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In Search of the Perfect Vintage Watch

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A tale of obsession

What I'm about to tell you is a tale of obsession. And like so many tales of obsession, it begins in Paris. Last fall, I was having dinner at a small restaurant near the Louvre with a dear friend. Born into an old and distinguished French family, she is, quite simply, one of the most sophisticated women I know—in a way that older French women so often are. That night, as she was telling me over a bottle of Merlot about her recent holiday in St. Petersburg, I became entranced. Not by her travel tales but by the vintage watch peeking out from beneath her black cashmere sweater. And, like too many Americans in Paris, I forgot my manners. "Isabelle," I blurted out, "where did you get that watch?"

"Oh, zees?" she said, unbuckling the 1940s man's stainless-steel Rolex chronograph from her wrist and handing it to me. I sat there admiring it and knew at once that I must have one like it. "I got eet in a little secondhand store off Saint-Germain. I give you the address."

The next day, I visited the store, only to be disappointed. There was nothing there that matched the object I'd held in my hands the night before.

I fell in love with vintage goods early. Maybe it's because as a kid I was spoiled by my grandmother. All I know is that often there's no better statement, and indeed no better investment, than vintage luxury goods. Recently, for instance, I bought a red 1966 convertible Buick Skylark—a classic American muscle car. More than once I've been out driving and the following has happened: I pull up at a stoplight, right next to the priciest incarnation of 21st-century Teutonic automobile engineering. Now, the other guy and I are both in convertibles, but all eyes are on me. Why? He's got the newest and shiniest toy out there, but I have something unique. Something rare. Something distinguished. Such is the appeal of vintage.

After I came back to the States I could not stop thinking about Isabelle's watch. By spring, six months later, I'd resolved to find it. Or at least one just as handsome. My first stop was Tourneau, the big watch retailer on 57th Street in Manhattan. There I found a solid selection of vintage watches, everything from Patek Philippes and Cartiers to Hamiltons and Omegas. I also talked to an expert who gave me invaluable information about the different vintage Rolexes I was considering. And he told me what to look for in general when shopping for a vintage watch.

"Always get the seller to open it up for you," he said. "Vintage watches are like old cars—you could have a whole new engine in there and not know it."

Daunting as it sounds to look at the workings of a watch, he had a point: "Any dealer worth his salt will open the watch case for you. And someone who doesn't is hiding something. When it's open, ask him if the watch is rebuilt, and if so, why. He'll know you're serious. Replacement parts aren't necessarily a bad thing—just like in a car. But take that into account when you look at the price. Also, make sure he's going to back up the watch. Three months is the minimum."

I also learned from Larry Kivel of Central Watch Band Stand in New York that a buyer should check to see if the watch is "triple-signed" (i.e, the name of the watch—say it's a Rolex—appears on the case, the mechanism, and the face). This, Larry told me, is one of the best indicators of a genuine vintage watch.

Much as I wanted to buy my watch from Tourneau or from Central Watch Band Stand, I couldn't. At that moment, neither one had anything to my liking. I had a vision, and I was sticking to it.

That weekend, I went to Manhattan's venerable antiques market, which runs from 24th to 26th Street on Sixth Avenue. After a bit of asking about, I was directed to George Aloi, who has a stand in The Showplace on 25th. He had a small but terrific selection of vintage watches, and I was especially intrigued by a 1960s Rolex Air-King, a classic of midcentury-modern design. It was sleek, lovely, and minimal—similar in some ways to what I wanted. I decided, though, to look about a bit more, in the hope of finding exactly what I'd seen in Paris.

By midweek, however, I'd thought it over and decided I wanted the Air-King. So that following Sunday I returned to Aloi's booth.

"Unfortunately, you're buying during one of the two worst times of the year," Aloi told me, as I stood staring at the empty spot in his jewelry case where the Air-King had been. "Christmas is busiest, and then comes June, with Father's Day and graduations. Some girl bought that watch you were looking at for her sister, who just finished law school."

It was then that I learned Vintage Watch Lesson Number One: Time waits for no man. I felt like someone who had lost a love. (As I said before, this is a tale of obsession.) But I became more determined than ever to find my watch. During the wee small hours of the morning, and on long rainy weekends, I searched the Internet for fine vintage watches. On the Web site for Northern Time Vintage Watches I found an absolutely gorgeous 1950s dress model Rolex. I e-mailed them expressing my interest. Unhappily, they wrote back saying that it had been purchased two days earlier and that they had failed to update their Web site.

Over the next two months, I went deeper and deeper into the Web, finding vintage watch dealers around the world from Hong Kong to Hollywood.

I also searched the cases of Aaron Faber, perhaps Manhattan's premier vintage watch and jewelry gallery. There I found two models I liked, one from the 1960s and one from the '70s, but neither grabbed me; neither really possessed me. So I passed.

