ostentatious display of wealth isn’t received nearly as well as it might be on Wall Street. I work very hard to buy the watches I own, and every purchase hurts. But watches are my passion, and I buy them to support the craft of watchmaking and to make me happy, as well. I also think that having to spend hard-earned money on a watch makes you appreciate it so much more than if you had unlimited funds and never had to worry about your next purchase.

With watches being a symbol of status in many industries, do you think an awareness of your significant collection would hinder you when it comes to negotiating or doing business?

I don’t believe it will hinder my ability to do business, and frankly I think that anyone who knows what a Richard Mille is would assume that I am fairly successful if they saw one on my wrist. When people think you’re successful, they are more drawn to you and likely want to do business with you. And that’s totally fine; if a watch happens to help me close a deal someday, it would be phenomenal. But that simply isn’t the reason I would ever buy a watch. I prefer to be seen as nothing more than an average Joe who happens to have a hobby. Just so happens that the hobby is a little more expensive than others—but hey, it’s better than vintage cars, right?

An MB&F LM1 in white gold.

An MB&F LM1 in white gold.  Photo: Justin Mastine-Frost

Do you see a similar concern among other collectors that you are acquainted with?

Absolutely. We were recently at Watch Time New York, our city’s biggest annual watch show. For the past 2 years, reporters have come up to me and asked to interview me and other collectors that I know. The first thing every person said to the reporter was, “Sure, I’m happy to talk—as long as you don’t use my real name.” I think this once again goes to show the mind-set of most true watch collectors—we do it for the love of horology, and not for the attention. It’s also a liability issue. Watches can get stolen, or you could end up being the target of a scam if people think you have money. The best way to collect watches is to keep your head down and your mouth shut. That tends to offer the best view of the piece on your wrist!

What’s one thing you love about this industry?

The camaraderie has been tremendous. Most of the people I know in N.Y.C. and hang out with now are watch collectors. Redbar [a New York–born watch-enthusiast group now spread around the globe] has done an incredible job of building a community and bringing people with a passion for watches together. The most amazing part is the complete lack of snobbishness. It doesn’t matter if you have a Richard Mille or an Omega Speedmaster on your wrist. We are all just part of the horology brotherhood [or sisterhood]. It’s also a fairly small, tight-knit community, and most people know each other, which means you do something that isn’t good for the group, and people will find out real quick. I think that keeps people in check a little bit.

Vintage LeCoultre World Timer.

Vintage LeCoultre World Timer.  Photo: Justin Mastine-Frost

What trends have you been seeing in the past year that you’re a fan of?

I think brands are finally realizing that this new generation of watch buyers are value-based buyers. They are not willing to simply drop $100k because the brand decides that watch should be priced at $100k. If you cannot back up the reason for the price, the buyers will go to another brand. I think JLC’s ultra-thin perpetual calendar is the perfect example of this—a beautiful watch that is priced right. My jaw dropped when I found out it was priced under $20k.

Obviously, there are exceptions to the rule. Richard Mille should be teaching a Harvard Business School class on marketing and creating brand cachet. But then again, Richard Mille has more demand than they have supply, and they run a tight ship, which retains the value of their pieces on the secondary market. That too is very important for today’s collector. I think we are going to see more and more watches with amazing complications that are priced lower than the watch consumer is used to. This, of course, means retail margins are going to shrink, which is why you’re seeing more brands opting to open their own boutiques as well as beginning to [finally] accept the Internet as a legitimate sales channel.

 

Universal Genève "Nina Rindt" Compax chronograph

Universal Genève “Nina Rindt” Compax chronograph.  Photo: Justin Mastine-Frost

Is there something you wish we would see more of in the watch industry?

I wish brands would do more to retain the value of their watches by limiting production and keeping from dumping pieces on the gray market in close-out sales and pretending that they have no idea what’s actually happening. There are some incredible brands under both Richemont and Swatch Group that I simply can never buy again, because the minute I take that watch out of the boutique, it has lost half its value. I have gotten burned a few times, and now I simply cannot get myself to do business with these brands. As much as people complain about Richard Mille prices, you cannot deny that an RM is a safe investment. Brands have to realize that today’s buyer cares about these things, especially given how easy it is to try and sell a piece on the Internet.

In the old days, luxury watches were for the ultra-elite who didn’t care if the piece lost all its value, since money was no object. Today’s consumer is much smarter and takes these things into consideration [especially given how easy the resale data is to access] before making a purchase. Too many brands are hurting their long-term customers by not doing all that they can to keep the value of their pieces from plummeting.

 

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