For the latest edition of My Watch, we sat down with Michael Hickcox; a watch collector who has truly been involved with horology for as long as he can remember. His tastes range from independents like Philippe Dufour, Kari Voutilainen and F.P. Journe to Patek Philippe and IWC. Among such high caliber pieces, we wanted to find out which piece from his collection he could never part with.
Tell us a little about how you came to be interested in the world of horology…
It was when I was quite young, maybe nine or ten years old. My godfather, a man of means who made his money the old-fashioned way, happened to be our neighbour during the summer months and I always remembered him having these nice watches on his wrist. At this time, being pre-internet of course, he would have these catalogues delivered to the house, which consisted of Xeroxed images of watches which had been placed face down on a scanner [Laughs].
[Laughs] Very lo-fi…
You would get 12 watches in rows with a typewritten item number and price with information about each watch on another page; I still have some of these actually. The quality was diabolical but it was very enjoyable to learn about these watches and create a bond with my godfather. I had thought until recently that I became interested in watches during my late teens or early twenties, but after my godfather passed away, I discovered some correspondence between us in which I would have been ten or eleven. We would write back and forth regularly on the topic; it was very special to us.
That’s definitely an early age to become interested in watches, do you remember the earliest moment that you noticed your godfather’s watch?
No, I don’t actually, which is maybe interesting in and of itself because I just always remember it being there. There wasn’t a single moment where I became interested, it really has been for as long as I can remember. Watch collecting is such a social hobby, and like most hobbies, it’s as much about the people as the thing itself.
Quite right. So, how did the interest develop over the years?
Well, my godfather and I began travelling to watch fairs and I remember being on a work trip to Paris in 1998, and had plans to meet him in Zurich to attend the Basel Fair. I arrived at the Zurich Hauptbahnhof, checked my luggage at the station and immediately took a train to Schaffhausen to tour IWC.
[Laughs] Good to see you’ve got your priorities in order there…
[Laughs] And remember, this was April of ’98 because IWC was a very different company back then; it was very much a collectors darling. After this trip, I became a daily reader of TimeZone and a couple of other internet resources dedicated to watches.
How was the Basel Fair experience in ’98?
It was a very different experience to what you get today; much smaller in scale. If you wanted an A. Lange & Sohne catalogue, you had to go to the back of the IWC booth to get it at the bar.
Why was that?
Lange didn’t have its own booth, and had only been selling watches for three or four years by that point.
Were IWC just propping them up or?
A company called LMH (Les Manufactures Horologeres) owned IWC and most of Jaeger LeCoultre, so the two brands were helping to launch Lange at the time. Günter Blümlein, who headed up the company, became connected with Walter Lange in 1989, just as the Berlin wall was falling, to revive the defunct brand. In fact, the big date which is used on the Lange 1 was famously invented by Jaeger, but Blümlein told them that it would be used on the Lange, to their great frustration.
"It’s like the original Star Wars films coming out back then, versus the new ones coming out now. That’s how I feel about the fairs now, because the watches are cool but they’re not groundbreaking like they had been in the past."
Wow… given that it has become an icon of sorts, it’s hard to imagine it having been used in a Jaeger LeCoultre…
Definitely, and during this time, all Lange advertising and press was handled by IWC, so there was quite a lot that was done together back then.
Just briefly returning to the Basel Fair, what sorts of differences do you remember back then to how it is today?
It was certainly more of an industry thing back then, whereas these days it’s very common for collectors and enthusiasts to attend. It was relatively easy to get a meeting with a brand like Patek Philippe to talk with Philippe Stern. It wasn’t so clear that he knew what the ‘internet people’ were about, or that he really cared. ‘Internet people’ were viewed as a threat of sorts at that point [Laughs].
Brands were sceptical of forum members and bloggers?
Yeah, and of grey market dealers because the whole distribution mechanism was different then. It was about the dealers, whereas now with vertical integration boutiques, and partnering with the Hodinkee’s of the world, you have a dramatic change. It was more of an exciting time, in a sense, because the watch renaissance was in the midst of happening and new watch launches felt groundbreaking.
It’s like the original Star Wars films coming out back then, versus the new ones coming out now. That’s how I feel about the fairs now, because the watches are cool but they’re not groundbreaking like they had been in the past.
There’s been a big shift…
When the Lange 1 or the Lange Datograph came out, I mean, those changed modern horology right there and then.
It seems like we are experiencing a period of revival and reference to certain trends that have been popular in the past…
Definitely, I mean, a tourbillon was a big deal back then. It seemed more inventive and it was a really exciting time to be getting interested in it all. We also had the emergence of a good few independent brands, but they struggled in those days to get high quality materials for dials and cases.
Why is that?
It was just because the availability wasn’t there, you know, not everyone had a CNC machine in those days.
Do you think this potentially pushed certain manufacturers into finding creative work-arounds that maybe made the end result more unique?
I think you could certainly argue for that, I mean, certain Journe collectors appreciate the old Journe dials for their acute naïvety. A lot of collectors feel that the newer ones are ‘too nice’ [Laughs]. A lot of the brands which are quite large now, felt much more independent back then; Patek Philippe certainly did. These brands were making far fewer watches in the ‘90s, where as now, the volumes are vast. I remember being in a small room in 2000, when François-Paul Journe debuted the Resonance. I mean, can you imagine a brand doing something so unique today…
Almost certainly not…
A lot of these things have been crossed off the list, which means far less innovation.
