Five Collectors on their Hardest Finds
Although we’d never be so bold as to conflate the anecdotal for the statistic, the history of watch collecting does have its fair share of instances wherein the act of obtaining is more complicated than you’d think. This is of course not a phenomenon that is unique to the culture of horology: for as long as humans have been acquisitive creatures and there has been a tussle between supply and demand, we have witnessed individuals go to great lengths to satisfy their material desires. In 1985, the American art curator Samuel Wagstaff famously told journalists that the most satisfying part of selling off his private collection to The Getty was the near-decade-long period it took him to collect the various individual photographs – there were over 26,000.
Finding the perfect watch often means paying attention to the details.
Back here in watch land, that got us thinking about the notion of difficult acquisitions. ‘The quest’, ‘the chase’, ‘the thrill of the hunt’: whatever your preferred term of endearment, there are always moments in each collector’s journey when there will be furloughs between them and the watches they seek. In conversation with Wei Koh, Hosanna Swee, Yang Zepo, Gordon Lau and Fed Tan, we explore just how varied the challenges to getting what you want can be. Between pristine Rolex Explorers and platinum Calatravas awarded for scientific excellence, one thing is certain – each of these individuals appreciates the journey as much as the destination.
Wei Koh (@wei_koh_revolution)
The founder of The Rake and Revolution magazines, Wei Koh’s is a name that will be familiar to many of us who share a liking for well-crafted objects of the wound and worn variety. For over a decade, Koh has carved out a reputation as a true enthusiast of horology, from obscure independants to mid-century chronographs.
Suffice to say, when Koh opted to share the story of how he came to be in possession of the final brown-dial 5970 that Patek Philippe produced in yellow gold, we wanted to ensure that he had sufficient page space to do so in his verbose, characteristically enthusiastic style.
Not a watch you see every day, courtesy of Revolution.
“My most difficult watch acquisition posed a multitude of difficulties. The first was asking for it. One of my dream watches had always been the Patek Philippe Ref. 5970, the last perpetual calendar chronograph featuring the venerable Lemania 2310 ébauche, that’s then heavily modified by Patek into the CH27-70. And when I got mine in white gold, I thought that was it – I can die happy now. Even as they light my Viking funeral pyre and send me to Valhalla, I’d have my beloved 5970 strapped to my cold dead wrist.
“Then, one day, my friend Nick Foulkes pulled back his shirt cuff and showed me his 5970 and my world was forever changed. That was an end-of-series watch with a yellow gold case and the most stunning bronze dial I’d ever seen. To this day, it’s the single most beautiful watch I’ve set eyes on. I discovered that it had been made in small quantities (the statistic of ‘5 examples’ has been floated around, but I think the real number is closer to 10, and exclusive to Patek’s Geneva boutique). As I said earlier, the first difficulty I faced was bringing myself to ‘ask’ for the watch. I was not certain I could afford it. More importantly, if I were to be rejected I’d find that interaction tremendously depressing. Why? Because Patek allocates these watches to their most loyal of loyal collectors or individuals they otherwise deem to be extremely deserving.
Winning an allocation for a watch such as this does not come easy, courtesy of Revolution.
“For example, Nick was allocated his 5970 because he wrote the book on Patek Philippe. I don’t mean that euphemistically: he actually wrote the book on Patek Philippe. I finally summoned the courage to message Patrick Cremer (head of the Geneva boutique), who I’d become acquainted with during our time on the GPHG jury together. He politely said that he’d pass on my request. So then came the agonisingly difficult task of waiting and waiting in silence – because when it comes to Patek, you don’t ask twice.
“Patek allocates these watches to their most loyal of loyal collectors or individuals they otherwise deem to be extremely deserving”, courtesy of Revolution.
“With each month that passed, the possibility of owning this extraordinary watch became ever more distant, fading further into the miasma of impossibility. Often, I’d reconcile myself by pointing out that this had saved my bank account from imploding. Then, more than a year later, I was seated in ‘Wine Country’ (the sobriquet I’ve bestowed upon my Eames Lounge in front of the television) when a notification flashed across my phone. It was from Patrick and simply read: “Thierry Stern has allocated you the last watch. He hopes you wear it in good health”. I then proceeded to lose my mind, grabbing a bottle of Champagne from the fridge, spraying the thing like I was atop an F1 podium. I then sprayed it on my dachshund, awoke my now ex-wife and sprayed it on her too. Some time later, I realized that I had the difficult task of finding the means to pay for this watch – a difficulty I happily accepted. Why do I love this particular 5970 so much? Beyond its transcendent beauty, it was the acknowledgment by Thierry Stern that I was worthy of receiving ownership. And that’s almost as good as the watch itself.”
