From childhood dreams of space exploration, to collaborating with Omega on the #speedytuesday limited edition Speedmaster, we caught up with Robert-Jan Broer (@rjbroer) about growing-up in Holland and founding Fratello watches.
So how did you get into watch collecting?
Well my first experience of watches would have been as a kid the ‘80s. I was born in ’77 so I grew up around all those early digital watches.
[Laughs] My first watch was not interesting at all, it was just a simple black Casio that I got when I was on my summer holiday in the UK with my parents. I probably got it at Dixons or something like that. [laughs]
[Laughs] Where else…
So, I wore that to school, thinking it was very cool. The next thing I got was a Swatch, around ’89. They weren’t really the hot thing yet among kids, everyone just wanted the calculator watch.
So they could cheat on tests?
[Laughs] Exactly. I’m not sure where those people that cheated ended-up, but I think my Swatch is what you could call my first ‘proper’ watch. It was in my late teens that I developed a real interest in watches, but there was no spare money for me to spend on them at that time.
It wasn’t until I was 21, after graduating from college, that I got my first mechanical watch. An Omega Constellation. My mum gifted it to me and I was familiar with the brand by that point, so I was naturally thrilled. My parents and grandparents all wore Omega too, I think even my great-grandfather actually.
Wow, was your great-grandfather around long enough for you to be familiar with it?
No, he passed away before I was born, but my grandfather had the same model. My grandfather and grandmother bought their Constellations in ’69 simultaneously. I still have those with the boxes, papers and original invoices.
Would they have bought these watches as a result of the Omega connection with the Moon landing?
No, I don’t think so, but I remember as a kid, my father would always tell me that Omega were the brand that went to the Moon. Being ten or eleven years old, it wasn’t so clear to me then…
"So, the Omega connection is very much a part of the family.”
The magnitude of the Moon landing?
Well, yeah. It was the time of the space-shuttle when I was young, so I was more interested in the current astronauts. There was a Dutch astronaut on television all the time, and there were live connections with them at school sometimes.
So, the Omega connection is very much a part of the family. It could have been a different brand, like Rolex or whatever, but it just so happened to be Omega.
At what point did you start connecting with other collectors?
That would have been around ’98 or ’99 that I joined Watchuseek and Timezone, both still existing. I would get in touch with like-minded collectors, researching in a similar fashion to myself and it quickly became apparent that I needed a Speedmaster.
I cycled, like most people, to university in The Hague and I would pass a watch shop every day on my way. I stopped one day and there were two Speedmasters in the window, one modern and one vintage, and the vintage was cheaper than the modern; unimaginable today.
Seems ridiculous by today’s standards…
I decided I had to have it.
So you bought it?
I did. I sold my Peugeot 205 GTI to raise the funds, and that was that. I had my first Speedmaster.
What was the reference?
"I sold my Peugeot 205 GTI to raise the funds, and that was that. I had my first Speedmaster.”
Nice, a 321 calibre movement…
Yeah, exactly. It also had the applied logo and step dial. It was so beautiful and I still have it of course. That’s probably the one watch I’ve owned which has appreciated the most. I think I paid the equivalent of about 900 euros.
And today they’re what, somewhere north of 10,000 euros…
Yeah, I’d say you could find a nice one for in and around there.
Did you anticipate this rapid growth in value for the Speedmaster?
No, not at all. It had always been a watch for, well… nerds.
That’s not a nice word, but you know what I mean. It’s a watch that requires some understanding and research to appreciate it fully. If you are just some guy who doesn’t know so much about watches, the chances are that you’re familiar with the Rolex Submariner, but that just isn’t the same with the Speedmaster. A lot of these guys who appreciate it, are obsessed with the Moon and the Apollo programme. The design is beautiful of course, but it’s niche. It was at one point internally discussed that maybe it was time to stop producing them. [laughs]
Yeah, I think it was in the late ‘80s or early ‘90s and it wasn’t going so well for them. It wasn’t a great time for the industry as a whole really, and it wasn’t until the James Bond affiliation that they were pulled out of trouble. For a long time, the Speedmaster was just unappealing to consumers, but as the knowledge surrounding these iconic watches grew, so did the appeal.
