The watch world can often be guided by trends or the pursuit of the latest exciting novelty. An individual which stands apart, through his appreciation of horology in all its forms and methodical study of the history of timekeeping, is John Reardon. We got to sit down with John while in New York, in an exclusive interview prior to him leaving his role as Christie’s International Head of Watches. From his life quest of uncovering the second Henry Graves Supercomplication to consigning Patek Philippes from friars on the Upper East Side, we took some time to have a chat about the past, present and future.
Last time we saw you in Geneva, you’d just finished running a half marathon on the same day as the Christie’s preview. Recuperated yet?
I have, thankfully. It was a welcome break from the typical marathon of auction week.
You actually ran a meeting during your run, didn’t you?
We had our 'interest meeting', where we go through the sale lot by lot, based on how we think the pieces will perform. We did that while I was running, which was very memorable.
Hard to keep your focus I imagine…
It actually helped my running along, because I wasn’t thinking about the pain [Laughs]. It was a welcome distraction at that point during the second half of the race.
John, outside the Rockefeller Center in New York
People around you must have been surprised…
I actually think I annoyed some of my fellow runners talking on the phone during the race, in English, no less.
So, what are some of your first memories of watches?
I had many opportunities to see watches as a child, but what really brought me into the watch and clock world at that time was a visit to the American Watch & Clock Museum in my hometown of Bristol, Connecticut. At that point in time I wasn’t particularly interested, but I met the curator and was welcomed into the museum as a volunteer.
How did that evolve?
I soon learned how to clean and overhaul clocks, and I also studied horology and the history of timekeeping. It became my passion and obsession very quickly. I started my own clock restoration business, which continued on through college. Those were fun years because I was doing what I loved, not to make a living, but just for fun, for pure pleasure.
Did you find yourself daydreaming about watches and clocks while at school?
Definitely, for anyone that restores mechanical objects, like a clock for example, you often have an issue that you need to solve. There were times when I was at school thinking about how to solve a particular problem, and I couldn’t wait to get back to my bench to fix it.
A teacher’s nightmare…
Yeah, it actually reminds me of many times at that point in my life where my parents thought I was absolutely insane [Laughs].
[Laughs] Oh dear…
I would hide in our basement, which is where my bench was, and I’d work there until past midnight, after I did my homework. My parents thought it was rather bizarre.
They must have been confused with what was going on…
A story which comes to mind is that we always had dinner as a family at 5:30 every night, where everyone would come together. One night I was working on a three-train clock and it was a very, very difficult task. I remember my father calling me upstairs at the top of his lungs to join the family for dinner and anyone who’s done this kind of things knows it’s hard to leave a project in the midst of it.
I eventually made my way upstairs, and my father angrily shouted, “you’ll never make a living out of watches and clocks”. It was at that moment in time that I came to be set on my life’s path.
John Reardon in New York
So, when did you choose to make watches your vocation?
Well, I had a couple of jobs in college that involved watches: I worked at Speidel designing straps, which was good fun, and I also worked at the Willard House and Clock Museum in Grafton, Massachusetts, where I had the pleasure of working with Michael Friedman (now Head of Complications at Audemars Piguet) for the first time.
And what happened next?
Well, after college, I was considering going into the Peace Corps to Malawi of all places. [Laughs]
And then, out of nowhere, the curator of the American Watch & Clock Museum from my hometown introduced me to Daryn Schnipper. She gave me a call, offering me an internship at Sotheby’s. That call was the gateway to a career I never imagined.
" [..] my father angrily shouted, “you’ll never make a living out of watches and clocks”. It was at that moment in time that I came to be set on my life’s path.
Did you hesitate or was it a no brainer?
I never wanted to live and work in New York City, that couldn’t have been further away from what I had wanted to do. But at that moment speaking to Daryn, I reconsidered. My love for watches and clocks kind of tempted me to give it a chance. I thought it would have been just the summer and then I’d go back to my planned life, but that summer of 1997, let’s just say it’s never stopped.
Moving to New York must have been quite the contrast...
Interns at that time weren’t paid any money, so to be able to afford to live in New York City, was basically seemingly impossible. So through my college, which was run by the Dominican friars, they set me up to stay at a priory on the Upper East Side.
