INTERVIEW: John Goldberger

By A Collected Man

The name John Goldberger should be familiar to many of our readers, either for his highly celebrated books on Longines, Rolex, Patek Philippe and Omega, or for his now notorious feature on Hodinkee’s "Talking Watches", opening a million dollar Rolex with a cheese knife. Whichever your introduction to Mr. Goldberger, his reputation for only collecting the very best, as well as his considerable contribution to publicly available watch-knowledge, speaks volumes about his character. We caught up with John for a chat about how he became involved in the world of watch collecting.

 

Tell us a little about your experiences with growing up in Italy?

I grew up in Bologna, attending a typical school and high school. I then attended a university with a special department for photography, design and film.

 

Ah, interesting, so this is where you learned how to shoot…

Yes, my studies were focussed around graphic design and photography.

 

And was your father in the creative business?

No, he was in the telecommunications business, which my family are still involved with. I’m now the president of that company.

 

So how did your interest in photography develop?

I moved to California after university in 1980, and I spent around four years making photography, surfing, playing basketball and looking for vintage watches in the flea-markets there.

 

What kind of photography were you shooting at the time?

I was very interested in architecture, so I focussed primarily on that. I would be searching for old architecture from the 1920s, 30s around Los Angeles and photographing these buildings from the street. I also shot a fair amount of modern architecture after that too, 40s, 50s and 60s.

 

Are we right in thinking that you had a book of these works published called "Kodachrome"?

Yes, this was some time later though, around 1990 after I had a few things published in architectural magazines.

 

A photograph from 'Kodachrome' taken in 1986 by John Goldberger. 

 

Were your family ‘collectors’ of anything?

Yes, my family collected many things including paintings and furniture, ceramics among other things. Mostly 16th and 17th century works, which I became aware of when I was around eight years old. I was very lucky to be exposed to such things at a young age. My father would bring me to antique shows and dealers, hunting for the next addition to the collection.

 

Did you then begin a collection of your own?

I began with coins when I was ten years old. I would search for European coins, Italian coins, that kind of thing. Nothing that was particularly rare, but whatever grabbed my interest for one reason, or another.

 

So how did you become interested in watches?

It was after my father recommended that it might be something interesting for a young boy to collect; I think he suggested this because they were very cheap at the time [laughs].

 

[laughs] Right, and what kind of things would you find?

Well, at the flea market, you would regularly see brands like Rolex and a few others for not very much money.

 

Did your father collect watches?

No, no, he was only interested in furniture, art and ceramics.

 

And how did it cross-over into you becoming the serious collector that you are considered to be today?

It’s been a step-by-step process of buying watches, accumulating different references. I always just bought what I liked, because back then, there was no information out there, like today. I began buying a few things at auction here and there, but even still, the information was very scarce.

 

  A Longines 13ZN chronograph. 

 

How did you ever confirm originality or quality in those days?

I had a few watchmakers in my city who would teach me a little bit here and there when I would showed them things. I think it wasn’t until about the mid 1980s that the first good book came out with technical information and footnotes under black and white photos of watches. This book contained a lot of really useful information, which helped me to develop my knowledge and collection.

 

Presumably the photography was pretty awful…

[Laughs] Yes, it was very flat, but the information was good. It was called "Armband Uhren" by the publisher Callwey.

 

We’ll have to track an old copy down. What was the first watch you ever bought or received?

It was a very old Rolex chronograph with three counters in a yellow gold case with the reference 3835. I managed to find this in an antique shop for $500, in 1978.

 

Wow…

I still have it in my collection. 

 

Is this where the fascination for chronograph watches came from for you, because you seem to focus around those a fair amount…

Yes, I love the chronograph complication with its specialist uses, or oversized cases, split-seconds. I’ve always been very fascinated with the uses, because they are tools to certain industries like for military use, car racing and aviation.

 

Are you particularly interested in racing or aviation, separate to the watches?

Well, I was a big fan of Formula One in the 1970s and 1980s, but I was never particularly interested in the watches from the time, like Heuer Autavia. This to me was a style watch, I tend to focus much more on vintage.

 

What are your parameters?

I buy watches that were made between the 1930s and the 1960s, generally speaking.

 

It’s funny, because even watches from the 1980s are now beginning to be called vintage…

Yeah, I remember when the term started to be used in the 1970s and beginning of the 1980s, the 20 year old watches of the time were from the 1960s or 1950s. For me, true horology in these types of wristwatches ended around 1985 or 1986, because that’s when the computer had really taken-over a large part of the manufacturing process. Patek Philippe stopped manufacturing their most important reference 2499 and the 3450. Rolex had also changed the movement from Valjoux to the automatic Zenith movement.