It lagged behind the Daytona bubble for a long time…
Yeah, it did strangely. If anything it’s odd because the 321 movement was much better than the Valjoux 72 that the Daytona used.
How did your collection grow from that first Speedy?
Well, I started buying a lot of magazines, particularly a few from Germany which I still have stacks of and would learn more and more, eventually buying bits and pieces from IWC, Rolex and a bunch of others. At this time, brands like Rolex and Breitling were very affordable. I actually wound up working in the watch shop I bought the Speedmaster from, some time later.
Oh dear, that could get expensive…
[Laughs] Yeah, I worked there just for a few weeks for fun and we would talk about doing projects and then around that time I started Fratello watches, just writing blogs about watches.
Was this the first time you had ventured into the content world?
Not exactly, as I started a website in ’99 called omega-addict.com…
I think it still exists actually. I got more and more focussed on the Speedmaster as things went on, and had a lot of people on the forums directing their Speedy questions to me. I would get so many of the same questions that I decided to make a website where I could host a frequently asked questions section, and that effectively resulted in Fratello watches.
I installed WordPress Version 1.0 [laughs]
And just started blogging. At first it was a few lines here and there on a topic that I found interesting, maybe from a press release or something and then a few people check it out, you post more and then you get more views and all of a sudden we were inundated with web traffic. There were blogs about all sorts of things, but there wasn’t really one about watches, so people seemed to find it quite quickly.
"I would get so many of the same questions that I decided to make a website where I could host a frequently asked questions section, and that effectively resulted in Fratello watches.”
Did it exceed your expectations or had you always thought this could become a business?
It wasn’t the plan, and at the time I took a job as a system administrator at a boring company, replacing keyboards for people or helping with Excel spreadsheets or whatever. That gave me a lot of free time to do it [laughs]. I began buying and selling watches for fun, but I became my own best customer, deeming everything too good to sell. After that, I focussed my attentions more on the blog and it reached a point where it because a viable prospect as a full career for me.
When would this have been?
Around 2013 or 2014 I think I made the decision to go full time. We started to get a lot of traffic around 2010, and I had noticed other sites popping up like Hodinkee and aBlogtoWatch. They both started later than me, but having done it full time, full force, they turned it into a business quicker.
I spoke to Ben Clymer about it early on, and he said I should be able to easily turn it into a business.
When did the whole Speedy Tuesday hashtag begin?
So, I was wearing a Speedmaster on holiday in 2012 and I posted a picture of it on Facebook and commented ‘it’s Speedy Tuesday,’ because it was Tuesday [Laughs].
And I realised the title was quite snappy and could maybe be a title for regular Speedmaster content on Fratello. This actually worked quite well for getting return visitors to our site, because the title was so clear and there was always more references and history to write about.
So, then once a week you’re writing about them…
Yeah, well at first it was once every couple of weeks or so but then as the response was so positive, we made it weekly. Then as we started using Instagram, we used that hashtag and people began engaging with it on a huge scale.
It’s amazing how these things catch on…
Yeah, I mean, we weren’t delivering the kind of engagement figures Watch Anish was getting, but in our own world, it grew and grew. We then began doing events under the same name, which is where Omega comes in.
At first, they were apprehensive about doing anything internet-related, but they eventually agreed to be involved because I told them I would do it with or without them [laughs]. The first event was in Noordwijk, which is a small Dutch town where the European Space Agency is located. They have all sorts of cool space related things to check out, so it made a good venue for this.
How did that then develop into the collaborative watch between Fratello and Omega under the same name?
I got an email from a Dutch astronaut, who I had followed as a kid, and he had a Seiko watch which I ended-up writing about which he had worn to space. He told me that his son had a few watches that he’d like to show me.
