Interview: Eric Wind
The business of watch collecting is largely based around having an extensive knowledge of condition and originality, with many newcomers getting burnt by incorrect watches. One face that has been at the centre of guiding the community as to what truly original vs. refinished condition looks like, is Eric Wind. After starting his horological career with Hodinkee, he moved to the auction world as a senior specialist for Christie’s; a position he held until very recently deciding to go it alone with his own watch-dealing business. We met up with Eric in Geneva, during the winter auction season, to have a chat about how he found himself in the watch industry.
So tell us a little about how you first got into watches?
I was always fascinated with time, like so many others that are involved in watches today. I remember my first watch was a G.I. Joe digital watch with a compass built into the rubber strap, which I thought was absolutely amazing.
[laughs] And how old were you when you received this?
I was around five years old when I got that watch, but my serious interest in mechanical watches began in college. When my grandfather passed away, my mother gave me his Hamilton watch which was called the ‘Neil’, and I was completely fascinated with it because I had never owned a mechanical watch before. It was a watch that my grandmother had given to him for their wedding back in 1947.
He wore it basically every single day since then, apart from when it was being serviced. So I wore it and I became fascinated with the idea that this object was mechanically telling the time without the assistance of any kind of electronic or battery-powered elements [laughs].
So, from discovering mechanical watches, how did you wind up writing for Hodinkee?
I discovered Hodinkee within about a month of it coming into existence as they had been featured on GQ.com with a slideshow of important vintage watches, including the Rolex “Paul Newman” Daytona, which I had never previously seen. I began following Hodinkee religiously and became very interested in the history of certain watches. It was around this time that I started trawling through eBay and other places, small dealers and online sales platforms, gathering knowledge about watches. Ben Clymer then asked me to write my first article in May 2010.
How did he find you or become aware of you in the community?
I had been emailing him tips for cool watches that I had seen around the web for sale, suggesting things that might be interesting for him to write about, and after sending him an article about the Universal Geneve Polerouter he said, “Why don’t you write a story about these, it’s really fascinating”.
So we’ve discovered the mastermind behind it…
[laughs] Yes. I never anticipated writing for them, so it was quite a surprise. I never thought watches would become a career for me. I was studying politics and international affairs at Georgetown, and a few years later went to Oxford to do an MBA. I was completely focussed on business and politics, but then all this came along.
At what point did it become clear that you could work in the watch industry full time?
I finished my studies at Oxford and got a job with a biofuel venture in Florida, so my wife and I moved there and then had a son. It was during this time that I started the ‘Bring a Loupe’ column, which was called ‘What’s Selling Where’ at the time, and it was because of this I started developing a more regular following among collectors and enthusiasts. I would write these things on a weekly basis, and some of the articles had upwards of 30 watches from various small auction houses and dealers from around the world.
We were all keen followers of that here…
Yeah? Oh thank you [laughs]. I wrote about watch auctions, as well, particularly Christie’s, Sotheby’s, Antiquorum, and Bonhams. John Reardon, who had recently become the Christie’s International Head of Watches, contacted me in 2014 asking if I might be interested in a career with Christie’s. The discussions didn’t advance very far at that stage as the offer was to be a consultant without benefits. I told John that I have a family and I cannot work without benefits. Then in the Spring of 2015 I got into a discussion with Hodinkee about working for them full-time and also began speaking with Phillips.
What did you decide?
It was a difficult and agonizing process, but John Reardon and Christie’s came back with a great offer that I accepted in May of 2015. I felt Christie’s offered the best chance to learn and grow.
How was your time there?
I learned an incredible amount while working there. I came in with expert knowledge on a number of brands, but I really wanted to become an expert on the high-end part of the wristwatch world: Patek Philippe, Rolex, Audemars Piguet, and Vacheron Constantin. With Patek Philippe watches for instance, there are many issues of dial cleaning and case restoration that most people, even those who buy and sell them, don’t understand.
What did you love about the job?