Hosanna Swee (@hforhozzie)
As a Leica ambassador and commercial photographer by trade - whose commissions have run the gamut from Cereal Magazine to British bagmaker Mulberry - Hosanna Swee is renowned online for her pristine, atmospherically charged images. On more than a handful of occasions, the young Singaporean creative has trained her lens on watches – but her affinity for fine mechanical timepieces extends far beyond the realm of voyeurism.
Herself an avid horophile, over the past half-decade Swee has assembled a collection consisting of idiosyncratic vintage timepieces. Designs like the Cartier Baignoire Allongée bespeak a visual sensibility informed by certain tenets of architectural photography; whereas Swee’s Royal Oak Perpetual Calendar, configured with the rare ‘Tuscan’ dial, tell of someone keenly attuned to the current wavelength on which the watch community operates. Incredibly, none of these discontinued or complicated pieces rank as a difficult acquisition for Swee. That honour falls to a piece unique, heady with romantic connotations, as she tells us below.
A unique piece created for a special occasion, courtesy of Hosanna Swee.
“To me, watches are deeply sentimental objects. It’s entirely plausible for them to outlast human lifespans; and we’ve often seen firsthand how an owner’s legacy can endure in the guise of their most precious timepieces. Considering how the luxury watch industry is one which thrives upon an emotional narrative, different watches can evoke vastly different feelings depending on the individual. Consequently, when thinking about my ‘most difficult’ acquisition, it wouldn’t be the timepiece that is the most expensive, scarce, or complicated. Instead, it’s the watch with the strongest sentimental value: something I never sought to acquire (much less foresee entering the collection) until its arrival.
A watch that might not draw a lot of attention at first glance, courtesy of Hosanna Swee.
“In late 2020, my fiancé [Tom Chng] proposed to me with a very special and sentimental creation that registers as so much more than a mere timepiece. This unique Ulysse Nardin Classico Grand Feu was designed especially by him, a fact that in and of itself speaks volumes. The enamel was selected because it signifies the promise of a lifetime; stripped of any date window or small seconds for a clean, unobstructed dial. Subtlety was integral, as the watch is meant to appear unassuming to everyone except me. Reminiscent of the hand-engraving you’d see on meaningful vintage timepieces, Tom’s proposal of marriage is also etched on the caseback.
A watch that means far more to the owner than just a timepiece, courtesy of Hosanna Swee.
“With this timepiece, I gained a life partner, a lifetime’s promise, and a fond memory. I can’t say I’ve ever experienced all that with any of the other watches in my collection. One final aside: notice anything unusual about the hour markers?”
Yang Zepo (@leftpain2)
No stranger to the digital pages of ‘The Journal’, we were once again delighted to speak with Yang Zepo – a young Chinese collector who is quickly developing an extremely focused horological sensibility. A devotee of smaller watches from historic makers like Ulysse Nardin, often on matching period-correct bracelets, made during the 1940s-1950s, Yang was already highly accustomed to navigating the backstreets of Tokyo in search of pristine examples of old Swiss mechanicals.
We were a little surprised then, when Yang revealed that his most engrossing horological hunt yet did not end in an exchange of banking details with a dealer; and instead unfolded over the course of several years and across the physical and digital plane.
The quintessential dress watch from Patek Philippe, courtesy of Phillips.
“Among all the watches I own, the ‘Knudsen’ 96 was by far the most difficult piece to procure. It’s a Ref. 96 in platinum made by Patek Philippe in the mid-1950s, awarded to the winner of the 1958 Rigmor & Carl Holst-Knudsen Award for Scientific Research.
“I first chanced upon it through a prominent dealer’s Instagram profile in 2019. The Ref. 96, with its unmistakably chic Calatrava design, was and still remains the epitome of elegance – particularly as I’ve always found myself comfortable at the smaller end of the case-size spectrum. But this wasn’t just any old 96: it was a platinum execution in mesmerising condition, presented in honour of a special occasion. To begin with, any 96 in platinum is considered a rare bird, as the vast majority of the reference was made in yellow gold.
"Among the known 96 ‘PTs’, most were configured with diamond indexes, feuille hands, and an open sub-seconds. By contrast, this ‘Knudsen’ was devoid of precious gems, and outfitted with dauphine hands and a gear-shaped sub-seconds. I recall that until then, I’d only seen another three to four examples in this precise configuration. The cherries on top were the engraving on the caseback which read “L.E. Graf Knudsen Award 1958” and the accompanying ‘Knudsen Award’ travel box, both lending a historic and mythical touch.
The special engraving on the back of Zepo’s watch, courtesy of Phillips.