"The first event was in Noordwijk, which is a small Dutch town where the European Space Agency is located. They have all sorts of cool space related things to check out, so it made a good venue for this.”
Yeah, so he comes to meet me and he dumps these watches out of a plastic supermarket bag on my kitchen table. Among them was a Speedmaster, and I didn’t know too much about the reference but it had a radial dial and some NASA numbers engraved on it.
The only information he had about it was that his father was given it from another astronaut. I asked him if I could borrow it for a week or so to get more information about it and he agreed. I emailed Omega with some basic info, and they would ordinarily take some time to respond, but I had a phone call from a Swiss number within minutes asking me how and where I had gotten it from [laughs].
They explained that it was one of the last project watches produced for NASA from 1978 which were intended for the space shuttle programme. Omega shipped 56 watches which were called Alaska III.
Where did the original end up?
Well, he said to me that he didn’t have an emotional attachment to the watch, and that he would sell it to me, if I wanted it.
Presumably you jumped at the chance?
Not exactly, it’s a bit complicated. I told him that it was extremely valuable, to which he asked, “How much?” and I said, “Really, it’s a lot of money,” He replied, “Yeah, well if you offer me 10k, it’s yours.”
I said, “No.” As I said, these things are complicated. It would firstly have been an unfair deal and you’ve got to be careful because technically, it’s the property of NASA.
It hadn’t been properly decommissioned?
No, so it’s not totally clear how the watch ended-up with the astronaut who gave it to this gentleman’s dad. It’s likely that he just didn’t give it back after some testing [laughs].
Maybe he ‘forgot’? [laughs]
[Laughs] yeah, he ‘forgot’.
So, this became the inspiration for the first Speedy Tuesday collaboration with Omega right?
Was the real reason for it happening because you couldn’t have bought the original? [laughs]
[Laughs] Perhaps. In all seriousness though, it was more to do with the aesthetics. The radial dial is just so beautiful.
Absolutely, it’s a very nice design.
It was a lengthy process getting it into production, but credit, where credit due the CEO of Omega, Raynald Aeschelimann, said, “How can we work together with you around Speedy Tuesday, because I love the idea and we should do something special to celebrate that.”
I asked if we could celebrate five years of the hashtag by releasing a watch, and he agreed.
Was it immediately clear what you wanted to do?
Yeah, I knew I didn’t want to do a re-edition of something that was currently out there, so it had to be this really. I also didn’t want it to be an exact copy of the original, so we took it as inspiration and made some changes here and there.
Were there any tricky parts to the process?
Well the technical team were very keen to show off the latest processes, but we insisted on a few things. One of which was the crystal, as it had to be hesalite rather than the sapphire crystal they had suggested. We also requested that it have an aluminium bezel, to stay quite true to the original.
And they didn’t have any problems obliging these requests?
No, not at all.
And sales-wise, it went phenomenally…
Yeah, all of the 2012 pieces were allocated within four and a half hours, with 10,000 on the waiting list.
Wow… then the same kind of response to the Ultraman which you guys made last year…
Yeah, that went exceptionally well too.
How do you feel about the volume of these that are being flipped?
It bothers me to be honest and we’re trying to put measures in place to stop this from happening in the future. We want these watches to go to collectors who pay retail for them, it’s an unfortunate side to all this.
"We want these watches to go to collectors who pay retail for them...”
Give us an idea of what’s in the pipeline for Fratello in the coming months…
We are going to be hiring more writers and increasing the volume of everything that we’re doing. We’d like to introduce a lot more variety to the site to reflect the tastes of more collectors. We have plans for more Speedy Tuesday watches, of course, but it won’t be this year. We are also looking into video, as we would like to do something with that.
So, the Speedy Tuesday won’t necessarily be an annual thing?
No, we don’t want to do it just for the sake of it. It has to really make sense for it to be made.