It’s about time: the pointless pleasure of watch collecting

Part One: Getting started

Let’s be honest. Most hobbies involving ‘collecting’ indicate you may have a psychological condition. Sigmund Freud said the innate propensity to collect begins at birth.

As an infant, you first desire the emotional and physical comfort of the nourishing breast, then the familiar baby blanket children cling to for comfort and security. Cuddly toys are taken to bed and provide the emotional security needed to fall asleep. The sense of ownership and control is helped through possession of these items for the vulnerable toddler.

Freud then went further and took a more extreme position on the origins of collecting. Not surprisingly, he developed the idea that all collecting stems from unresolved ‘toilet training’ conflict. He suggested that the loss of bowel control was a traumatic experience, and the product from the bowels was disgusting and frightening to the child. Therefore, the collector is trying to gain back control of their bowels as well as their “possessions” which were long since flushed down the toilet! Hence the term ‘anal retentive’ is occasionally used to describe obsessive collectors.

Oh dear. So don’t kid yourself that when you are collecting you are creating an investment portfolio. You have just fallen in love with a certain category of object and you can never, ever have enough of them. The fact that we wear watches make them a very intimate companion in life. I don’t feel right without a watch. By contrast… my wife celebrates the start of a holiday by taking off her watch until this period of freedom is over.

My first watch

Well, my love for collecting watches (60 and counting) and clocks too did not begin in my infancy. My parents bought me my first watch – a Bentima – when I was about 9 years old. It was good quality, like the adult watch shown below, but very ordinary with its white dial. I rather envied the black-dialled military style TIMEX my friend Paul had. It even had a date indicator. In reality it was terrible quality.

Bentima – the make of my first wrist watch

But it was a classic figure from popular culture that really stirred my interest in watches. Yes, just as James Bond told me I needed the right gun and the right car, he also said I needed the right watch – a Rolex Oyster.

I was 12 when I read my first Bond novel, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Bond’s Rolex doubled as a knuckle duster for a key fight in the story. The use of his watch as a very simple weapon was a far cry from the crazy gimmicks of the films. The height (or low) of which had to be a powerful magnet enabling Roger Moore’s Rolex to unzip a woman’s dress. Today, he would be (rightly) accused of sexual harassment.

James Bond originally chose a Rolex – until Omega paid him to do otherwise

The world of Rolex was a distant planet for a 13 year old. But my immediate priority was a chronograph – any chronograph. This is a type of watch able to time races – something in which I took almost no part! I was, and am, a very inadequate athlete who fell into the ‘last to be picked for the team’ category. But I still wanted one. I loved sports cars and their vital speed statistics. Although to time my Dad’s Ford Anglia from 0 to 60mph, a calendar would have probably been more appropriate than a stopwatch.

A real bargain

On a family holiday, aged 14, to Italy I chanced upon a rather dubious character selling chronographs from a suitcase on a street corner – for £4. Even back in 1971, this was not a lot of money and despite the dodgy nature of the deal I couldn’t resist. My pocket money had a purpose.

Zarvath – the brand of my first chronograph

My parents were primed for my misery when the watch would likely break after a day or so. But despite it’s basic pin level manual movement, it actually stood the test well. Prizing the back off revealed the movement was labelled Zarvath. Although the dial did not have a name on it, the design was very similar to the watch pictured. I only recently discovered this was a decent Italian brand using genuine swiss movements. The chrome case was a classic design and I proudly became (as far as I could tell) the only owner of a chronograph at my school. I can’t claim it did anything for my street credibility, but it did a lot for me.

Not content with the outside of watches I’d also become interested in the beating heart beneath the skin. But as watches are far too small to mess with, I took a diversion into clocks. One Christmas, the venerable Clerkenwell clockmakers, Thwaites & Reed, launched the Visikit – a DIY clock that I’d assembled by breakfast time on Christmas day. I lost it along the way but found an original, unbuilt version on ebay last year. It was a joy to build it again.

Thwaites & Reed Visikit – an introduction to building and repairing clocks

Neighbours and family had also heard about my interest and a lovely silver 19th century pocket watch complete with fusee joined my tiny collection. This beauty is key wound and was made by W.Hawkes and hallmarked in Birmingham. Further evidence of our long lost prowess in manufacturing.

