You just have to have your own, your very own, personal dealer. You’re nobody without one. Smart, international men, like Michael Douglas, Tim Jeffries and Henry Dent-Brocklehurst, know all the best dealers, who wear their status symbols on their smart, international wrists. We’re not talking about the odd supermodel here, but the other grand passion: watches. Collecting watches has become a fully fledged sport at this level of society among smart men, and the watch dealer is an important figure in their lives. Pity poor Catherine Zeta-Jones, who has to vie for quality time with Michael between meetings with his golf pro and his watch dealer.
A boys’ version of PMS - Peacock Male Syndrome - has swept through Europe and washed up on British shores. Count Franz La Rosee of Breitling is relieved. ‘For years now, the Italian male has owned at least seven watches for every Englishman’s one’.
Tom Bolt, dealer to the beau monde, agrees that Italy is key, but says the craze has now spread. Spanish men take their cue from King Juan Carlos’s extensive collection. Prince Ernst of Hanover’s fascination with mechanical watches (he has a collection of 50 timepieces) inspired him to open the Watch Gallery on the Fulham Road. Bolt oversees the vintage collection at the Watch Gallery, supplying his clients (including Henry D-B) direct. You might see Michael Schumacher there, negotiating in the downstairs bar over a glass of champagne, or Madonna popping in to hold the hand of Guy Ritchie while he clocks up another purchase. One can see why Schumacher might need to know about fractions of seconds ... but Madonna? Some collectors are brand-loyal. Sir Elton John has the full range of Theo Fennell’s ‘Pelhams’; Rowan Atkinson sticks to Ulysse Nardin; and Tim Jeffries owns all sorts of different makes. ‘I love Rolex,’ he says. ‘In design and craftsmanship, I think they’re exceptional, and I rotate them with Bvlgari, Audemars Piguet and Panerai.’ He points out that all his watches are water-resistant. Useful for frolicking in the Mediterranean? ‘No - I just like to know what time it is when I’m in the bath.’ Jeffries trawls through Tourneau in Manhattan, David Duggan in Bond Street and Quality Time in Westbourne Grove.
It’s not only the obviously collectable watches that come with an expensive price tag. Edward Margulies, owner of Quality Time, didn’t think for a second that his Swatch would become the most valuable piece he owned. He bought one of the first limited editions, with a hand-drawn Pink Panther on the dial. ‘Only 10 were produced, which is why mine is now worth and estimated £15,000’. He finds vintage watches for clients: the current vogue is for the Heuer Monaco as worn by Steve McQueen in Le Mans.
Journalist and collector Nick Foulkes, who dreams about the Frank Muller Conquistador King at night, makes the point that girls just don’t get excited about the click of a bezel in the same way as men. ‘Men love to push a button and see something happen,’ he explains. He thinks Mark Birley has much to do with the fashion for watches in London. ‘He has been collecting for 20 years and has a wonderful, understated elegance that other men try to copy.’ Foulkes limits his own James Bond fantasies to wearing an Old Navitimer Breitling. ‘It’s the ultimate Sixties playboy watch, worn throughout Thunderball, and it feeds my vanity to wear it, ‘ he explains. Collecting watches does have one drawback, ‘It’s quite tiring. I’m thinking of hiring a man to wind my watches for me. No doubt Mark Birley has a pretty blond to do his’.
In fact, Birley’s automatic pieces are housed in a specially designed revolving cases. He hasn’t counted his collection recently, but says it consists mainly of old and new Cartier. ‘I love the Pasha and the old Tank Chinois, which has so much character.’ A Lange & Sohne made in Dresden remains on his wish list: ‘They’re wonderful and simple, with no fuss and a date big enough to read.’
There’s a male camaraderie over watches which reminds one of car buffs - some watches cost as much as a Mercedes and their inner workings are just as technically challenging. Listening to two aficionados obsessing over tourbillon regulators, minute repeaters, planispheres, sidereal time and safety depths underwater, you could easily be aboard the Starship Enterprise.
Steve Hickman of Watches of Switzerland has clients ‘prepared to fly across the world and pay £300,000 for a limited-edition watch with their own lucky number’. Patek Philippe has customers who’ll buy two identical limited-edition watches - one to wear and one to keep sealed inside plastic in pristine condition. Are these men total fanatics? ‘Yes’, says James Gurney, editor of International Wristwatch. ‘Over the past decade, people have been spending insane amounts of money looking for a watch made to the nth degree.’ At Patek Philippe, every tooth of every wheel, an area so tiny it’s measured in microns, is polished with a pearwood disc. A new ‘insanity’ record was recently set by an unnamed collector who paid $11 million for a 1925 Super Completed Patek Philippe watch at Sotheby’s in New York.
The phrase ‘time is money’ springs to mind. Watch-collecting is, naturally, a favourite Hollywood pastime. Michael Douglas inherited his love of timepieces from his father Kirk. Paul Newman is so strongly identified with the Rolex Daytona that it’s described in the trade as a ‘Paul Newman’. A limited edition of 100 Panerai pieces called Luminor Styltechs was commissioned by Sylvester Stallone for his friends, and Audemars Piguet designed a black steel Royal Oak Off Shore Chronograph for Arnold Schwarzenegger to wear in End of Days. Only 500 were made, so hurry if Arnie’s is the image you’re looking for.
The newest trendette seems to be for watches with round dials, like the Patek 5056. Girls can follow the fashion with La Ronde, Chanel’s first watch with a round dial. But why take my advice? Get yourself a dealer.
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