“I was instantly smitten, and knew all too well that it would be difficult to find a similar example in the future (given the rarity and condition). I worked up the courage to send the dealer an inquiry; and he subsequently came back with an estimate so terrifying that any hope of obtaining the piece seemed instantly extinguished.
“One year later, upon hearing the watch was still available, I once again found myself running the numbers, contemplating how to make it mine. I offered the dealer my mint, pink gold second series Ref. 3970, in addition to some supplementary cash. Again, that didn’t work out. (The fact that I was willing to let a perpetual calendar-chronograph go as part of a partial trade for this diminutive time-only tells you just how much I liked the latter.)
A watch worth giving up a perpetual calendar chronograph for, courtesy of Phillips.
“A few more months passed following that proposal. One day, as I was browsing the catalogue for an impending Phillips auction, I was astonished to find the ‘Knudsen’ 96 listed. At first, that discovery appeared to present a great opportunity. I’d done a fair amount of research, and in consultation with some of the most knowledgeable experts I knew, managed to confirm that the watch listed was indeed in superlative nick. I knew I was going to bid aggressively on the thing, I had to – it was inevitable. No sooner had I imagined the joys of a successful bid that the prospect of competing against other astute collectors began to sink in. Eventually, the day of the sale came, and I managed somehow (not without a significant degree of disquietude) to secure the watch at what, all things considered, I thought was a reasonable price. Throw in the logistical headache of shipping during a global pandemic, and you have the finishing touches on what has been an arduous, but ultimately worthwhile, journey.”
Gordon Lau (@addicted_2_patek_n_enamel)
For those who recall an era when the ‘watch internet’ existed chiefly in forums (TimeZone and WatchUSeek being the ubiquitous examples) there’s every chance you’ll have shared threads with Mr. Gordon Lau. Having dedicated himself to the study and appreciation of enamel timepieces for many years, one can see why Lau has become such an integral part of WatchProSite, where he is a moderator in the Patek Philippe forum. A lover of traditional enameling in all its horological forms, his passion for this alchemical art has seen him collect everything from a $900 Seiko Presage to the cloisonné Ref. 5131.
A level of craftsmanship not often seen in the watch world, courtesy of Gordon Lau.
When asked to recall his most fraught acquisition, Lau turned to a piece in the ‘Rare Handcrafts’ collection – a part of the Patek universe centred on traditional decorative metiers. Rather than relying on deception and brinkmanship – behaviours that are, for better or worse, a longstanding part of collecting culture – Lau’s story is the epitome of asking ‘politely yet firmly’. Inexplicably, with impressive results:
The original artwork that inspired Lau’s timepiece.
“Thus far, the piece I’ve had the most difficulty acquiring has been the Patek Philippe Ref. 5089G-052 – better known in collecting circles as the ‘Rousseau Lion’. I’m a self-proclaimed “enamel slave”, but the dial-work in this watch easily makes it the pick of my collection. This watch is part of the ‘Rare Handcrafts’ series Patek launched at Baselworld in 2017. The dial depiction is of the lion with a funny expression that appears in The Dream (1910) – a large oil painting by renowned post-impressionist Henri Rousseau, currently hanging in the MoMA.
Lau’s Patek Philippe and Chopard, bearing a striking resemblance, courtesy of Gordon Lau.
“The importance of the ‘Rousseau Lion’ actually derives from another watch in my collection – a Chopard L.U.C. decorated using the Japanese lacquering technique of urushi. Coincidentally, that watch also features a hand-painted depiction of a lion hiding amidst jungle foliage. My friends in the forums remarked on how similar that depiction also was to the Rousseau painting, so when Patek’s iteration was released, I became infatuated with the idea of owning (and being able to compare) Swiss and Japanese enamellers’ perspectives on the same artwork.
The detail of the enamel work carried out, and signed by, Anita Porchet.
“Not long after its release, I discovered Patek had only produced six pieces in total of the ‘Rousseau Lion’. The difficulty of chasing down these ‘Rare Handcrafts’ is unpredictable in nature: certain collectors receive an allocation what seems like annually, whereas others wait in vain for an inordinate length of time (and anywhere in between). Hence, when my AD told me he’d managed to set one aside, I was simply ecstatic. Initially, he really sought to manage my expectations – explaining how difficult it would be to lay hands on a piece that all of his fellow dealers were fighting over. Undeterred, I did as much research as I could about the history and significance of The Dream, explaining in excruciating detail its connection to my Chopard L.U.C. and how that made the ‘Rousseau Lion’ an essential addition to the collection. Apparently, that tipped my AD over the edge and he ended up going out of his way to explain all of this to the good people who handle allocations at Patek. Come to think of it, he was probably just tired of me pestering him.”
