One of the benefits of having a store that offers new and pre-owned items is that we get to see a huge variety of wonderful watches. Not just the ones by the famous makers that get our blood pumping (but it helps), but the the ones that come to us with a tale to tell. I often wish I had more time to delve into the personal history of these particular pieces as they would make for great stories. Here’s my foray into PBS’s Antique Roadshow (and I’m proud to be a sponsor).
There are many items that fall into the “family heirloom” category. It could be a book, or a signature from a famous baseball player. It could be a chippendale chair, a stuffed animal or a vintage car. But what intrigues me most are those watches that were carried or worn by the family member of a past generation. Their diminutive nature, purposefulness and life.... the ticking, manual engagement that was (and is still) required, is so full of personality. These timepieces were, for the most part, monies well spent….an investment and a faith in the future. The general consensus could be deemed reasonable then as it is today: “Pay for quality and it will repay you with longevity.” Once in awhile, I’ve purchased a tool for my trade and been wholeheartedly disappointed at its quality. Would this be something I’d want to pass along to my next apprentice? No. But a tool with great attention to detail and understanding of purpose, yes! Such are the watches that are well made… be they from the early 1900’s or the early 2000’s. You get what you pay for.
Two watches came into the shop last week under totally different circumstances, but both with customers in need. The first was a wonderfully well-preserved Rolex Red Submariner, in immaculate condition with (according to the original purchaser) all the goodies: box, papers, receipts etc... It was graduation weekend at Montana State University and the mother was having the ca. 1970’s Rolex fitted to her graduate’s wrist. We were MOST happy to oblige. As their emotions made clear, the passing on of this timepiece was significant to both the mother and her son. The second watch came in and it blew me away: a Patek Philippe pocket watch. This particular piece was a minute repeater with a split second chronograph. I was only asked for a rough valuation and a lesson on its operation. It just so happened that the customer’s elder relation was in the horse racing business and the following day was significant race - nostalgia hard at work. Two pieces each worth significantly more than my 3 year old truck, brought into my business for my expertise. I’m privileged to be entrusted with adjusting and appraising such items.
Both of these pieces were mechanical, utilitarian, artistic and horological masterpieces of their day, and both were resurrected for a new life experience. A college graduation present purchased new in the 1970’s now offered to a deserving student and a descendant of a well deserving horse racing individual who might be celebrating an anniversary equine race. Who really knows what these pieces mean to the givers or the recipients….but it is the fact that they are passed down, as symbols of all that they meant to the original owner.
The 2017 Basel Fair, an annual horological pilgrimage, wraps up in a few days. So far it is a LOT of fluff, but for the watch junkie, it is also a lot of eye candy. Take, for instance, the new Rolex Yachtmaster (seen here via Hodinkee). In my humble opinion... what were they thinking? I’ve read some of this model’s reviews, within 48 hours of its debut, accentuated with words like chiclets, unicorn vomit, Easter and even, “I like it.” Sorry, not sure for what event, or even on what planet, this would be an accessory worn by any self-proclaimed “made-it” kind of Rolex personality. Be that as it may, we’re all entitled to our own opinions. This one I fear is destined for only those willing to take a super huge bet of the leveraged hedge fund variety, and only were it on Oct. 31st just to say “I’m that outrageous”.
I’ve attended the Basel Fair in 2009 and it was awesome. I met some wonderful people, saw some fantastic and innovative watches, tools and everything in between. It was an exploratory endeavour and it fed my horological belly with lots of vitamins and fervor.
These days though, I’m happy to offer my smaller non-corporate brands - Oris, Momentum, Boccia, Marathon - and a plethora of vintage pieces from notable American, Swiss and other countries. The business model I’ve chosen, albeit not written in stone, urges me to provide my customers with family brands, ones that an individual in the market for a new watch would not find at Costco or on some grey market website with lackluster customer service. Let’s be real, with a cell phone in the pocket, who needs a mechanical watch? Well, I’ll be the first to extol the virtues of something that ticks, something that can be maintained for decades by a competent watchmaker. Many of the watches that come to my bench for repair or restoration are family heirlooms. Are they worthy of such maintenance? In most cases, absolutely. This week, two Hamilton 992B railroad watches were received and offered service. One needed a full service and a balance staff replaced. The other, having been serviced by me only a few years ago (and since dropped by the owner’s grandchild) needed a balance staff, but retained a regulation that was impecable. Seconds a day error in all positions.
As much as I love seeing new innovations and cutting edge technology (see a future post of a wristwatch case using 3D printing), there are some things that tradition and old-school watchmaking can not diminish. And I am pleased to be a part of the maintenance of such well-made pieces of horology.
The Basel Fair does showcase some wonderful new models, and I’ll admit, I fell for one today (to be delivered in September), an Oris 1917 seen here. Some things never change.
With a myriad of ways to kick off the new website including thanking web designer Danny for being so persistent, I thought I'd create the first journal entry by offering somewhat of an introduction to not only a favorite book, but also a very dear associate. Watchmaker Barry Marcus and I have not met, nor had we even spoken on the phone until just a few weeks ago. He called with great concern, offering a sincere warning about expired watch batteries, both lithium and silver oxide. Under certain circumstances, these batteries can heat up or even explode, with the potential for a fire. That's just the kind of guy Barry is. I get a thrill with every email. I also get a jolt of reinforcement in the path that I've taken. And all too often, I come away with some tidbit of wisdom from a watchmaker who has been at the bench since he was 11. He's now in his early 80's.
The book, co-authored with his daughter Julie Campisi, Watches I Have Known, is a sociological collage of the people (family and customers mostly) who have engaged Barry Marcus throughout his long career. The stories weave one through the emotional spectrum because it is not about the watches, it is about the people; their stories and how their lives were changed, made important or otherwise effected by the kind spirit of a watchmaker. The watches are the thread that hold the cloth of this endearing book together. The fabric is Barry and the people he writes about. The short vignettes offer the reader a chance to peer inside the world of the watchmaker from a mostly non-technical vantage. Stories run the gamut from military veteran watches being passed down and finding their way into combat again (after the caring repairs of Barry) to watches with inscriptions of past loved ones, important occasions and the like.
Watches I Have Known is a must read for anyone with a love of humanity. An appreciation for watches certainly helps. The symbolism and emotional connection watches hold shines throughout the book. Barry's passion for his craft is clearly evident, as is his understanding and appreciation for a treasured timepiece. That heirloom that might be worth very little monetarily, but everything to the owner.... and Barry Marcus knows it.