One interesting thing about working for Christie’s is that we would get a lot of cold leads from people who inherited watches or people that found a watch in a thrift shop or in a drawer, even in an apartment wall [laughs]. It’s a process of discovery. The challenge of convincing the owners to consign with us, rather than one of the other auction houses or directly to a dealer is an interesting process. The auction world is a funny business because it’s such a grind, as you’re constantly on the hunt for the next sales, even before the current sale has happened. There is no such thing as a break.
"The Jackie Kennedy Cartier Tank was an incredible watch that I never expected to be involved with"
Are there any stand-out lots that come to mind, that you had a hand in discovering?
The Jackie Kennedy Cartier Tank was an incredible watch that I never expected to be involved with the discovery of. No one knew where it had gone and it had never come to market before, that was a really wonderful moment when we had confirmed its location and that it would be sold by us.
And then it was discovered that the high bidder was Kim Kardashian right?
[laughs] I can’t comment on that, but I think every part of the process was a surprise. We have brought a number of incredible watches to auction during my time there, perhaps the best Audemars Piguet reference 5516, which was a completely fresh discovery. The reference 5516 was the first perpetual calendar wristwatch with the leap year indicator on the dial and it was absolutely mind-blowing to see that watch.
How did you guys find that?
That was a cold lead from a gentleman who had inherited it from his uncle. He wrote to Christie’s and then it became a process of convincing him that it would be best-placed with us, rather than a dealer or any of the other auction houses. Another one that stands out was a Patek Philippe with pearl hour markers, which had been given to the owner by the ruler of Bahrain in circa 1958 [laughs].
We had put it in the December 2015 auction with an estimate of $10,000 - $15,000 and it sold for $437,000. The gentleman, who was in his 90s, and his wife were naturally thrilled with the result.
Seeing something like that happen for a client of yours must be an amazing feeling…
It really is, to get those happy calls is a real joy. In many cases, these sorts of amounts are completely life-changing. I’ve seen people be able to buy houses and pay-off student loans because of watches they’ve found or inherited.
So, more broadly, what do you make of the auction market right now?
I think we are seeing a lot of changes at the moment. More people are following the auction market than ever before, which is sort of an interesting phenomenon. It’s certainly good for the market, because when I started writing about auctions for Hodinkee, there were a massive amount of collectors of watches like Speedmasters, Heuer chronographs, and other brands that just didn’t appear at auction.
It seems crazy these days to think…
Definitely, so you had a small group of ‘elite’ collectors who cared about the auctions and then you had everyone else, who was hanging around in the forums not really paying much attention to the auctions. Over the last two or three years, there has been a real bridging of the gap between the very high-end of the market, with multi-million dollar Patek Philippe and Rolex, to a time where we are seeing themed auctions based around brands like Heuer and Omega. There has never been more market knowledge out there and the separation between ‘god’ and ‘man’ like in the Michaelangelo painting [laughs] has closed up slightly.
[laughs] It seems like there has been an expanse of journalism over the last few years which has made buying at auction a more accessible thing to do…
Yes, no question, although there are still many things that are misrepresented at auction in terms of condition. There has been a lot of growth in the market understanding these condition issues, but there is still a long way to go. In addition, most watch auction coverage is more along the lines of “look how expensive this rare watch sold for” than why it is important and what its true condition is.
There are still people getting burnt by the condition thing?
Yes, for sure, but each season I see people getting smarter and smarter about the true condition of watches. I am beginning to see more appropriate results on the watches with condition issues, whereas in the past the price may have just been dictated by rarity. Saying that, there are still some outlying watches with condition issues that are going for very high prices.
The Speedmaster market is something you’ve been heavily involved in creating, what do you think of these record results we are now seeing?
I think it’s amazing that at Christie’s we had a reference 2915-1 in December 2015 that sold for $137,500 and then less than two years later we see one sell for literally double, $275,000, at a small auction house in Sweden.
At Bukowski’s, right?