 

 John Goldberger in Geneva, Switzerland.

 

What is it that bothered you most about the introduction of automated processes?

It was the lack of handmade finishing. The finishing of the case and the movement had been automated as a necessity, to increase the quantity of watches they were making per year. They were trying to appeal to a different type of consumer.

Do you feel like these more modern watches lack a ‘soul’?

Yes, exactly. I’m not a big fan of the modern watch, because they are just not rare.

 

How do you think the watch collecting community has changed over the years in your experience?

 

The introduction of Internet, particularly the emergence of Ebay in the mid-1990s and lately of Instagram, profoundly changed the world of watch collecting, but now the democracy of the web created a new generation of collectors but also collectors who are a bunch of “frantically informed idiots”. Within the last 20 years the community of watch collectors and dealers became even closer and more interwoven, with huge amounts of information exchanged, which is readily available due largely to the internet. The Internet has enabled a significant percentage of the world’s population access to relatively arcane and esoteric information like watches and horology. Due to the discussion forums, then blogs, and now social media, there is a now a large global online audience ready and hungry for any information pertaining to vintage watches.

 

Were the brands as open back in the day to supplying information to collectors?

In some cases. Patek Philippe have always supported collectors, likewise with Longines, Omega and Universal Genève. I remember receiving a letter from Patek Philippe in the mid 1980s that confirmed that they were the manufacturer, the retail location, the year of manufacture - things like this. Omega, Patek Philippe and Vacheron Constantin were particularly helpful in the mid-1980s with these types of requests.

 

Has your preferred method of buying watches changed over time?

I like to buy from dealers mostly. Sometimes auctions, but most watches I buy, come directly from dealers.

 

Why is that?

Because you can develop a relationship with a dealer, meeting face-to-face, speaking the same language with the watch on the table.

 

So you don’t really enjoy the auction environment?

No, no, I love auctions. I’m just not a big auction guy, because I don’t much enjoy fighting for prices with the paddle.

 

[Laughs] Right…

I like to discover something fresh to the market, to be like a pioneer, to find something before all the others become aware of it [laughs].

 

[Laughs] So you’re privately competitive with these things…

The problem now, is that there is nothing left to discover. Maybe there is a little space still in pocket watches because they are so cheap.

 

 John Goldberger's personal Cartier with a very rare platinum case, thought to exist in only 5 pieces.  

 

It’s interesting how you can find high complication pocket watches for next to nothing, by comparison…

Absolutely, and even if you have an apple watch on your wrist, you can still have a nice complication in your pocket.

 

Unless we’re mistaken, you have quite an amazing high-complication Audemars Piguet pocket watch, right?

Yes, I do. I have a few others by Patek Philippe, Cartier and Vacheron Constantin . I like the art deco and 1950s designs, I’m not much of a fan of the big onion crowned pieces.

 

What do you make of all of these recent world record-breaking auction results?

The Paul Newman for instance, that dial design is just so iconic. It’s a very masculine watch on the wrist. It’s a tool-watch. It could-well be the most iconic watch ever manufactured.

 

What did you think of the Omega tourbillon that hammered with Phillips for over a million dollars?

I think it was a very nice watch, and a great discovery. The Omega tourbillon was discovered by an unknown (smart dealer) consigner, who later discovered, with the help of Omega, that it was a prototype. This was not the first tourbillon wrist-watch though, as has been reported. The first was Lip, ten years before this was made. The Omega is very interesting because it’s a nice size, clean dial design and you can wear it anywhere, because it’s such a low-profile watch, despite the one million dollar value. I like that the tourbillon is not visible through the case-back.

 

It’s very subtle, in that respect…

I’m not a big fan of a glass display-back.

 

No?

[Laughs] No, I like the reveal of opening the case-back to see the movement, then when you’re done, you close it away again.

 

John Goldberger in Geneva, Switzerland.  

 

This is kind of ‘out there’ because you rather famously opened the case-back of a million dollar Rolex with a cheese knife on the Hodinkee video series, "Talking Watches".

[Laughs] Yes, it’s like for some car manufacturers, they use a transparent engine lid, so you can see the size. But this isn’t so much for me.

 

So you’ve become very known for your books about watch brands like Rolex, Patek Philippe and Longines, when did you first decide to publish a book on the subject?