Federico Tan (@fedtan)
There are a number of ways to characterise Fed Tan’s approach to collecting, but the most succinct is perhaps as “equal opportunity”. The founder of Advisory Council, a creative agency representing several global fashion houses and art galleries in Hong Kong, Tan’s tastes have a tendency toward the mercurial: he collects contemporary paintings, sculpture, objects of industrial design, and naturally, watches.
Intriguingly, Tan’s most ‘difficult’ acquisition involves a series of continuous “trade-ups” (as he likes to call them) of a rather iconic Rolex model. And as with everything in the universe of the Coronet, the challenge lies not in finding stock that’s up for sale, but rather, that’s in the right configuration and superlative condition. It’s a challenge that collectors need a lot of patience and rigorous attention to detail in order to overcome, as Tan himself can attest.
Fed Tan’s daily essentials, including his Rolex Explorer 1016, courtesy of Hypebeast.
“For the better part of the last decade, the watch I’ve obsessed the most over is the Rolex Explorer Ref. 1016. That is to say, the best possible example I could find. When I first began collecting vintage Rolex (many moons ago), most enthusiasts were focusing on no-date Submariners (Ref. 5513) or the Sea-Dweller (Ref. 1665). I figured I’d have less competition on the 1016, given the 36mm diameter and general sense of understatement that accompanies the design.
“My assumption turned out to be an erroneous one. The hunt for the ‘ideal’ 1016 took nearly 8 years, and required a great deal of trial and error; numerous trades; consultation with ‘experts’ (many of whom gave me divergent opinions); visits to dealers all around the globe; and, last but not least, a heap of paranoia.
“Because of the 1016’s 27-year run (production began in 1963) there is an extremely wide array of variation for this vintage Explorer. There are the more common versions with matte dials, and then mythical oddities such as the ‘Space-Dweller’ and ‘Albino’. Subsequent to learning about this incredibly nuanced history, my collecting OCD began to take hold.
Fed Tan sporting his 1016, courtesy of Hypebeast.
“The first 1016 I ever acquired was a matte dial version from the early 1980s. At the time I was both excited and nervous about the purchase: I remember that as soon as I received the watch, I took it straight to my local Rolex service centre, as I’d heard about the dreaded phenomenon of ‘Frankenstein’ watches. Fortunately, the example I bought proved to be legit.
“Soon after, I started doing the rounds with various stores and dealers; all the while looking further into the historic catalogue of the 1016. Eventually, I chanced upon a ‘Fat Font’ iteration with a nice patina, so I decided to ‘trade up’ using my previous example. That initial excitement quickly fizzled, when a dear friend (who has strong credibility in the industry) told me these kinds of Explorers were popular mostly in Asia, with the dials often enhanced artificially.
A ‘Frog’s Foot’ 1016, courtesy of Hodinkee Shop.
“Following two rounds of trial and error, I’d ended up accruing a lot of research and useful firsthand knowledge. So again, I traded up: this time to an Explorer from the early 1970s, outfitted with a ‘Frog’s Foot’ crown. I began to realise I was developing a real taste for Explorers, and committed myself to finding a gilt-dial 1016 in good condition. One interesting by-product of this expansive hunt was how it helped me discover other relatively uncontentious opportunities. For instance, an Italian dealer I’d spoken to about gilt Explorers ended up finding me a Ref. 1675 GMT: gilt, with ‘Cornino’ crown guards and a full set of papers.
The final 1016 that Tan traded up to, courtesy of Fed Tan.
“And, as the old adage goes, “when it rains, it pours”. Almost immediately after my pleasant surprise with the aforementioned 1675, my go-to spot for vintage Rolex (in Hong Kong) managed to locate the ideal 1016: the gilt dial had a smooth gloss finish, and an exclamation point over the 6 o’clock position. To top things off, the watch even came with papers. At the time, I remember thinking to myself, “finally, the hunt is over”. But of course, it wasn’t.
“Sometime later, during a work trip to Shanghai, I was idly browsing through the Instagram account of East Crown Japan while waiting for the guests to arrive at a dinner I was hosting. That’s where I spotted a gilt 1016 in mint condition (offered by the original owner no less) with a near-perfect glossy dial. I reached out, almost instinctively, to East Crown’s proprietor, Katsutoshi Tojo – vintage collectors know him simply as “K” – and had the good luck of being the first person to message. He gave me ‘dibs’ as it were, with the only catch being that I had 30 minutes to decide whether I wanted the watch. Naturally, after such a long journey, there was no way I was going to let such an ideal example slip through my fingers. The journey to the ultimate 1016 was by no means a smooth one, but there’s no doubt that it was also deeply rewarding and interesting.”
We’d like to thank Wei Koh, Hosanna Swee, Yang Zepo, Gordon Lau and Fed Tan for contributing their respective personal journeys to this story.