There are very few people who, at such a young age, have amassed such a breadth of knowledge and experience as SJX, the founder and editor of SJX Watches; an online platform which delivers articles about independent watchmaking. Being avid followers of his content, we thought we’d have a chat with the man behind the blog about how he got into horology at the ripe old age of twelve.
Tell us a little bit about how you first became interested in watches, because it was at a fairly young age right?
Yes, well my mother had wanted to gift me a watch when I was twelve years old. It needed to be one that would last many years, decades even, so that it would be an investment of sorts.
And were you involved with the decision of what it might be?
I was given a budget of a couple of hundred dollars, so I began searching the internet to get an understanding of what was out there. This is when I first came across watch forums, and I was captivated by them. My passion for watches all stems from this moment.
So what did you end up buying?
After quite extensive research, I finally settled on a Tag Heuer 2000 series. It was automatic, of course.
Oh, so you managed to skip the whole quartz phase from day one…
Yes, my research quickly steered me away from making that mistake. This would have been around 1997 or 1998, and the forums were very educational back then, only drawing genuine enthusiasts who had equal measures of passion. It made my horological education very swift.
Do you think the world of online watch-forums has changed considerably since you experienced them back then?
I’d say so, because a lot of the forums that are thriving these days tend to focus on entry level, or mid-range watches. Today, the higher-end action seems to find itself on the blogs, with exception to the extremely narrowly-focussed forums which cover topics like military watches for example, these remain very active and educational.
At what point did you decide to launch a platform of your own?
Well, the blog started in 2011 and it was just for fun initially. I used the Blogger platform, to just have a place to write things I felt I wanted to say. There was something a bit more permanent and personal about a blog that was more appealing to me, than forum commenting.
What were the early articles about?
Mostly just things I found interesting at whatever moment I was writing, often about independent watchmaking, which remains a central topic to the site until today.
Did you find that it gained traction quickly?
It was mostly my friends and people I knew that were reading it, so it wasn’t large. It took around two years to gain a wider audience, but by virtue of the content, it remained relatively limited; independent watchmaking is still a relatively niche interest.
So you took a more qualitative approach to the content?
My ego would love to let me agree with that, but the truth is that it’s just a niche topic.
[laughs] Fair enough…
I just wrote an article about Daniel Roth, and there are only 26 owners of this watch out there in the world.
That’s incredibly niche, did the article get 26 reads?
[laughs] It got a good response, I think people appreciate the human element to his work.
So is the blog your primary business these days?
Yeah, it’s going quite well at the moment. Watch brands in Singapore took a while to catch-up with the internet, but now they are advertising online quite a lot, which makes up most of our income. I think that this growth will only continue.
Tell us a bit about how your collection developed from the first piece that you bought…
Well, I like to buy unusual watches made by independents, clearly. As for complications, I became very interested with the chronograph.
Unusual in what sense?
It’s hard to define exactly what constitutes ‘unusual’, but the types of things that excite me would be an Urban Jurgensen perpetual with a unique dial, or an early F.P. Journe tourbillon. I really appreciate watches that utilise a lot of hand-craft. The Seiko Eichi is a good example of that. I don’t own one, but perhaps one day I will.
What was the first significant independent piece that you bought?
Significant in a sense of ‘watchmaking’, I would say the F.P. Journe tourbillon, of which only 40 or 50 were ever made. I picked that up around four or five years ago, I think. The first substantial purchase I made was in 2005, which was a A. Lange. & Sohne Lange 1, which was still quite novel in its design back then.
Are we right in thinking that the unusual placement of the date was what drew you to buy this?
Absolutely. The design, the Lange quality, which was particularly special back then, the heft of it. It was exceptional 20 years ago.
They seem to be one of the only brands that have maintained such a high level of manufacture while upscaling their output…
For sure, their watches are still tremendously well made. Certain elements have evolved, but they are still excellent.
