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Our history and a history of vintage watches in the UK
This website is the very long-overdue incarnation of what many viewers will know as our online auction listings. These have been running for nearly a decade and taken the form of batches of beautifully presented rare watches that were typically put up for sale on two or three occasions each year. The rarity of these models, their condition and most significantly, the very detailed manner in which each was painstakingly described attracted considerable attention and over the years, these listings gained a large following of regular buyers, many of whom we now know well. Even if they didn’t end up bidding, it was always genuinely appreciated when complete strangers emailed to say how much they had enjoyed the thorough auction descriptions, and we had been threatening for at least the last five years to set up a website to run in parallel with the auction listings.
Ironically, this website would probably never have come to fruition if it hadn’t been for Ebay becoming so hostile towards sellers over the last two years. The policy makers there didn’t seem to be able to differentiate between long established sellers with faultless trading records over a large number of previous transactions and complete newcomers, with no feedback record at all, offering replica and imitation pieces, which at times was incredibly frustrating. When a number of our listed Rolex items, obviously completely authentic and, unbelievably, even complete with their original sales documentation and recent Rolex service history paperwork, were suddenly removed from sale without any justification at all for this action ever being forthcoming, we finally decided that enough was enough and that it was time to take a more independent route. We were also increasingly concerned by Ebay’s pressure selling of its wholly owned subsidiary Paypal and the mandatory listing of Paypal as a payment option in the watch category. Talking to other serious vintage wristwatch dealers who use Ebay as a sales platform and listening to their horror stories of items being sent to buyers overseas who paid with Paypal and on receipt of their watches then proceeded to falsely claim that these were defective and have their funds reimbursed fraudulently, it became obvious that this was a club which we didn’t want to join.
We will still list some of our watches on Ebay from time to time, purely with the intention of driving traffic towards our site, but only on a very small scale and offering more run of the mill, lower value items than those which can be found here
While most visitors to this site in its initial months will have encountered our auctions over the last decade on Ebay, in fact, the roots of the business you see here now go back much, much further. I have been active as a vintage wristwatch dealer since the concept first appeared in the early 1980s, for the first nine years literally as a sole trader selling to the London trade before the business became more substantial and we began to deal with the public, and have followed the evolution of the collectible watch scene through three decades. We’ve traded continuously with the same VAT registration number that was assigned to us in 1988, which we suspect makes our business one of the longest established specialist vintage watch dealers currently operating in the UK. In a sense, having been there right from the very start, we feel that our involvement with vintage wristwatches is interwoven with that of the field itself in a broader sense.
Though it seems almost unbelievable to us today, prior to 1984, there was no such thing as a collectible wristwatch. Pocket watches had been avidly collected since time immemorial, but the wristwatch was dismissed as being of no consequence. It is very interesting to speculate as to why the antique wristwatch became recognised, but the majority of serious collectors would attribute its emergence down to various major factors. One of these was a growing realisation that modern, current model wristwatches simply weren’t as well made as those that had been produced much earlier. In the 1970s, the traditional Swiss mechanical movement making industry was almost reduced to rubble by the introduction of battery powered quartz technology from the Far East. Mechanical watches were regarded as anachronistic and were viewed as dinosaurs that were no longer relevant. They were very expensive to manufacture and kept poor time in comparison to their electronic successors. At the time of writing, when demand for old mechanical watches verges on the manic, it is difficult for us to imagine how the public felt then, but you’ll get a general idea if we think of how obsolete analogue mobile telephones are perceived now. New, better performing technology than the mechanical movement had been introduced and everybody wanted to be part of this glorious future.
The renaissance started in Italy in the early 1980s and even nearly thirty years on, many people still regard Italy as being the spiritual home of the vintage wristwatch. There are some incredibly knowledgeable dealers in Rome and Milan and while we obviously are not privy to the private possessions of every enthusiast worldwide, it is likely that the best and most comprehensive collections anywhere are likely to be found in safes sitting on Italian soil. After a decade of quartz watches, a number of sophisticated Italians started to become aware of just how beautifully made and how stylish many of the vintage models by Rolex, Patek-Philippe and Omega actually were. There was no doubt that the new wave of quartz movements achieved better accuracy results, but this time round, mechanical watches were judged by the sheer amount of exceptional craftsmanship that had gone into them and not on the basis of functionality. In short, the mechanical watch was making the transition in the public’s eyes from utilitarian timekeeper, a role that it couldn’t credibly fulfil in the face of more accurate quartz watches costing just a few dollars, to luxury commodity. Nobody judges pre-war motor cars on their performance or fuel economy, but instead, we rate them on the basis of quality, opulence, rarity and styling. After being discovered in the early 1980s, the wristwatches of the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s were no longer seen as working timepieces, but as fascinating pieces of micro-mechanical history that were entirely different animals to their modern equivalents.