Well, I began taking photographs of watches around fifteen years ago, and the first book I decided to put together was about Omega watches. It was a very simple publication with just one image of the front of the watch, along with a few images of the movement.

 

What made you start with Omega?

I felt that the brand was very undervalued at the time, so I set about putting more information out there about these watches. A year after that book, I made one about Longines, then Rolex, then Patek Philippe and now I’m making a new one about Longines, which is due out soon.

 

Yes, so tell us a little about this new book…

The latest Longines book is a 600 page book featuring 265 different watches, and pocket-watches from a large part of their history. It’s divided into lots of chapters, with different themes for each section. I have a copy on my desk at the moment, which I’m making the final corrections to, before the final version is printed.

 

Wow, that’s a huge book…

[Laughs] Yes, and Longines have helped me a great deal with the research, because their archives are so complete. Many of the watches featured in the book belong to the museum that they have up in St Imier, in their manufacturing facility.

 

Your collection of Longines must be quite vast by now…

No, not too many, maybe thirty pieces or so, and those are mostly chronographs and aviator watches.

 

What is it about Longines that you find so interesting?

For me, Longines were the best chronograph producer in the 1940s. I think they were better than Patek Philippe, Vacheron and Rolex because they made their caliber in-house. The only other brand producing the whole movement at this time was Universal Genève, and there was a big difference between that and what Longines were producing. They were using much cheaper materials and cost-saving methods of construction. Most of the other brands were using Valjoux movements.

 

The evolution of the brand has seen it go from a higher-end producer to more of a commercial producer…

Absolutely, they were very strong from the 1930s to the 1950s, because a lot of their customers were military-affiliated. After the 1950s, they lost a lot of that market because they started selling a lot of watches through Wittnauer, which were not very special watches. They didn’t evolve enough in a time that Omega and Rolex, for instance, developed 'tool-watches' for divers, scientists, aviators, racers and explorers. 

 

They lost their footing…

They didn’t notice this niche in the market at the time, and they ceased production of the 30CH chronograph movement. They became part of the Ebauche SA company and then the Swatch Group after that.

 

They’ve developed into something very different these days…

Yes, they are making a very large turnover in Asia and they are a very profitable brand within the Swatch Group. They now use all of their parts from brands within the group, including the movement, the dials, the glass. They have divided all of their brands into different price segments, so they don’t have competing brands under the same roof.

 

What do you think of their modern watches?

They make some errors from time to time, but the modern version of the Conquest was good. The brand works very well, and they take their heritage very seriously, with acquiring watches for the museum and re-issuing iconic pieces.

 

It would be quite something if they re-made the 30CH or 13ZN chronograph movements…

Definitely, but the manufacturing costs for these are very high.

 

Preview spreads from John Goldberger's upcoming book on Longines watches. 

 

Are there any watches that you’ve been chasing over the years that you’ve been unable to find?

I don’t really have any more ‘holy grails’ to find. These days, I’m not necessarily searching, but I look around, and if I like it, I buy or trade for it. I’m growing fond of trading for other watches, because it allows me to decrease the volume of my collection. Sometimes I might give five watches to acquire one new one.

 

Tell us a little about your unique white gold Rolex Daytona…

I found that through a collection in Germany, and I bought it immediately [laughs].

 

Had you any information on it?

No, I received the information later that it had been sold in Germany and that it was made upon special request for a client of theirs.

 

Very unusual for Rolex to fulfil something like this, right?

Yes, they made a small number of pieces for the British military in the ‘70s and only dial variations for special orders from Oman, UAE, Saudi Arabia and from American brands like Dominos Pizza, General Motors, Coca Cola, insurance companies and others.

 

On a separate note, do you have a collection of photography?

I do. I began collecting in the 1980s, although, I made a few mistakes thinking things were cheap at the time, so I prefer to invest my money in watches [laughs].

 

What sorts of photographers do you like?

I like Henri-Cartier Bresson, he’s a photographer that everyone can understand. Intellectual, very clear and clean. He made some very wonderful books, which is something that I collect a lot of - original books from the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s. I also like to collect original Irving Penn books, Helmut Newton, he’s a great photographer. I love the portrait work of Richard Avedon also.

 

It seems like you’re very much into the classics…

Yes, I like Ansel Adams, too. A lot of these photographers work in black and white, but I’m much more of a colour photographer, myself.

 

To find out more, please visit John's website by clicking here. 



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