And the irony is I couldn’t believe how many of the friars actually owned Patek Philippes.
And if I recall, I actually got some consignments at that point from some of the friars [Laughs].
John’s own collection of Patek Philippe watches
[Laughs] Those early days must have been interesting…
My journey went from clocks to pocket watches, and then I was very interested in Rolex for a period of time. However, it was in 1999 researching the Henry Graves Supercomplication that everything changed for me. That’s when I began to understand what Patek Philippe represents, and it became my obsession.
The best part was that people back then knew what the Graves Supercomplication was, but they didn’t really understand it. I felt like I was digging up stories from those that remembered the past, and that watch’s history came alive in a way that will now live on forever.
You later found yourself working for Patek Philippe, right?
Yes, after four years of the auction grind, I had the dream phone call from Patek Philippe USA. In fact, it was from a head-hunter who picked these undisclosed locations to have these secret meetings. We had three meetings before I even spoke to anyone from Patek Philippe directly.
It was a six-month process of interviews. Honestly, I think it’d be easier to get into the CIA, than to get a job at Patek Philippe! [Laughs]
[Laughs] Did you enjoy it?
Oh, definitely. The chance to be part of this company that I’d put on a pedestal for so long, was so exciting. Anyone from outside of the world of Patek Philippe, they hear this, but they don’t truly understand it: it is a family-run company. It is run by the Sterns and everything within Patek Philippe is the Sterns'.
If you picture a medieval court, where everyone from the serfs to those in the priory, circle around the king, that’s how Patek Philippe is organised. You develop a huge amount of respect for that system because it doesn’t exist today in the business world elsewhere.
John reminiscing on his days at Patek Philippe
But it wasn’t long before you jumped back into the auction world?
Here’s the thing with auctions - it’s a drug.
So I’ve heard…
You cannot leave the auction world. The adrenaline rush of the treasure hunts, of putting a sale together, the deadlines, the community, the ups, the downs, the excitement, this is something that doesn’t exist anywhere else.
Anything you’re still hunting after all these years?
The holy grail of grails for me, and I dream of finding it someday, is the second Henry Graves Supercomplication.
"It was a six-month process of interviews. Honestly, I think it’d be easier to get into the CIA, than to get a job at Patek Philippe [Laughs]".
The pictures of it exist, so do the box, papers and original certificate. To this day, no-one’s found this watch, and the last owner of it was Pete Fullerton, the grandson of Henry Graves Jr. He became a close friend of mine, and then in his last year of life, I remember I showed him the box and the papers for this mystery watch, and he told me that this watch will never be found.
I am quite confident it does exist. In fact, I think I know where it is, but we’ll talk about that another day.
I hope we will!
It’s just like the Henry Graves Supercomplication, there so much mystery and unknown around that piece. I don’t necessarily want to sell it, I just want to hold the watch in my hands one day knowing the truth about what happened with Mr Graves and that watch.
One of John’s favourite Patek Philippe ads
And what do you think of the auction market today?
I think auctions as we know them are going through a period of punctuated change. 20 years ago, the information was all within the auction houses and the dealer community. Today the information and the scholarship is in many cases with collectors - it’s outside of the auction houses. Take the collector and expert Mstanga: he exemplifies where scholarship is going. In many cases the scholarship is greater than what the brands have themselves, except the brands will never admit that.
The amount and quality of information today is certainly unparalleled…
It is. And also, there are multiple new platforms, which are equalling the playing field. People don’t have to go to the auction houses like they have historically, so the auction houses have to evolve and change. We see it today: all the houses are embracing private sales and online sales on a scale we’ve never seen before. And the auctions themselves are becoming events, they’re becoming spectacles, and Geneva is at the forefront of the big show.
The landscape is changing quite drastically it seems…
Yeah, the other beautiful thing is that thanks to these multiple platforms, there are new names and faces that are rising as leaders in the watch world. Things have become hyper-specialised, which has led to a new generation of hyper-specialists.
Focusing on a specific model, as Mstanga has done with the Nautilus and the Royal Oak?
Exactly, and now the auction houses are often going to these people for advice and sometimes their opinion on pieces, and this is changing the auction world very quickly. Where in the past the head of a particular auction house would have the final word on every single watch in the sale, that’s changing rapidly.