A beautiful W. Hawkes silver pocket watch – the movement is in the top photo

In a local jewellers, I also spotted a lovely relic of the empire, an MOD Favre- Leuba fob watch, complete with the dial inscription Bombay-Calcutta. I tried carrying it around as a pocket watch and learned why they have to be in a chain. It bounced off the kitchen floor and had to make a swift visit our local watch repair man as a result. The enamel face is crystal clear and will always be beautifully white and clean.

Favre-Leuba watch issued to the Indian outpost of the empire

Apart from looking in the glittering window of Watches of Switzerland, my watch Mecca was an excellent specialist mail order sports watch company called Chronosport. They published a wonderful colour catalogue that introduced me to the world of Heuer and Breitling and the cheaper lookalikes from long lost names like Sicura and Globa. At senior school I even had an agency for them selling watches to school friends, with whom I shared my agent’s discount. I did not make a fortune, but it was fun to share my interest.

A pure 70s design – the Sicura Chrono Jogging!

My next watch was indeed a Sicura from Chronosport, costing a princely £10.50 – plus P&P. Unlike the Zarvath, the Sicura looked very modern and far fancier than it really was. I was seduced by the fake stainless steel rounded chunky 70’s case. The hilariously named ‘Chrono Jogging’ model boasted water resistance, but one immersion in the shallow end of the school swimming pool convinced me otherwise. The mist on the inside of the glass took several days to evaporate. A year later, my best friend Steve took it off me for £4. I hoped the movement wasn’t too rusty.

A proper good watch at last

Having made a wrong move with the Sicura, I now set my sights on a genuinely good watch. But how to afford it on £1 a week pocket money? By now I had a Saturday job at a local Sainsbury’s in Birmingham – paying a massive £3.93 a week. My primitive hand-written spreadsheet recorded me saving literally pence per week. This was after vital expenditure on the occasional new pair of loons (remember them), LPs and the odd pint of Ansell’s Bitter (best forgotten completely).

A year later I had almost £50 saved and hoped to find a bargain on our next family holiday to northern Italy. Wandering the streets of Lugano just across the border in Switzerland, I was dismayed to find very few jewellers, and even fewer with Swiss watches I could afford. I saw one Rolex I liked – but that was 3 times my budget.

But then I chanced upon a lone SEIKO boutique. This Japanese company had decided to take on the Swiss at their own game – and here they were behind enemy lines. They had a newly released automatic chronograph, which was clearly priced to steal customers from the Swiss – and they succeeded with me. It even featured a slide rule like the famous Breitling Navitimer. I still have the watch – and it has never missed a beat in 47 years.

Seiko automatic chronograph with slide rule

At the same time as acquiring my Seiko, I began my A level Maths course. While everyone else used proper slide rules I tried using the circular one on my watch. My maths teacher was not impressed, assuming my constant fiddling with my watch was just me whiling away the time away in his lessons. Clearly the watch did not help, as in the end of term exam I achieved a magnificent 18%. Even with my clearly poor grasp of maths, I could see I would be unlikely to get anywhere near to passing this A level. I hurriedly swapped to English Literature, gave up my dream of becoming an architect and accidentally set sail for a non-numerate career in Sales & Marketing.

Seiko watches, while excellent, have spent years being very inexpensive to buy both new and used, but models of this type in this condition are now suddenly fetching up to £1500. If I ever wanted to sell it, my investment would currently give a return of more than 20 times my original stake. The only sadness is that the Rolex that I couldn’t afford would have yielded a gain of at least 120!

Realising a Bond ambition

The Seiko was my only watch for 14 years, during which time I married, had two children and built a career in sales and marketing. The opportunity to acquire a Rolex remained as far away as ever and was not a priority during these busy times.

But in 1987 a client in the jewellery business was keen to do a deal that would save him money and enable me to acquire a Rolex GMT Master. The only cost to me would be my time – the perfect way to pay for a timepiece.

I chose the GMT Master featured in the advertisement from the period, but I have never used it to help me cross the Sahara.

I never tired of the Rolex and it cured me of my desire to buy any more watches. Sadly, I wasn’t able to keep it ‘for life’, as had I originally thought. Next time I’ll tell you what happened and why it had to go. But it’s not all bad news – as a lot more watches have followed.

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