Independent brands seem to have benefitted quite a bit from technologies like the internet and social media…
Absolutely, the whole sales and marketing system has changed. It’s not just the internet discussion groups and Instagram because you have some bloggers who are making high quality content which used to only be found in magazines.
How do you think these near constant fairs around the world affect the output of the major brands?
There is a sense that a lot of these watches are designed by a committee. A friend of mine posted a picture of a car designer the other day on instagram which said something along the lines of, 40 or 50 years ago, one person was responsible for producing the car’s design, not a committee.
It’s very true…
You hear about individual brands having to take their watches to a committee for approval, which means that you see all the companies within one group focusing on certain trends and data. It’s clear that someone at the top says, “It’s going to be a brown dial year.” That loss of identity and authenticity isn’t fun and it goes against the idea of a self-contained manufacture, which so many people find appealing.
It doesn’t inspire a romantic view of a brand. It seems far more practical than emotional…
For sure, I mean the Swatch Group is phenomenal at making watches; this is a company made of engineers and you get that feeling from it. I’ve been to the Breguet factory which is amazing, they make their own cases which very few companies do, but, for a company that romanticises the tourbillon so heavily, how many tourbillons do you suppose they make within their factory?
Zero. They have a centralised tourbillon facility for the group instead of making them at the individual brands. That kind of integration is a real shame.
Agreed. So, what was the first watch you owned?
I had a Casio Calculator watch [Laughs].
I think I still have it somewhere. I also had another watch, which I forget who made it, but you could program telephone numbers into it and then hold it up to the phone and it would ring out the numbers, so you didn’t have to dial.
[Laughs] Where on earth did you get that?
I saw it somewhere over the years and I just bought it; it was my favourite watch for a long time. It was in some ways a smart watch in the late ‘80s or early ‘90s. I had a few watches that weren’t particularly special, but then my godfather gave me a Patek Philippe Calatrava for my graduation which was very special.
"I bought an Omega Speedmaster, which I remember buying for $1,100 and sold for $1,150 a couple of years later; a tidy profit [Laughs]."
Was this your first mechanical watch?
No, I had bought a Rolex in New York off the street for fifty bucks or something like that, which didn’t last very long [Laughs]. I was certainly aware of the difference between quartz and mechanical at the time. I remember a high school friend of mine informing me that you could tell the difference between a real Rolex and a fake by whether the seconds hand ticked or swept.
Did yours tick or sweep [Laughs]?
That actually swept. It was mechanical but it was a piece of junk. I didn’t really know so much about the mechanics and the science behind the mechanism but I had an appreciation for watches and I had a clear idea of what I thought was cool and what I thought wasn’t.
So, did your godfather already own this Calatrava or did he buy it specifically for you?
He bought it for me. He never actually told me what he paid for it, but I think they were available for a couple thousand bucks at the time. I’m confident that I spent considerably more on Patek servicing it down the road.
And this watch was a daily wearer for you?
Yeah, particularly in that first year I had it, I wore it every day. It has quite a small profile to it, so it didn’t get dinged up too much, but then one day, the minute hand fell off…
It skated around the dial and scuffed up the beautiful satin brushed dial. I took it to my godfather to and he got it fixed for me, but this was when the collecting mentality kicked off, because he loaned me a Rolex GMT Master II Fat Lady with a Coke Bezel. The watch is still one of my favourites today because it has one of the best complications of any watch out there, with its adjustable hour hand. I was a management consultant flying around the US, where we have a lot of time zones, so it was very practically useful for me.
Before the age of the smartphone being the logical item to consult for the time…
From there, I bought an Omega Speedmaster, which I remember buying for $1,100 and sold for $1,150 a couple of years later; a tidy profit [Laughs].
[Laughs] Very tidy indeed…
I loved that watch, but I had issues with the bracelet pinching wrist hairs, so it was a little uncomfortable. Later, I bought a Jaeger Reserve de Marche in pink gold, and that was a terrific watch, I loved that. Following that, I bought a Lange 1 in pink gold.
At what point did you buy the Philippe Dufour Simplicity?
So, as we know, Dufour made a little over 200 of these watches, over a period of about 20 years. If my memory serves, I think they were sold in Japan first, but the process of acquiring this piece took years. Dufour was arguably the first independent to become quite famous and impactful in the industry, and the idea that you would wait two, three or some indeterminate amount of time for a watch could be frustrating. A little outrageous even.
The Simplicity became a must have watch at some point, and it didn’t feel quite as inaccessible then, as it does now. I don’t mean to say it’s not much money, but he was initially charging around CHF 40,000 for it. I think the final price of the Simplicity was closer to CHF 50,000. The thing that appealed to me was that you have this beautifully finished watch by a watchmaker that you can have a true connection to. I think this is the main thing that independents can offer you, that personal touch versus a giant conglomerate, which offers a very impersonal service.
It’s very important in a sector like this…
You know, some friends and I had a joke we used to say about Dufour, because there is a video of him driving home for lunch through the Vallee de Joux where he has some wine for lunch, as is quite normal in this part of the world. This, to puritanical Americans, the idea of having alcohol at lunch is quite strange. So, our joke was that we didn’t want to get the watch that he made after lunch [Laughs].
[Laughs] A few slips in the anglage…
Yes exactly [Laughs]. Though in reality of course, his finishing is absolute perfection.