Condition, condition, condition! It’s become the horological equivalent of the old expression about buying property – location, location, location! But what does condition actually mean? And how do we qualify such a term that is arguably entirely subjective? Is the best possible condition a watch that looks like it has just been purchased from the shop or a watch that shows the life that it has lived? Today we are celebrating watches that speak to us through their individuality. Watches with a story. Watches with character. Watches with Charisma…
If we look back over the past 40 or 50 years, the vast majority of our favourite vintage watches weren’t bought as investments by their original owners. They were bought to be worn, especially when focusing on Rolex sports watches. To this end, owners would regularly submit their watches for a service to Rolex and then would hope or expect it to be returned looking and functioning like new. This servicing would as a matter of routine (as it does now) include the replacement of worn parts including bracelets, bezels and sometimes dials and hands. This makes it important to ensure that the watch has the correct dial fitted, for example. As passionate collectors, we need and want our watches to be both authentic and in the correct configuration. But we like them with character…
Most of the 3-6-9 Explorer dial watches we have seen over the years show some aging
Beauty is in The Eye of The Beholder
Most vintage watches can tell a thousand stories but some watches can tell more exciting stories than others. Military watches, watches worn by professional divers or pilots, political leaders and racing drivers will all give a watch an air of excitement and adventure. Very often those adventures will take their toll on a watch and leave wear and tear accordingly. Not many collectors would get excited about a Rolex reference 5517 MilSub in perfect, untouched condition. They should be battle scarred and worn…or should they? That’s the beauty of watch collecting – there is no right or wrong! Equally, a guy who was gifted a watch for his university graduation or as a 21st birthday gift and then enjoyed wearing the watch everyday for forty years will add his own ‘stamp’ onto his prize possession. These lines from life add the character which gives the watch a charisma that we love!
A unpolished Rolex 5513 Submariner. Aged gracefully and showing so much character.
See the fat case from the back of the case back.
At Bulang and Sons we have been fortunate enough to buy some amazing original owner watches. Each one often has a story to tell. Remember the ‘Nuclear 5513’, the ‘Spanish 1016’ and the recent ‘Canadian 7928’? These watches were certainly authentic and correct but they have a certain charisma that is projected via the absolute uniqueness of the cases and dials…each telling a story of their endevours. This patina of time is both emotive and individual and will speak to each collector differently. A beauty spot on a super model doesn’t make her any less beautiful. In fact, that uniqueness only adds to the beauty in many people’s eyes.
The Rolex 5513 Gilt Submariner used during the atomic tests in the mid 60s by a diver in French Polynesia. And stayed in a drawer for almost 50 years. The case just pops. See also the hands – untouched and the different aging to the dial indexes.
Signs of the Times
There is a uniqueness to character. Mint condition watches are breath taking, but if you were lucky enough to hold two new-old-stock 6538 Big Crowns side by side, they would look identical. Maybe some parts would age differently, but they would look very similar. Now compare a NOS 6538 next to one that has lived its life on the wrist. 60 years of swimming, driving, playing and generally aging disgracefully…like Keith Richards it would look weather. But what a character. And nobody would want to give Keith a face-lift!
A typical Tudor Marine Nationale Snowflake. Military issued. As with so many of these, the hands have been replaced at some point in service. The hands were functional – they had to be luminously active for military use and often the tritium broke because of the heavy use they had to withstand. For us there is always a question mark about mint looking military watches for special forces.
Bernhard’s Choice – “First listen to a watch”
“The last years i have seen so many people take a watch in their hand and the first thing they do is take a loupe and search for imperfection. And judge a watch as not ‘worthy’ if they discover any flaw under the 10x loupe.
I would love to invite you all to take a different approach. Sit down, take the watch in your hand, feel it, put it on your wrist, twist your wrist at different angles in different light…. and LISTEN. Just listen to the watch.
Now tell me, does the watch speak to you? Do you feel it’s 30-40-50 years of history and stories it could tell and events it has witnessed? Do you feel the mystery? Discover the patina, the lines of the case, the change of look under different light. And enjoy.
Now take the loupe and research. Check the details, condition of the dial, case, numbers etc. And then judge if the watch is for you and if the price is fair”.
Make your own choice
“Don’t just blindly follow the dogma echoing among forums/social media where only watches that have every part like NOS condition and as the watch was born are good to buy. Let you heart decide.
How many original Porsches from the 1960’s / 70th could you find in fully authentic mint condition. With original paint (mint), original tires, matching engine, original interior, tool set and low mileage. They are rare grails for sure, but not the standard.
Yes many people enjoy watches in NOS condition. But let’s be honest, certainly in sports watches, how many of these watches are left in New Old Stock condition? Untouched, unrestored? In my 14 years of collecting experience i have only seen a few true NOS. And then the next step is that you might not be able to wear it as it will effect the value/condition with every scratch. They are investments often. Spending their rest of the life in the safe.
Many people today search for mint looking watches. Where cases look fresh like from the shop. The bracelet is matching, bezel is the original one etc. But realize that most of these pieces have been restored. They are very nice and when this is your taste, go for it!
And then there are the amazing watches that show their history, show some graced aging or wild story and all the degrees in between. A bit of perfect imperfection makes it just so much more interesting and long lasting exciting for me. I guess it’s like with people. Who wants perfection around him all day. For me personally these watches show all the magic of collecting vintage watches. They communicate with me and i can totally connect with them and their mystery. Like Patek is stating in their slogan… we only look after them for the next generation. And so I love my watches. Wearing them after the generations before me and holding them for people to come. Adding a bit to the story.
The most important advice I can give is, make your own choice. Wear what makes you smile every time you put it on the wrist”.