I made weekly visits to the antiques market. And I met plenty of chronophiles. Like the Italian gentleman who visits Aloi four times a year when he's in New York, buys six or seven watches, then returns to Florence and sells them (probably to American tourists) for three times what he paid.

Still, I had no watch. And I was starting to feel I would never find one that matched the vision in my head.

Yet, when the hour is darkest, when all hope is lost. . . . As I recall, it was on perhaps my tenth trip back to the The Showplace and Aloi's booth that I saw it: a 1954 stainless-steel Rolex Oyster.

This one was different from the watch that I'd seen in Paris on Isabelle's wrist, much more of a rarity. I was immediately taken by it. Aloi informed me that this model had been made for only a year or two and had several characteristics quite unusual for a Rolex. First, he explained, the case sides are flat. Second, the center of the dial is sunken and the seconds track is inside this section. Because of this design, the seconds hand is shorter and reaches only to the seconds marker.

The watch was a beauty. I examined the inside, and as I stood there holding it, Aloi gave me some very good advice:

"It's a unique watch. Not many of these were made. My philosophy is, if you're buying vintage, you should make sure it's unique. You're never going to run into someone who has this watch."

Indeed. I bought it for $1,200. Suddenly I held my obsession in my hand and all the waiting, all the missed opportunities, were worth it.

Which brings us, I think, to Lesson Number Two: Time, as Mick Jagger croaked, is on my side. (Yes it is.)


Right on time: what you should know about collecting watches

The obsessionist route is, of course, an individual one, but what follows are my own highly personal notes on where to start your search for vintage perfection. New York City, not surprisingly, is the place to begin.

Aaron Faber Gallery Carries a terrific selection of American and foreign-made vintage watches. At 666 Fifth Avenue; 212-586-8411; www.aaronfaber.com.

Tourneau Has an extensive vintage-watch collection. Twice a year it has a trunk show featuring vintage products. At 12 East 57th Street; 212-758-7300; www.tourneau.com.

Central Watch Band Stand Ltd. Admittedly quirky, a tiny shop with a strong collection and a high turnover of vintage pieces. In the Roosevelt Passageway, Grand Central Terminal; 212-685-1689.

Tempvs Fvgit The Showplace Doesn't have the largest selection, but what it has is unique and priced to sell. At 40 West 25th Street; tempvsfvgit@hotmail.com.

Antiquorum Auctioneers With offices worldwide, specializes in watches and clocks and holds four auctions in New York each year (March, May, September, and December). Vintage watches are represented at each auction. At 609 Fifth Avenue; 212-750-1103.

For those searching for vintage timepieces outside New York City, the most useful Web site is Northern Time Vintage Watches (www.northerntime.com or www.vintagewristwatch.com). Also recommended are: www.coolvintagewatches.com; www.wannabuyawatch.com; www.artoftime.com.

And for the literate watch sleuth, check out The Best of Time: Rolex Wristwatches—An Unauthorized History by James M. Dowling and Jeffrey P. Hess, and American Wristwatches: Five Decades of Style and Design, richly illustrated with photographs, by Edward Faber and Stewart Unger, with Ettagale Blauer.


Five others that tick

Agreat watch is like a museum piece, but this is a work of art you can actually wear," says Edward Faber, who with wife Patricia owns Manhattan's Aaron Faber Gallery. Here are five he particularly recommends: Cartier's asymmetrical Tank (18-karat gold, $16,500), inspired by Salvador Dali's melting clocks. Cartier revisited the 1936 design in 1965 and 1991, when this watch was issued in a limited edition of 300. Only a handful are on the market today. "It's not been very successful," says Faber, "because it's hard to read, but it's a strong design statement." Hamilton's Rutledge (platinum, $3,200), a streamlined 1948 model notable for its lack of decoration and engraving. The watch is triple-signed: on the case, the mechanism, and the face. One of the few American watches produced in platinum, the Rutledge also has one of the higher-grade movements (19 jewels) for mechanical accuracy. Patek Philippe's Art Deco original (18-karat gold, $28,500), created in the 1920s. The "exploding" numerals have been copied by many watchmakers, including Franck Muller. Bulova's copper-color curvex (gold-filled, $595), intended to curl around the wrist and a hallmark of 1940s Retro style. "Bulova is a more common brand, but its styling is fabulous," Faber says, noting the rose gold and two-toned dial. Tiffany & Co.'s one-button stopwatch (18-karat gold, $25,500), a timepiece of exceptional design and provenance. The legendary entertainer Al Jolson is said to have given one of these beauties to his agent in the 1930s. Most stopwatches have three buttons, but this model has only one. It also has the porcelain dial that Tiffany long ago discontinued.
—Jackie Cooperman

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