Yes, Bukowski's. To see the doubling of a newly made world record by a long shot within less than two years is amazing to me.
What do you think is driving that?
There are a lot of the high-end, elite collectors who would have never considered buying a Speedmaster in the past who now appreciate them, for a variety of factors including social media, the Christie’s thematic auction, Omega’s effort to promote the brand, etc. I heard who bought that particular example and I think it would surprise a lot of people, as he’s more publicly known for collecting multi-million-dollar Patek Philippe watches.
Does it feel a little strange to have been at the centre of championing these watches as collectable for some years now?
Yes, yeah it is. I’m very happy to see them get the appreciation that I think they deserve, and I’m very happy to see brands like Omega promote and invest in their heritage. Omega has done a lot to spur interest in their heritage models, with their re-editions and the research they conduct with their museum and archive. There are very real opportunities for other brands to do similar things that haven’t quite gotten to that level yet.
So, tell us about your decision to leave Christies?
I absolutely loved my time with Christie’s, but it had become very hard on my family with all the necessary travelling. I was beginning to realise that things had began to plateau in terms of knowledge and relationships with collectors. I had developed a good book of clients who relied on me for advice and assistance, so it became a very natural decision to start my own business. It’s been just under two months and my wife has been incredibly supportive of the decision. Our bank account is in better shape now, as well [laughs].
That’s great to hear, so you’re trading privately at the moment with the intention of setting up an online platform of some kind?
Yes, exactly. I have bought and sold a number of watches so far, and I’m providing assistance to collectors for curating their collections, evaluating potential purchases. I have found a number of pieces that I may hang onto for the site, but where possible, I prefer to sell directly to clients. A lot of people find it more appealing to buy something that hasn’t been ‘out there’ and over-exposed on social media. I would rather let the client decide whether they want to put a watch on Instagram or not, except if I have their permission to share it. Selling directly to clients also avoids all the tyre-kickers in the peanut gallery who inevitably criticise any dealer for something they perceive to be incorrect or that the price is too high.
There are a fair few self-appointed spokespeople in the industry…
Exactly, and that’s fine, I think it’s important that there are watchdogs, but in this world, it’s nice to have some privacy. It’s been quite amazing to see certain things over the years, such as collectors who had been very private who then put their entire collection on instagram. It’s somewhat disheartening because you see all these sycophants come out of the woodwork, trying to sell them stuff and develop business relationships with them for the wrong reasons.
So, let’s talk about the watch you’re wearing, because this was intended to be under our ‘My Watch’ column, but you’ve since told us that the watch we assumed you had owned for years, was in fact something you had bought during this auction season… [laughs]
[laughs] Yeah, I literally purchased that within minutes of us meeting [laughter]. It’s my first Universal Geneve ‘Eric Clapton’ that I’ve owned, even though I’ve written about them many times on Hodinkee. I found a new home for it the next day, so it was a brief relationship that lasted under 30 hours.
The ‘Eric Wind’ ‘Eric Clapton’…
[Laughs] Yeah I enjoyed every minute I owned it, but I am happy it is joining a friend’s collection.
When did you first come across the Universal Geneve brand, that’s another one that you’ve been championing for years now right?
Yeah, I remember the first article I ever wrote for Hodinkee, as I mentioned, was about the Universal Geneve Polerouter. I had owned a few and have managed to own a few that were in very nice condition, all of which were bought for under $300 on eBay.
"I remember when Ben Clymer bought a Universal Geneve Tri-Compax in steel from the Henry Graves, Jr. / Pete Fullerton, Jr. thematic auction at Sotheby’s. That’s an amazing watch... "
[Laughs] Those days are long gone…
Haha yes, but that is okay. One of them I previously owned is worth over $2,000 and due to its rare broad arrow hands. I undersold it. I remember when Ben Clymer bought a Universal Geneve Tri-Compax in steel from the Henry Graves, Jr. / Pete Fullerton, Jr. thematic auction at Sotheby’s. That’s an amazing watch, which he still has in his collection. The brand has a terrific history, and the other sort of wonderful and mysterious aspect of it is that the brand is essentially defunct, so the brand can’t be spoiled by modern pieces.