On a separate note, can you tell us about your experiences with the differences between the European and American markets by contrast to Asia’s tastes…
Well, there is no real ‘Asian market’ per-se, since the largest markets in the region, China, Hong Kong, Japan and Singapore are quite distinct in their individual tastes. Japan for instance leans toward classical styling, moderate case sizes and historically faithful design. Also, if we are talking about new watches, much of the European market is still driven by Asian tourists.
One differentiating factor is that is that perhaps there are more europeans collecting vintage watches, especially certain brands like Universal Geneve and Eberhard for example.
Do you think there is logic or reason to this?
Historical reasons, yes. Brands like Eberhard and Longines were strong in Italy during its post-war economic miracle, so there are probably more of these types of watches around than in somewhere like Thailand, for instance. Vintage is a big thing in Asia, but the focus is primarily around established names like Rolex and Patek Philippe.
"Brands like Eberhard and Longines were strong in Italy during its post-war economic miracle, so there are probably more of these types of watches around than in somewhere like Thailand, for instance. Vintage is a big thing in Asia, but the focus is primarily around established names like Rolex and Patek Philippe."
That’s an interesting point, because following the war, distribution to certain regions would have been limited to say the least…
I’d say it's more dependent on the economic performance and tastes of any given market. IWC has been historically strong in Japan, even before its bubble economy boom in the 1980s. Similarly, IWC has always been strong in German speaking markets like Austria, for example. Patek Philippe was strong in Latin America, where it enjoyed the late 19th and early 20th century commodities boom, hence the numerous Latin American retailer signed Patek Philippe watches.
Some of the best looking double signed dials come from those regions. A lot of the brands that co-sign dials tend to be very vanilla, but there are some very interesting logos that made their way onto dials…
So how is the Asian auction market in your opinion?
Historically, auctions have been held in Hong Kong for a long time, because it’s a very big market and tax-free. The big houses always do just fine here, and there is a lot of local demand for the types of watches ordinary consumers would buy; mostly modern and jewelled watches. Perhaps one flaw at the moment, is having overly large sales in Hong Kong. The catalogues tend to be absolutely enormous, which means some lots might fall through the cracks.
They are quite large. Do you think that they’re intentionally going for volume sales over the more specialist auctions that typically find themselves in Geneva?
Possibly, and I can understand why they would do it; that’s just the nature of the business. The buyers' market there is slightly different, in that there are more casual shoppers who would be searching for a relatively affordable modern or jewelled piece, so you have to include a Cartier Santos 100, a Rolex Daytona, an IWC pilot’s watch and so on.
Do you tend to buy much at auction?
On occasion I do. I’m platform agnostic, in a sense, because I just go to where the things I want are being offered. Saying that, I do avoid anything that could be unreliable or untrustworthy.
Does the live element of the auction appeal to you at all, or do you prefer to move in the shadows?
I wouldn’t be buying anything particularly expensive or high profile, so I don’t mind bidding live for the watches I want.
You’ve written a lot about Dufour over the years, can you tell us about when you first encountered his work and what you found so fascinating?
I met him in the late 1990s in Singapore, maybe 1998 or 1999 because he had travelled out here to sell a Grande Sonnerie wristwatch. The notion of the whole thing was quite exotic, because having a middle-aged Swiss man fly all the way to Singapore to try and sell a watch worth $800,000 was quite unusual. He was known for his finishing in a similar fashion to his reputation of today, and it was very clear when examining the watch.
How did it come about that you were invited to meet with him?
His agent had organised a gathering, which I got to know about through Timezone, which was the only real watch-forum of the time. I decided to go along to the meet and see the watch; things were far more casual back then.
"The cost of the piece barely entered my thoughts, because at that age, you can’t really fathom that sort of cost. It’s kind of like seeing a $100m painting in a museum; you know what it costs, but it’s so enormous that it’s irrelevant to you personally."
Did you get to touch the watch, as you would have been very young right?
