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February 02, 2015

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On Watch Collecting

 watch collecting

Parties like the Hodinkee #REDBARMSP #epochvintage Collectors Event are just not for me, explicitly not about me.  Don't get me wrong, the boys at R&M Diamonds put on a show and have every reason to be proud.  People had a lot of fun.  My job is to stand around being The Watchmaker, and I enjoy being celebrated as much as the next misunderstood introvert.  So I hung out with my Fat Tire and heard about the time some guy found an NOS 6205 Submariner in the vault of the Vatican Bank, or whatever.  Cool stuff.  It's definitely a different dynamic from what I'm used to talking with professional colleagues, or even our typical clients at TimeScapeUSA.  These people aren't about making or fixing, they're about having: the thrill of acquisition.

Am I a collector?

I own one watch, a piece issued to me by a previous employer more as a badge of membership than anything else.  I am proud of it because I was proud to do that job.  But the things that can make a particular watch desirable to a collector are often emotionally inaccessible to a simple tech like me.

Like the fascination with the Omega Speedmaster .  To an outsider, it's difficult to know what the Speedmaster means to these people.  This is a watch with a deeply archived and intensely debated history.  A watch that is still available with a movement that, for all intents and purposes, was superseded by technical innovation before most of the people at this event were even born.

Omega Speed MasterOver its run the Speedmaster has housed various calibers, but the Omega 861 is a favorite.  It is a beautiful movement, especially with the rose gold plating for which Omega is justly famous, and the cam operating system is pretty reliable.  However,  the mechanical interface between the case pushers and the chronograph function is legendary for its poor design.  The start/stop function is bad – a fragile, poorly-riveted offset lever –  but the reset function is a nightmare.  It has all the trappings of a design afterthought, a patchy work-around arrived at on a Friday afternoon after someone in management said “Oh, we forgot to tell you it needs an hour counter.  Today.”  Well, shit.

In our crystal ball we see the benighted designer heave a deep sigh and scratch something out on the back of an envelope.  “This, tell them to put this on it.”  And then head out to Bienne to join his family for the wine festival.  The linkage of the hour counter reset function to the rest of the caliber is just shitty.  And that's just the best example; the rest of the caliber is a study in similar foolishness.  Why make nearly every screw distinct in shape and size?  What could be the reason?  Why make the pivot diameters on the minute counter, hour counter, and running seconds three different sizes – and so cause the subhands to be non-interchangeable?  Whose interests could that possibly serve?

For the serious collector, these mysteries only add to the value.    

The collector's priorities are very democratic, in that they are a consensus achieved after years of acrimonious in-fighting.  And yet still fluid: you, yes you, can go on an Internet message board right this minute and help redirect the imperatives of Global Omega Speedmaster Collecting.  It's a system of values that produces a few grails, particular models with characteristics that – like that famous postage stamp with the upside-down airplane – exhibit idiosyncrasies of execution.  And as with other cherished watch models, the highest praise is reserved for that most elusive of quarry: New Old Stock.

Oh, to possess something rare and unspolied.  NOS Speedmasters are a little bit like fiat currency.  Not because people refer to their dollar bills by individual serial number like they do with their Omegas, but because there's something essentially un-have-able about it.  You just have a hold of a dollar bill – it's the treasury that owns it.  Who owns your NOS Speedy?  Not you (if you're smart), because by using it you destroy the essential characteristic that makes it special.  To actually wear one of these objects like a timepiece would be the same as spending a dollar by putting it between two slices of bread and eating it.  No, the collector just has an NOS Speedmaster temporarily, until it gets traded or the collector dies.

Think about it: even winding the watch and letting it run degrades Rolexthe internal components in the subtlest of ways.  Many collectors, upon discovering an NOS piece sitting dusty in a Peruvian bunker for the last fifty years immediately stick it into another one without having it serviced.  By this ethos, even repairing such a watch can disturb its virginal status: leave it how it is and the value can only increase; exposing it to the random ministrations of a technician is replete with risk.  We're talking now about the kind of watch that, with it's dried-up lubricants, wouldn't even run at full wind.

Do I sound disparaging?  I don't mean to be.  During a twenty minute conversation with a discerning collector who personally owns over 200 watches, I learned more about the history of the Speedmaster than I have during 8 years at the bench.  Passion and intelligence like this is critical to the overall ecology of the watch industry.  Now, it's true that the people who care nothing for luxury timepieces still spend money on watches, and there are a lot of them.  These are the folks who built Swatch Group into the juggernaut currently threatening to upend the industry.

But they don't drive innovation or technical accomplishment.  For that you need the hardcore enthusiasts, the small bright audience for things like minute repeaters, 3 axis tourbillions, and, perpetual calendars.  So to all you collectors out there, you glorious geeks and horological nerds, I offer  my allegiance.  You put food on my table, but you also underwrite a fascinating profession and push a fragile industry forward.


Craig Zaligson
Craig Zaligson

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