Hunting for vintage watches can be, in some respects, similar to an old English saying; you wait ages for a bus, and suddenly three come along at once. The search for the perfect piece, in original condition can be a gruelling task, spanning years. This certainly had been the case for Philip van Dedem on his hunt for the perfect Universal Geneve. On the cusp of launching his new auction analytics platform, The Collectors Index, we thought we would catch up with Philip and talk about his search for that special piece.
So Philip, how did you first become interested in collecting things, generally speaking?
I would say that I was heavily influenced by my grandfather, who was a highly dedicated collector of Dutch and Flemish old master paintings. When I was young, seeing this, it inspired me to start collecting stamps and coins. From that I moved into collecting pocket knives, which resulted in me owning around fifty knives in total.
Presumably this transition to knives was during the teenage years?
[laughs] Yes, it was. After this I began collecting photography and art for a period, which I still do now, but my collecting obsession has settled with watches.
What was it about your grandfather’s obsession that sparked this interest?
The thing I found interesting was the idea of hunting for something. He really knew exactly what he was looking for, and so you start to understand identifying quality of work over just a ‘big-name’ artist. So this is something I applied to watch collecting, focussing on more niche and lesser known brands who make or made quality watches.
What kinds of brands are you focussing on?
At the moment I find myself searching for Benrus, Bovet, Certina, Clebar, Cyma, Doxa, Eberhard, Enicar, Gallet, Jadur, Leonidas, Lemania…
This is a big list… [laughs]
I could go on. But there are a few that I’m constantly looking for. And of course Universal Geneve. But that has become slightly less niche after Hodinkee started spreading the word.
What is it that you like about these watches so much?
I like that most of the brands aren’t producing any more, so there’s this ‘old master’ feeling to them. That the artist or watchmaker is no longer around to produce these pieces. Though, saying that, I do buy big brands too, like Audemars Piguet, Vacheron Constantin and Patek Philippe.
I like that most of the brands aren’t producing any more, so there’s this ‘old master’ feeling to them. That the artist or watchmaker is no longer around to produce these pieces.
So the running theme in your collection seems to be with chronographs, is that fair to say?
Yes, I would definitely say that I’m a chronograph collector. The majority of watches I own feature this complication. Most of which are from the 1940s to the 1960s, there were some really great watches being made during this period.
What was the first chronograph that you bought? was it vintage?
Actually no, the first chronograph I bought was an IWC Portuguese. I picked that watch up while I was interning at a private bank in Zurich, and I had overheard that senior staff could get a discount at IWC. Me being an 18 year-old intern, just rocked up to the branch director and plainly asked if I could buy one with the discount. He agreed, probably finding it somewhat amusing. After my internship was finished, I returned to Zurich, where the watch was delivered, and by this point, the whole office knew what I was up to. They made all these teasing comments like “Nice watch!” or “Don’t lose it!”, thinking how can this kid afford this watch.
And you still have this watch?
Yes, absolutely. You should never sell your first watch.
At what point did you buy your first vintage piece?
My first vintage watch was the Universal Geneve RLM.
And what is that exactly?
It’s a German military pilot’s watch. It was issued to the Reichs Luft Marine, hence RLM, and it was issued during the Nazi regime.
And where did you find it?
It was in a very small German auction house.
Did you know much about it, ahead of buying it?
Not really, but I knew that I wanted a steel Universal Geneve chronograph, so it fitted the bill. This was my only search criteria back then, but I managed to get it very cheaply. It was only later that I found out it was unfortunately a re-dial. But this watch was delivered to me during my summer holidays in France, and the watch arrived a day earlier than I got there, and I remember getting a very confused call from my mother saying that a watch with a huge swastika photo had arrived in the mail.
Yeah, the auction house had included an image of some Nazi pilots next to their planes with swastikas everywhere. My mother was asking me what the hell I was up to, but after I explained that it was just a rare watch with an unfortunate connection, she got it.
So this watch must have turned you onto spotting condition, given that it was a re-dial?
Yes, absolutely. This got me to spot originality over rarity on all the pieces I bought since.
So after realising this, what piece did you set your sights on?
The Universal Geneve Climate Proof. At this time, they were trading for around £5k - £6k in good condition.
How did you hear about this model?
Well, after buying the RLM, I started to research the brand online and I had bought the Universal Geneve book, and this one stood out to me. I had decided I wanted a gold watch, and this one ticked all the boxes for me.
What was it that you liked so much particularly about this watch?
Well, the size is perfect, the dial configuration is just so nicely designed, the signature is great, the round pushers. Everything about it speaks to me. I love the idea that they thought the watch would become more ‘climate proof’ by adding this extra inner case back.
It’s an odd issue to address…
Yeah, and most of the ones I have seen have had messed up looking movements. So clearly it didn’t do its job too well. [laughs]
So how did the hunt for this watch begin?
I started online and it seemed to be that a lot of them were in Italy, so I started talking to a few Italian dealers and over the past few years I was looking, I was offered around two or three through them. Some of them were the smaller size of 34mm and some my preferred size of 37mm.
And how were the conditions of these pieces?
Varied. One was good, but it was missing its inner case-back, which is the part that makes it ‘climate proof’, so it would be silly to buy one with that part missing. The real problem with these pieces through the dealers was that they were asking for crazy money for them.
So what was the next step?
Next step was auction. I looked a lot at eBay, as back then, there were an abundance of really good Universal’s available. But unfortunately, none of these were the Climate Proof. I then saw one had been made available through Christies, it went up to CHF 12,000; obviously I was outbid. But then shortly after, one popped up in a small auction house with a low estimate.
I then saw one had been made available through Christies, it went up to CHF 12,000; obviously I was outbid.
One of your auction houses that you refuse to share the details of?
[laughs] Yes, a secret auction house. So I registered to telephone bid and completely forgot about it. I was in a meeting here in London when they called. I politely excused myself and started bidding. I was the opening bid, and no one else hopped in. Hammer went down, and I got it.
Just like that. Years searching. It couldn’t be more perfect…
So how are things coming with the Collectors Index? are you about ready to launch?
Yes, the finishing touches are being applied and we should be live next week.