“It is very distinctive, it is very stylish – it is very Louis Vuitton… wherever you go in the world you will see people carrying the distinctive Louis Vuitton brand… whether it is a little bag or a huge suitcase. It talks of distinction and taste” – Cherie Blair at the London Louis Vuitton New Bond Street Maison Opening.
London's leading vintage Rolex specialist Daniel Bourn has spent 15 years in pursuit of the finest watches and now he shares his insider knowledge
As told to Estella Shardlow on Saturday 25th September, 2010
The nature of collectors and collecting is obsessive; it’s in the very minute detail. A particular font on the dial or bezel – the smallest things are of utmost importance to a collector, the majority love to immerse themselves in the minutia.
I acquired my first Rolex in the mid-90's. But then I found the urge for a second was greater than the first. I initially owned most of the modern sports models and then started looking at vintage watches. Dealing in vintage watches was a natural progression as the ongoing pursuit of something rarer or in better condition becomes all-consuming. The feeling when you discover something new to the market vintage watch in perfect original condition is incredible.
My personal collection has become much more focused over the years. I like to wear my watches, so currently my collection contains only those that give me real personal enjoyment. As a dealer it is important that your client knows you are not just keeping the best examples for yourself. I have around 30 watches, mainly Rolex sports watches from 1950 onwards, with a few Patek Philippe’s, Audemars Piguet and Panerai’s too. From a collector’s perspective you have to be focused, it is easier to absorb all of the information about particular style and era, rather than a scatter gun approach.
Like in the art world, provenance is essential. One needs to be sure of the authenticity and correctness of a watch. Collectors should only buy from a knowledgeable and trusted source. Never compromise. A commonly used phrase is to “buy the seller, not the watch”. As the values of vintage watches have increased the fakes are of a higher standard than ever and ‘frankenwatches’ as they’re referred to, are found everywhere. Dealers may have added parts to make a watch look more desirable but it creates further problems, as these parts - although technically original - are not original to the watch or often the period. A changed or incorrect dial can affect the value by 70 to 80 per cent.
There are many synergies between watches and classic cars, which are another passion of mine. I have owned cars from most of the key marquees such as vintage Astons, Porsches, Maserati’s etc. As with watches I prefer original examples with provenance and particularly racing associations. I currently drive a modern Aston Martin in town. My dream car would be an Aston Martin DB5 because of the Bond influence or a Ferrari 250 GTO, although I would settle for a 288.
When you want to find an original watch, much time has to be given over to research and travelling. The dedication and discipline involved are phenomenal. The rarest watches are never found in the most convenient of places. In the next few weeks alone I will travel to Maastricht, Paris, Italy, Geneva and Singapore, all in the hope of finding something new. Regardless of the money, so much time and patience that are required. It's about just waiting for the right watch to come along and not making compromises. For collectors, the dedication in identifying the perfect example provides a welcome outlet in our increasingly busy lives.
My personal greatest discovery so far was back in 2006. I was in touch with someone who’d inherited a watch from his father, an ex-deep sea diver. He didn’t have a camera so we started talking about the watch over the phone. I asked him to read exactly what was on the dial. He said Sea Dweller Submariner and I said ‘you mean, Sea Dweller Submariner 2000?’ He replied ‘no, it doesn’t say 2000’. I dropped the phone and arrived at his house about 30 minutes later, cheque book in hand. It was a rare prototype, and the first of this reference to be found with this dial and gas valve. The significance of the watch was not only that it’d come from the original owner and it was unique in its configuration, but also it explained many things about this particular dive watch which we’d only been able to speculate about before. Of course there’s disappointment sometimes too. I’ve travelled halfway across the world on the basis of a description and a few blurred photos only to get there and find it was not as I had hoped or when we opened a case back we found the numbers did not match.
Vintage watches have proved to be a reliable investment, even during the recession, but as with anything you need to know what you are buying. Models that could be acquired in the early 90's for £800 pounds will now sell for £80,000. If you buy the right models from the right brands in either really rare and correct configurations or in perfect condition, then it’s a sure investment, one of the surest you’ll find. The great thing with watches is that the key brands like Rolex are very liquid, low maintenance, have minimal storage requirements and can be worn and enjoyed on a daily basis.
That’s now become the attraction for a lot of people. Each decade or generation has their own reference point, for me it was James Bond, Aston Martin and classic Rolexes. There’s a whole romance and lifestyle to that era, and so many inter-connections. Recently someone was showing me a pair of Steve McQueen’s Persol sunglasses - they were so cool. Just being able to touch and feel the history, the authenticity gave them an aura that you just could not describe.
Great design is something that is always new and innovative but also retains a classic style. From the 70's, the Porsche 911 or Patek Philippe Nautilus Jumbo and the Piguet Royal Oak would be examples of great cars and watch designs. These are the sort of designs that have been used over and over again. Maybe they get tweaked but they’re essentially classic designs. It’s difficult to better them. And with cars it’s the same, the best cars change with technology but the aesthetic and the shapes have a timeless appeal.
There's definitely a sentimental side to collecting. You might buy a watch because it was made in your birth year, or because the serial number or last four digits signify something personal. The first Rolex I ever bought I still have now. When my son was born in 2003 I bought the new green bezel Rolex Submariner to keep for him. It was the 50th anniversary of the model, although unfortunately it seems everyone I else I know whose children were born in 2003 had the same idea. When all these kids turn 21 there’s are going to be hundreds of new old stock green bezel submariners appearing!
Top of my wish list would be a Single Red Dial Sea Dweller. It's historically significant, and a watch to wear on a daily basis. But it would have to completely original and in perfect condition, otherwise I would always be looking for something better. But then the chase is always half of the fun.