So often, in the watch collecting community, there are stories which go almost entirely untold. Lost artefacts which are miraculously found in impossibly perfect condition. This is very true of the story of this week's edition of My Watch, with Constantin Rau, a passionate collector and Porsche obsessive, whose attention to the finest detail of movement references, dial configurations, car parts and specifications is remarkable, to say the least. We sat down with Constantin in London’s South Kensington club to discuss his obsession and that one special piece that he could never part with.
So, tell us a little about how you first came to be interested in watches…
Well, the first watch I ever had, I had gotten from one of those kids magazines when I was around three or four years old. There are pictures of me wearing it, and that was a classic Mickey Mouse watch, with Mickey on the strap. My first watch was a Mickey Mouse watch [laughs]. Unfortunately I don’t still have it.
It went missing over the years?
Yes, I think so. Though, one watch I recently found from my youth is a white dialled, gold quartz piece that I think I only wore around three times a year. It was my childhood dress-watch of sorts [laughs].
Did you have many others?
There was also a Movado, which is quite interesting because it had a black dial, and in the place of the 12 index marker, it just had a golden dot, matching the case colour. It looked very cool, though a little on the smaller side at 34mm.
And you managed to hang onto that?
Yes, that one I have. I have all of my old watches apart from the Mickey watch. I plan on passing them onto my future children. In fact, I recently bought an old Marathon military watch which had been issued during the second Gulf war. I gave this to a young watch collecting friend to recognise our shared interest and friendship. I think he wears it every now and then. It’s pointless if you don’t share the passion; it’s not so fun if it’s a reclusive thing, sitting by yourself obsessing over dial configurations.
So seemingly, you’ve been involved with watches in some shape or form for almost your entire life thus far?
Yes, and the strange thing is that no-one in my family had a particular interest in watches. Not in the immediate family I grew up with anyway. My stepfather always had a very nice Jaeger Master Control, though he never shared the passion, it was just his personal watch. I remember my mother having a yellow gold IWC from the 1960s, with a calibre 854 I think, which had belonged to my grandfather. I had always known this was a special watch because of just how much she cared about it. It wasn’t particularly expensive, but it was important to her because he had owned it, there was a strong emotional connection which made it special to her. It wasn’t until some years later that a significant connection to watches would appear, through my father, whom I had never met.
At what point did this initial interest spark into an…
This happened when I bought my first watch with my own money. I remember passing by a local German jewellers around the age of eleven or twelve, and I spotted a watch in the window which captured my interest. The watch was a quartz titanium cased Boccia chronograph with a black dial, and I had calculated that if I worked enough during summer, I would be able to purchase the watch by the end of the holidays. I would walk past and it would still be there. In fact I went in and enquired a number of times through the summer too.
Do you remember the moment you finally bought it?
Yes, absolutely. After numerous visits and discussions, I bought the watch.
Did the young collector negotiate at all?
[laughs] No, germans don’t do that. But I remember the feeling of having found something, irrespective of it being not mechanical or rare, but that’s my first memory of being in that sort of ‘collectors’ mindset. I think the guy was genuinely really happy when I finally bought it, because he could sense my passion for this watch. It was one of those small jewellers that wouldn’t tend to shift much stock so often…
Maybe he thought he had a potential new collector on his hands…
Yes, quite possibly.
When did the crossover happen, that you realised mechanical movements were perhaps more interesting than quartz?
That came when I was having a conversation with my Spanish godfather, who in my opinion, is the archetypal gentleman. One of the things he would always have on his wrist, was a beautiful watch about which he would always make a point of explaining its beauty. I recall one of these conversations when he went into more detail about the inner-workings of the movement. The reason his seconds hand moved differently to mine; it was during this conversation that it clicked in my mind.
And your first mechanical watch, following those conversations, was what?
It was a Tag Heuer ’Steve McQueen’ Monaco.
I should specify that it was the reissue. However, I was forced to sell this a couple of years later as I had underestimated the cost of rent and bills. Something I’m sure many collectors will empathise with. The man-maths didn’t quite add up. Not long after that, I picked up a Panerai Luminor Base Logo, which was similar to the chain of events that lead to my buying the Boccia chronograph. I saw this thing in the window of a watch shop, and for the best part of six weeks, I would pop in, chat and try on the watch. I still have this in the collection.