Having watched them unfold first hand as our business grew; we can say that the early years of the vintage wristwatch market were very exciting times. The number of collectors was much smaller than it is today and so little information was available. The first book I ever bought on antique wristwatches was the Italian work L’Orologio Da Polso by Leonardo Leonardi, which had to be specially ordered by a local bookshop and took about three, eagerly awaited, months to arrive. Because sources of education were so limited, collectors would pore for hours over anything they could find and to this day, I can still list from memory almost every watch shown in this book, and quote many of the captions verbatim that accompanied the pictures.
Sotheby’s, Bonhams and Christie’s started to include wristwatches in their UK auction sales in 1986. Nobody, including the auction houses, really knew what anything was worth or was familiar with serial and model reference sequences, but even then, certain items, like early cushion and octagonal Rolex Oysters and the company’s duo-dial Prince models, quickly emerged as the blue chip classics that routinely sold for high prices in every sale. There was a lot of trial and error and looking back at some of the early auction catalogues from that era now, there are plenty of mistakes in the descriptions, largely because nobody really had the expertise back then to be sure about which hands, winding crowns or dials were correct for which models when manufactured at certain times.
Today, there are too many wristwatch magazines to mention, but back in 1989, the launch of International Wristwatch in English, an offshoot of a publication that had begun in Italy, was a major event. Somewhere, I still have my copy of Issue 1, actually very kindly given to me two decades ago by the Hull based collector John Marshall, who was light years ahead in terms of knowledge at the time, with an olive green cover and a gold 1920s Cartier on it. Again, the fact that I remember this item so vividly is because there was so little reference material on offer. Now, we look at web pages by the thousand, forgetting most of the images in them a few nanoseconds after we’ve seen them. Information on any given field has been dramatically devalued in the last ten or fifteen years, simply because almost any detail we require can be found at the click of a mouse. Twenty years ago, published articles and photographs of vintage wristwatches were rare and consequently memorable.
Inevitably, as the auction houses began to roll out increasingly successful wristwatch sales, a small group of specialised dealers emerged in the UK, all based in London. Austin-Kaye, still located on the Strand, has been there since the start and another name from the pioneer era was Shoot’s, which had premises in Clerkenwell. There is a lovely anecdote concerning Shoot’s, which was full of old spare parts going back to the year dot, when somebody in officialdom realised that there were so many of the old radium painted luminous hands on the premises that these posed a serious radiation risk to life and limb ! I don’t know exactly how it all resolved, but I seem to recall that returning the building to a state of radioactive neutrality was quite an episode at the time. While old Mr. Shoot has sadly passed away, the next owner of the business, Frank Lord, is still active and now has a shop in London’s Royal Arcade dealing predominantly in relatively recent Rolex sports models. He was a great character and we wish him every continued success.
To this day, for purely nostalgic reasons, my favourite vintage watch shop of all is Somlo Antiques in Piccadilly Arcade. In truth, the stock for sale on this site is every bit as good and just as rare as that in George Somlo’s shop, but even so, I can’t help being drawn back wistfully to the days when his business was one of the first in Britain to have a window full of pre-war wristwatches. Whenever I find myself in central London with a few minutes to spare, I always make a point of having a quick look through the plate glass and trying to fleetingly recapture the first moment when I stumbled on the shop quite accidentally as a young man and was wide eyed at seeing things in the flesh that I’d only encountered previously in photographs. Mr. Somlo was arguably the first serious vintage wristwatch dealer in the UK and he deserves a great deal of respect because of this. It would be a really worthwhile exercise to round up some of these pioneering individuals and produce a book focussing on the early days of the vintage wristwatch scene in Britain. Some of the incidents and stories from this period are nothing short of hilarious and I can’t help but think that in the internet age, when most transactions are completed without buyer and seller ever meeting face to face, things are, sadly, rather less colourful than they were then.