Speaking of hyper-specialised, you’re wearing something quite niche on your wrist…
Ah yes, my beloved reference 3603, which is a 1970s Beta 21 quartz hunk of gold.
Quite a maligned period and technology…
For sure, in the early 1970s, the quartz revolution was redefining the whole direction of horology over its thousand year plus history. This particular watch to me represents a monumental shift in the change of direction, not only for the world of horology, but for Patek Philippe in particular.
John’s Patek Philippe Ref. 3603
It does seem that it is when the Swiss watch industry is under the greatest stress, that it produces the most interesting things.
I mean, many brands that dominated the mid-20thCentury were eradicated during this time period, in the 1970s. The quartz revolution was Armageddon for our industry, but it also is a time of rebirth.
So, you’ve focused your collecting there?
Yeah, for my personal collection, I love collecting electronic timekeepers from Patek Philippe, from the early 1970s. In particular, I focus on clocks, master clock systems, and most notably Beta 21 wristwatches. I also collect Patek Philippe pocket watches from the early 20th century and Ellipse bracelet watches from the 1970s. Nothing is more beautiful on a watch than a blued gold dial!
"Where in the past the head of a particular auction house would have the final word on every single watch in the sale, that’s changing rapidly".
And the Beta 21 you’re wearing is certainly unconventional in terms of design, isn’t it?
It couldn’t be further from my preferred aesthetic, and for that reason I’m in love with the watch [Laughs].
[Laughs] So you like it, precisely because you shouldn’t like it?
I mean, here’s this overly heavy, quartz workhouse of a watch with a brown ellipse dial in 18 carat gold. It’s the last watch I would ever imagine putting on my wrist, yet it was born in 1974, just like me, and it’s the watch that just brings a smile to my face when I wear it.
There is definitely something to be said for some designs which are unquestionably a product of their time.
Yes, and I think that’s the appeal. We’ll call it overstated elegance [Laughs]. While Patek Philippe is all about understatement, they have made some surprising departures from their core and this watch is certainly a testament to that.
An Ellipse watch, keyring and ad
Yet still done to the highest standards…
Absolutely. I have an old ad in my office, which captures the spirit of the 1970s, it says ‘A Patek Philippe doesn’t just tell you the time, it tells you something about yourself.’ Those simple words are kind of why people own Patek Philippes, why people collect it.
And what does your Beta 21 tell you about yourself?
It reminds me of my age [Laughs].
"While Patek Philippe is all about understatement, they have made some surprising departures from their core and this watch is certainly a testament to that".
[Laughs] Not only that I hope…
It’s also a reminder that this movement might not be restored some day. This watch is living life today and will probably exist for another 50 years optimistically, and let’s just say that speaks to me too.
An Ellipse white gold lighter
So, what’s next for you?
Well, actually, after 6 years at Christie's I have decided it is time to start my own business. Effective this month, I am pleased to launch Collectability, a company focused on buying and selling vintage Patek Philippe watches.
That’s fantastic, congratulations!
Thank you! My obsession for Patek is all consuming and I have no doubt that this new chapter in my life will continue this lifelong journey.
Will you keep working with Christie’s?
Effective early this August, I will no longer be International Head of Watches at Christie's but will remain close to my friends and colleagues at Christie's in a new role as Senior International Consultant to Christie's Watches. This new role will enable me to have the time to launch my new company and still have my foot in the door of the auction world bringing in consignments and assisting in Christie's private sales initiatives.
Big things ahead…
Yeah, and I’m also very excited to be involved in selling Only Watch 2019 which will be held in Geneva on November 9, 2019. This charity auction will be one to remember with over 99% of the proceeds going directly into research of finding a cure for Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy.
And what’s most exciting about venturing out on your own?
I have been thinking about going on my own for many years now and I admit that it is as frightening as it is exciting. My connections in the world of watches, and passion and knowledge for all things Patek Philippe, will hopefully carve out a niche for me in the marketplace. I want to start small, but I admit I am thinking big. Collectability is only the beginning.
"I want to start small, but I admit I am thinking big".
Well, best of luck John. We’ll be following you closely…
Thank you John for taking the time to talk to us!