Yes, I did [laughs], I was 13 years old. It was a different time, because you didn’t get hangers-on or instagram-content hunters. The watch was absolutely incredible, it felt like holding an artefact that belonged in a museum. The cost of the piece barely entered my thoughts, because at that age, you can’t really fathom that sort of cost. It’s kind of like seeing a $100m painting in a museum; you know what it costs, but it’s so enormous that it’s irrelevant to you personally.
Life before Instagram. Do you think there are issues with how much of a factor social media plays in the industry right now?
It’s both a positive and a negative. It’s made the hobby more accessible to people, helping them learn and appreciate watches on a greater scale than before. On the flip side, it’s also made things noticeably more shallow, because it makes people just want to see, and not go beyond this.
Already, in the ‘early days’, people were talking about the ‘display-back-phenomenon’, with watchmakers finishing a watch merely to the degree that could be seen through the glass. You read about restaurants that have been designed specifically to be lit in such a way that they lend themselves well to being posted on social media. Watches share some similarities, I think.
It’s strange to see an industry that has existed for such an absurdly long time reacting to such a modern thing. How do you feel about the new breed of ‘hyper-critics’, that have emerged on Instagram?
Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, and everyone will have their audience. Fortunately, the internet is efficient in a sense that the nonsense-spouters tend not to gain much traction.
There is a certain democracy to it. Are we right in thinking that you broke a story about Dufour’s decision to extend the intended production of the Simplicity to over 200 pieces?
Yes, I did. I heard about it through one of the people who purchased one of the additional four. Since that, I believe that he has made or is making more.
What was your initial feeling about this?
I’d say I was surprised.
Were collectors angry at all?
Not particularly, from what I’ve heard. I think Philippe has enough goodwill with collectors that they’ll let it pass, knowing that he needs to make a living. It’s not like he’s flying around in a private plane or living in a mansion in Monaco.
It seems completely justifiable. What do you make of the performance of the Duality at Phillips in New York?
The performance was a surprise to me, but then no single piece makes a trend; someone just really wanted that example.
Likely because it was number 00…
Yeah, for sure.
It hammered at $750k right?
Yes, $915k all in.
Did you attend the Geneva auctions?
Yes, I flew out.
What were your feelings about these sales?
It was like any other Geneva sale, I’d say. Mostly expected with a handful of highlights.
Do you feel like things are cooling off a little?
Not really, but maybe there was a bit of fatigue because it happened so soon after the New York auction. It’s a bit like Formula 1 races, because it’s all the same people in various cities around the world.
What were your stand-out lots?
The Omega tourbillon was very interesting. It’s historically important, but I hadn’t anticipated it achieving quite what it did.
Where did you think?
Around CHF 400k - 500k, so the result was very surprising to me.
"The industry will be forced to consolidate, because they are over capacity. I fear some of the weaker independents may go under. Stronger brands will continue to grow stronger, and control more of their distribution."
How do you see the modern watch industry developing over the next five to ten years?
The industry will be forced to consolidate, because they are over capacity. I fear some of the weaker independents may go under. Stronger brands will continue to grow stronger, and control more of their distribution.
Do you think the majors will begin to adopt an e-com strategy?
Yes, but it will be in dribs and drags, here and there for the medium term. Unless the house is on fire and the roof is coming down, watchmakers don’t rush into anything.
For vintage, how do you see this developing from where it is now?
Vintage will continue to have their appeal, but I feel certain segments of the vintage market are overheating; particularly in areas that have convincing aftermarket parts being made.
Brands like Rolex for instance?
Not exclusively, but vintage watches were mostly made with low-tech equipment, which by definition, means reproduction with modern equipment and knowledge shouldn’t be too difficult. The biggest danger in my eyes is that a lot of people who are investing heavily, have been in the game a short time and have not seen things go bust. There seems to be a mentality that things will continue to grow forever. The market for Rolex Bubble-backs, Princes and so on, is not as hot as it used to be.
On a final note, what is coming up for SJX Watches?
I’m trying to build a team, slowly but surely. The regular readers can expect much of the same, but just hopefully more of it.
Please visit www.watchesbysjx.com