The most radical change that vintage wristwatch collecting has seen since its inception came with the arrival of the internet in the second half of the 1990s. There was certainly an explosion in the number of people involved and this momentum has continued until the present day. Of the regular buyers who purchase from us today, probably more than 95% started collecting post-internet era and it is unusual to come into contact with one of the old timers who were involved with the field in its pioneer stages.
Has the internet been a good or a bad thing for the vintage wristwatch collector ? As with a lot of questions, the answer to this cannot be given adequately in summarised form. Like the curate’s egg, the online world has been both positive and negative in parts. Without a doubt, the internet has given the modern day collector access to a depth and volume of information that his primitive ancestors in the 1980s couldn’t have imagined in their wildest dreams. By studying websites and reading the dozens of excellent books and magazines that are readily available, it is possible for the enthusiast to assimilate a great deal of theoretical knowledge in a short space of time. This can only be a good thing. The downside is that today, when most transactions are conducted over considerable distance and buyers rarely get to physically meet up with sellers, it is much harder to obtain the vitally important experience of actually handling watches and examining them for real, in the flesh, than it used to be at the time when small groups of enthusiasts would actually arrange to meet, swapping and buying and selling between each other. Our business does not buy watches under any circumstances without one of us inspecting them very slowly and thoroughly, inside and out, with an eyeglass and without exception, all the first generation watch enthusiasts and dealers that we know take the same view. Whatever anyone, or any website, may tell you to the contrary, there is no substitute for actually physically handling large volumes of vintage wristwatches, or any other type of antique for that matter. Day in, day out, practical exposure to any commodity results in an intimate familiarity with it that will be of enormous assistance in weeding out fake items and those that have been modified. With enough research time, the internet based enthusiast will acquire the same level of theoretical knowledge regarding models, production dates and movement calibres as his traditional old school counterpart, but what he’ll find much more difficult will be gaining the ability to assess watches in a practical, on the spot sense for authenticity in an often time pressured buying situation.
As the interest in vintage wristwatches has grown exponentially and the pool of available watches has diminished as a consequence, there has unquestionably been a marked reduction in the quality of goods generally in circulation. A lot of the watches that we see selling online for high prices to enthusiastic new collectors wouldn’t even have been given a second glance in the late 1980s and a whole cottage industry seems to have developed to cosmetically enhance second rate items into something saleable. The watches on this website are all of a standard that would have found favour in the pre-internet era, even when assessed by the most obsessed perfectionist. In no way has the criteria used to grade them when buying been lowered to cater for a modern day online audience. Though certainly far more costly than the majority of vintage watches sold in the internet auction environment, they are the very best surviving examples of their type and of a quality and degree of originality that would be acceptable for inclusion in the specialist sales held by any of the major physical auction houses or for sale in any top level vintage wristwatch shop anywhere in the world. Finding exceptional, untouched examples of rare models is much more difficult now than it was twenty five years ago. The days of sourcing near mint early Rolex pieces from the back of drawers have long gone, with the vast majority of the watches we buy today for sale here coming from collectors who have owned them for years and know exactly their current worth.
It seems reasonable to expect the market to rise steadily in the future as the ratio between the number of potential buyers and the quantity of worthwhile watches becomes ever more unbalanced in favour of the vendor. We have over four thousand vintage watches in stock, only a tiny fraction of which we’ve had the time to write descriptions for in order to list them for sale here, but many of these were bought years ago at a time when superb, unmolested pieces were still coming from private sources. We are the first people to admit that we wouldn’t begin to know where to replace a lot of the items for sale here and, like every other vintage wristwatch dealer at the higher quality end of the market, are greatly concerned that in the future, finding suitable items for purchase without lowering standards of acceptable condition and originality will become ever more challenging. It will be extremely interesting to observe the changes that take place in the market in the next five years, but particularly after the steady rise in vintage watch values has shown no sign of abating in the slightest even during the worst depths of the recent worldwide economic crisis of 2009, it seems very unlikely that prices will level out in the foreseeable future.