Am I right in thinking that you’re quite a big collector of Panerai?
I wouldn’t say ‘big’, but I like them a lot. In 2006 / 2007 I became aware of the collecting community and when I became interested, Panerai were still… I don’t want to say unknown, but they certainly didn’t have the presence they have today. The brand hadn’t yet been leveraged in the way it has today. What struck me, was just how many hugely interesting people I was meeting through shared interest. So, though I wouldn’t class myself as a big collector, I’ve had several and am certainly actively engaged with the community. I still have my 26K, my Base Logo and the 448, and some others I have let go.
Since the brand changed somewhat?
You know, I was talking to a friend of mine from Hong Kong the other day, and we both agree that there are watches in the portfolio that we would still purchase, like the 8 day power reserve movement with the titanium case. It’s a very understated and cool watch, but a lot of the leveraging has killed, what was a distinct sub-set of watches. You will never see me buying a gold rattrapante Panerai, if anything, I’d rather buy a beaten up ETA movement version.
What was it that you liked so much about the brand?
It was the design, I remember seeing one on the wrist of someone in a bar, who I ended up talking with about the watch. I now know that watch to be a Pam00026B from 1999, and he explained to me that he had bought it when the brand was very obscure and unknown, it was an obsession for him, and shortly after for me also.
Were you becoming slightly more mechanically aware at this point?
Yes, I had started to learn what the gear train was, and what the different wheels do. What one ratio of teeth does to another. I actually took a couple of movements apart to understand this in greater detail, but I couldn’t put them back together [laughs]. It wasn’t like they were chronograph or perpetual or something, so those parts were relegated to a box.
You’re also very interested in cars, to say the least, was this from an early age also?
Oh yes, that obsession is far worse than watches. My wife despairs.
"Not the best way to endear yourself as a child, but saying that, not much has changed in that respect; I still correct details though I attempt to not pass the levels of social acceptability. I have become a particular fan of Porsche."
How early are we talking, and any brands in particular?
It was shortly after I was able to form coherent sentences. I had one of those carpets with the roads on them as a kid, and I had been given a box of toy cars, most of which from a brand called Siku. On the underside of these cars, there was data about each vehicle, so I would memorise the specifications of the cars and correct people at any given opportunity. I’d be sitting at a table with my uncle and someone would say “the new E500 has such and such”, which I would take great pleasure in correcting, if incorrect. Not the best way to endear yourself as a child, but saying that, not much has changed in that respect; I still correct details though I attempt to not pass the levels of social acceptability. I have become a particular fan of Porsche.
What is it about Porsche that you find so interesting?
I think it’s the approach of form following function, engineering over design. It’s less about the product and more about the purpose. Don’t get me wrong though, 95% of the modern Porsche portfolio, I wouldn’t want to buy, because it’s aimed at a different audience, however, they are a brand which has safeguarded the 5% which really engages enthusiasts. The other side of this, is that the collectors community are very engaged and detail-oriented. When you find someone with the same level of passion for something, it’s quite special. I recently went for coffee with someone with the same enthusiasm as myself, we had intended meeting for an hour and we ended up spending five hours discussing old adverts and gearbox ratios.
Goodness me. Do you see a lot of parallels between the car and horological worlds?
In some respects, yes, though I do think that it has been over-blown to the extent that there might be a typical person interested in both. The archetypal male consumer. I think the two communities are far more diverse, both men and women taking their sons and daughters for 6am drives to share their passion. The connection is overhyped on the marketing side, things like getting a Bentley car and a Breitling for Bentley watch to match; that’s an all-together different experience in my opinion.
Tell us about the story behind the watch you’ve brought with you today…
So, my father passed away before I had gotten a chance to get to know him, and I had reached out to his immediate family in an attempt to get to know who he was. The family received me very warmly, which I was initially overwhelmed by. It became quite quickly apparent that he was very much watch interested, so there was a kind of eureka moment, where I hadn’t quite understood where this obsession had come from, it was almost genetic. So I had gone over to the house and the wife of one of his old friends had told me she had an alarm clock of his that she wanted me to have. She had gone to fetch it and, to my great puzzlement, had returned with a watch, which she handed to me.
"It became quite quickly apparent that he was very much watch interested, so there was a kind of eureka moment, where I hadn’t quite understood where this obsession had come from, it was almost genetic."