The chronograph’s from the 1940s and 50s are really quite spectacular…
Definitely, in my opinion they are in the same league as chronographs from Patek Philippe, Vacheron Constantin and Audemars Piguet from the time. Then later, they made these sports models like the ‘Nina Rindt’ and the ‘Eric Clapton’ in the 1960s, which are in the same level as the Rolex Daytona and Heuer Autavia.
There’s quite a visual similarity between the ‘Clapton’ and the Omega Speedmaster…
Exactly, the Speedmaster and the ‘Clapton’/‘Nina Rindt’ certainly shared the same manufacturer of their bezels.
These UG models used Valjoux 72 movements, the same as in the 1960s Heuer Carreras and Autavias. You have lightly modified versions of that movement in the Rolex Daytona models from the time.
What do you make of the growth of Universal Geneve?
I think it’s great. I remember I had the chance to bid in 2011 on numerous ‘Nina Rindt’ models, as they’ve become known since then. One sold for $2,300, on which I was the underbidder, and the other for around $2,800, both on eBay. Then fast-forward to 2013 and I remember a gentleman saying that he had traded a Rolex Submariner reference 1680 for one. I thought he was insane! [laughs]
Because it was a watch worth say, $7,000 or so, and the ‘Nina Rindt’ just was not a 7,000 dollar watch in my opinion at that time. By December 2015, at Christie’s we sold a mint condition version with box and papers for $47,500, and I couldn’t believe that I had passed on the opportunity to buy two of them for a fraction of that. I never expected them to appreciate that much.
Give us a bit of a snapshot of your personal collection…
I have a wide variety of things, including a Rolex Submariner ‘Steve McQueen’ reference 5512 that appeared in the Davidoff Brothers’ exhibition ‘Watches With Nicknames’ exhibition earlier this year. I have a GMT-Master 1675, a Daytona 6262, and a Rolex Precision from the 50s. Other brands that I enjoy and collect include Gallet, Longines and I have a couple Vulcain Crickets.
Are there any that you regret having let go of?
I have a couple of watches I regret having sold, of course, things from the past are almost always worth more in this world of vintage watches, but one I truly regret was selling a Heuer Skipper reference 7754, known as the “Skipperera” because of its Carrera case, which had a mint dial. I sold it to a friend of mine to help me fund my studies at Oxford, so I don’t entirely regret it.
"One I truly regret was selling a Heuer Skipper reference 7754, known as the “Skipperera” because of its Carrera case, which had a mint dial."
I sold it for $8,000 and these days it’s worth closer to $80,000.
That Oxford education ended up a little more expensive than anticipated… [laughs]
[Laughs] Exactly. It was back in 2013 and I just couldn’t fathom a 10 x return on that in 4 years, although I don’t regret the investment in my education.
Worth every penny…
I also sold the same gentleman an extremely early Gallet Flying Officer, the same watch that Harry Truman wore, back in 2011.
He must be very pleased with you then?
He’s done very well [laughs]. Although he won’t sell them to me, he told me he may consider leaving them to me in his will [laughs]. The important and pleasing thing is that he really loves those watches and didn’t buy them purely as an investment, but he bought them because he loves them.
On a final and separate note, I wondered what you think makes watches just so personal to people?
It’s hard to describe our connection with these mechanical objects, but I think it is definitely partly the art and the aesthetics, partly the history, and partly the fact that it is right on our body. For example, a car or art can have an emotional connection to you, but they are not attached to us as a constant companion. I have found it deeply gratifying to have been a part of helping people purchase these personal items, either as gifts for future or current husbands, wives, children, friends, business partners, etc. I love to see people catch the bug for watch-collecting after getting their first vintage watch. There’s just something about watches, particularly vintage watches, that can connect them deeply with humanity. It makes them such fascinating things to own.