Some personal choices
Bernhard has owned many unique and incredible watches over the years. Here he shares some of his favourite watches with chrisma…
My first Submariner
This was my first vintage Sport Rolex many years ago. A rare 4-line ref. 6536 Submariner. As you can see the dial has the usual radium burn, hands and indexes were not perfect. But hell it made me smile. It gave me all the James Bond feeling and sucked me into collecting vintage Rolex full throttle. There was no way back from there. And it started a friendship and route to discover many many watches from there.
Rolex 5510 Big Crown
I believe this was my most precious watch and i guess the watch i miss most from my collecting years. Yes it’s a rare ref. 5510 Big Crown and yes today these watches went crazy. But what i miss most is the charisma this watch had. The case and feeling of a Big Crown is unmatched on the wrist. But this one was very special to me. The indexes were so warm and present at the same time. And that patina black spot at the 11 o’clock index was so iconic. It made me smile every time. Just like the little dental column between the teeth of kate Moss, the birthmark on the cheek of Cindy Craford. Perfect imperfections. Like also the little cracks in the gloss of the surface. Only visible in a certain angle / light. It all added to the magic of the watch. I have owned a minty Rolex 6538 big crown. But sold it because i found it boring after a while. This 5510 i will regret selling forever.
The Smiley GMT
Sometimes you find watches that are not in the condition you would normally hunt for today. But i have owned a few watches that just have been worn and beaten for decades and by that showed so much character i just bought them for that. Like this Mk1 1675 GMT. Look at this unpolished case, the original plexi, pink lady inlay. The watch was just so much fun to wear on a nato strap. I did not even change the original plexi. Just enjoying all the stories this watch might tell and most the SMILEY second hand. That was the coolest feature. And it putted a smile on my face every time i looked at it. Most people these days would have restored it to optimize value. But who dictates we should. Why not enjoy it in it’s most pure and honest form and be happy?
The perfect non perfect 6200 Submariner
This is a watch i did not own, but was happy to pass on to a friend who wanted a 6200 Submariner for a long time. Look at it, it looks maybe all but perfect. Radium burn, hands have very translucent radium, second hand probably replaced luminous etc. But in it’s own way this was the most perfect 6200 Submariner you could ever find. Never been in the hand of another dealer and totally honest, as it came from the son of the original owner. History and tragic was part of the whole process.
I was contacted by the son of the original owner:
” I have Rolex 6200 was purchased by my father while on duty in Africa between 1953 and 1955. It has the stainless steel spring bracelet, which is in excellent condition. I have taken to a local authorised Rolex dealer to take photos inside the watch. I will be happy to forward the photos…”
The original owner really wanted to find a home, which will respect it’s history and will cherish it with passion. So it will be saved for the next generation. The watch had a very special place in the family and has a great provenance (military) also. You can read the full story in this article…
But there was more to it. There was a very emotional level of the son of the original owner selling the watch to fund for the treatment of his wife. With pain in his heart he let go of it, knowing that there are greater things in life then watches and memories. My friend collected it and also made a great connection with the family. This watch has always kept a special place in my heart.
The tropical 5508 Submariner Small Crown
All my collecting life i have been on the hunt for tropical watches. Either Submariners and Daytona’s as also Speedmasters and later also Datejust etc. Also we know that tropical dials are in fact an ‘imperfection’, a quality issue of a watch in which the black paint aged into brown, so sub standard what a brand normally would like for their products, these vintage tropical dials hold so much magic. There is almost no perfect tropical dial. But the ones i love are far from being ‘shitage’ as some conservative collectors back then called them. The magic of a tropical dial is that it changes its look with every twist of the arm and every light situation. Popping on your wrist ones the sun hits it. And every tropical watch is unique.
The original owner Rolex 5517 Milsub
I believe one of my milestone watches was the Milsub. Military issued Rolex Submariner used by the British Military. Often used by special ops like SBS and SAS operatives. And this 5517 might have given me the most emotional buying experience yet.
I came in contact with the original ‘owner’ who was issued this watch in the late 70th and used it in his missions in Northern Ireland and Falklands as well all over the world. When he left service he gave the watch to a friend (inside the SBS) who also used it for another decade of missions. After he finished service he returned the watch years later, but with heavy marks. As you can see the case had gotten heavy battle marks and the operative had tried to file out the service numbers on the case back, as he kept the watch after service and did not return the commissioned watch. The watch then stayed in a drawer for years.
It was a very emotional day when i received the watch and met the original owner. And the stories he told.. crazy. When you understand the history of these watches you really understand the magic of a Submariner tool watch and what it was build for. What quality Rolex has put into these.
Now comes the contradiction. When i bought this watch it showed all the scares, was not running and in need of service. Also i wanted to receive the famous Hudson letter stating the issue numbers in relation to serial and unit the watch was issued to. For that it needed to be serviced at Rolex London (Bexley). And off i went to Rolex London HQ and instructed them also to not touch or polish the case. Just movement service. Also this was agreed with mr. Henry Hudson, at that point head of Rolex GB and the person who had all the archives of these watches. It was confirmed that the watch would only get a movement service. I wanted to leave the case as is and showing all its provenance.
So after weeks when the watch was ready to be picked up again i was first shocked to see the case was polished and all the scratches on the sides had been gone. At first i was so disappointed. All the emotion i had with the watch and its history and meeting the owner.
But then when wearing the watch i realized what beauty came out of it. And i loved it more day by day.
The orange like patina was amazing, the combination of the insert and strap. So the un-wanted restoration worked out great… after a while i was happy it worked out that way. As you can see. All is very personal.
See the unpolished case when i got it
As a final statement i would love to invite you again to listen to each individual vintage watch on its own. They well deserve it. Whatever floats your boat. NOS, restored or well lived. Choose with your heart and enjoy your watches to the fullest.