So, I asked her, “where is the alarm clock”, to which she replied, “that’s it, because it’s so big”. I was completely overwhelmed, as I had just been handed a Zenith Cairelli military chronograph. In fact, I said that I felt I shouldn’t accept this because it’s so valuable, but she insisted that I take it. I mean, it could have been absolutely anything and it would have meant equally as much; anything to get a little closer to knowing my old man. Even an old Swatch or a note in a book. Shortly after, I texted a close watch collecting friend of mine, saying, “you aren’t going to believe what has just happened.”.
Wow, when was this?
This was two years ago. It was the end of 2015 during December. It’s the kind of thing that you never imagine might happen, and then out of nowhere, it does. Subsequently, I researched the piece as thoroughly as I could, looking into double-signed dials and military watches. It’s very unusual to see one in such crisp condition, as they were typically used without much consideration scratches and knocks. The bezels were made out of aluminium and would wear down considerably because of the soft nature of the metal by comparison to the steel case. The teeth on the bezel would become blunt when polished or used heavily, changing the profile of the watch. This one, because it wasn’t military-issued, lived most of it’s life in a drawer, as my father had gifted it to his godchild who had never bonded with it. All the details of the watch, I became completely obsessed with.
What types of military personnel were they typically issued to?
There are a number of rumours in and around these watches, but the story that I have come to believe as true, is that they were ordered by the Italian Air Force (AMI) which would be engraved into the case-back, if issued. Through some unknown turn of fate, the Italian Military ended up not accepting the full contracted amount of watches, and so they were kept by the retailer A. Cairelli in Rome, with a number of them ending up being made available to civilians. The civilian versions are usually identifiable by their cleaner condition, but this one has aged nicely, the bezel was originally black, but has faded to a subtle blue.
And there are a number of versions of these right?
Yes, the military issued tenders for both CP1 and CP2 specifications, that were then manufactured by the likes of Breitling, Leonidas and Zenith. The CP1 was slightly smaller and the specific Breitling reference 817 was manufactured for the Italian Army helicopter pilots. My Cairelli's movement is based on a Martel chronograph ébauche, which were also used by Universal Geneve. I have an H.P.C. Universal Geneve which uses this movement, which you can tell by its distinctly wide sub-registers. The later Zenith Cairelli reissue appears different, as they used the El Primero movement, which were closer together.
Did that retailer survive?
No, I don’t think so. I think Zenith attempted and failed to get the naming rights when they did the re-issue. So maybe someone still holds the I.P..
Do you have any idea how many were issued vs. civilian sold pieces?
Not really. There has been a lot of guess work, but I don’t know. What we do know, is that roughly 2,500 were produced in the 1960s and 1970s.
Do you have any interest in picking up more of these?
I’d like to add a CP1 817 to the collection, and I know of one somewhere in incredible condition with a story to match. There is also a sister watch from Universal which was built to the same specification, but these have already gone stratospheric, because they’re so rare. There are other watches which have come close in spirit, because they used the same case manufacturer though. To me, it’s the perfect pilot's chronograph.
And clearly something you would never part with…
No, certainly not. Someone asked me the other day, actually, why it mattered so much and I told them that it’s because it rounded-off a story that had sort of already been written. It was the final piece of the puzzle that I had been searching for. When you’re trying to find out information about someone that you share so much with, but have never met, and in the end you find that you had a shared passion, you can’t get better than that.
"Watches have a unique ability to carry a story that other things just can’t. It’s an incredibly important memento to me."
It’s funny how people who aren’t even remotely watch-interested can understand when they hear the story. They hear about me travelling far and wide to family members and old friends of his and they totally get it. They understand the significance of it ticking-away on my wrist, having previously ticked on my father's. Watches have a unique ability to carry a story that other things just can’t. It’s an incredibly important memento to me. You know, a lot of watch guys and gals I meet, don’t believe that it came from a drawer, purely because that has become one of those buzzwords for a well-conditioned piece. But I saw the drawer it came out of [laughs] and I can guarantee that the person who handed me this, has no interest in telling me that it lived in a drawer. It is a genuinely forgotten-in-the-drawer piece.
Quite a remarkable story…
I think that’s why the lume still works. Sometimes when I get a little too obsessed, I light it up and go take a picture of it glowing in a dark room [laughs]. That’s something that shouldn’t really be admitted. Forget I said that.