The topic of the Omega Speedmaster has evolved a great deal over the past ten years or so, going from being something that collectors wouldn’t have considered acquiring, to being the hot, new, must-have piece. One duo, which have been long term believers in the Speedmaster, are the Davidoff brothers. Sacha and Roy have made it their mission, not only to buy as many rare versions as they can, but to broaden the knowledge pool, by hosting exhibitions and publishing books on the matter. We travelled to Geneva to dig around in their safe, to uncover that one Speedmaster that they would never sell.
So tell us a little about where your interest in watches began?
It came from my brother Roy, who was a passionate watch nut, even through his teenage years. I’m seven years younger than him and I remember thinking when I was a kid, enough already with the annoying watches. After a while it began to win my interest and by the time I had been given my first watch for my 18th birthday, I was hooked.
What was the first watch?
It was a Rolex Oyster Date which Roy had bought for me, while working with vintage watches. After this, I had just finished college and had started working in the United States, and he was working with Bovet in Geneva. He was pushing me and pushing me to come work with him in watches there. I finally gave in, and then the passion flipped, because I became the most obsessed watch-nut you could imagine.
How did that flip happen?
Well, I was working at Bovet and I just became obsessed with learning as much as I possibly could about watchmaking, this was also driven by the fact that I had began building a personal collection; I wanted to properly understand what I was acquiring.
How did you find working with Bovet?
Bovet isn’t a brand that I personally connect with, but it helped me to understand what I do like. These Bovet pieces were all gold clunky tourbillons, so I gravitated towards stainless steel, black dial, vintage chronographs.
So the collection was an escape of sorts from the day-job?
Pretty much. Bovet was work, and then the hobby or passion became vintage, and the stuff that was available at the time was just so unbelievably reasonable by comparison to these days.
What would you come across?
You could find a first series Rolex Submariner with a date and red writing on it, which is very rare to find in reasonable condition, for about £3,500. Most of these watches, being tool-watches, were heavily beaten and heavily polished as a result, but they just weren’t at the forefront of most collectors’ minds. Then you’ve got the flip side of my world, which was at Bovet, the entry level piece would cost you $25,000.
So you began collecting Rolex presumably early on?
No, I thought the opposite about these at the time. My brother had given me some advice at the time, saying that if I wanted to invest in something, that sports watches were the way to go. Particularly anything from the 1960s and 70s. My immediate reaction was, “you’re an idiot”. [laughs]
[laughs] And how right he was. Do you think he had any idea how far they would actually go?
No, he’s not a money-guy, but he saw the passion people had for them and fell in love for the same reasons they did. He, like many others, loved that these watches were designed with a purpose, on the wrist of a diver, a racing driver or a pilot. People at the time were investing in Patek Philippe and Vacheron Constantin, very traditional looking watches. People were particularly crazy about Patek though, all I was hearing was Patek, Patek, Patek.
And then suddenly you saw the light?
Yeah, suddenly I got it. These watches from the middle of last century were on the wrists of the likes of Steve McQueen and Paul Newman, not because of some kind of ambassador deal, but because they loved and used the watches. This connected with a lot of collectors, because the connection was genuine. Today, brands pay people like Nicole Kidman to appear in an advert, and there’s no spiritual connection.
Do you think people distrust this type of advertising now?
I mean, I guess in younger or less experienced buyers, maybe it does. But the passionate buyers and collectors don’t buy into all that.
So when did you become so obsessed with the Omega Speedmaster?
Well, the first watch I bought for myself was an Omega Speedmaster, which I bought while working for Bovet between Geneva and Japan. I had seen an advert in a magazine for a limited edition Speedy with a racing dial, which was produced for the Japanese market only. I immediately had to have one, and I bothered just about everyone in our Japanese office to find me one, but they were virtually unfindable in 2006. They ended up finding me one on some random website, before the days of organised forums and Instagram.
And what did you end up picking it up for?
It was $3,700, which isn’t a lot of money, but in the beginning you’re so terrified of making a mistake that you research like a maniac, scouring the internet for any information that you can find before dishing out the cash. It felt like a lot at the time. That’s one of the first Omega connections I can pin-point.
When did it become a full on obsession?
That came later. I left Bovet, and joined forces with my brother to start our own watch selling outfit. I sold off my modern collection of watches, with the exception of my Japanese racing dial of course, rounding up as much cash as we could to begin. With all this money we had rounded up, which wasn’t much, we had a few options. We could either buy one Patek Philippe, a small number of Rolexes or like, twelve Omega’s.
So it’s fairly clear what you decided to do…
[laughs] yeah, it was a financially driven decision where we needed to put together a website, and we couldn’t make one with two or three watches. We actually initially bought a Breitling, a Tudor, a Zenith, a couple of Rolexes and some Omega Speedmasters. We took pictures of the watches ourselves and listed them on Chrono24, and the Speedmaster got whipped up within seconds. At this point, I realised, maybe we were onto something.
How did people react when you started buying up Speedmasters?
A lot of people were literally laughing at us. When we would talk to dealers at shows, they would say “let me guess, you’re looking for a Speedmaster”. At that time, they didn’t even know the reference numbers for these watches, there were two categories, the 321 and the 861, in reference to the movement that was used. By this point, Rolex ‘Paul Newman’ Daytona’s were reaching around the $100k mark, so were out of our league, but then a rare prototype racing dial Speedmaster would trade for $12,000 - $15,000.
Although it was a little more difficult to find the right client for that type of thing, there was just so much more story and history in them.
"If you have enough money, you can buy near enough any Rolex you want, any Patek Philippe, but brands like Omega, Breitling and even Heuer, you just can’t, because there are so few out there. These owners become so emotionally attached to these pieces, that they just don’t become available."
When did you realise that there were actually a fair few very rare Speedmaster references?
I noticed after I was looking for something specific day-in, day-out on forums, with dealers and chatting with collectors. There are some that you just cannot find in good condition on a regular basis. I had a client who asked me to find him a nice reference 2998, and I said, yeah of course. Six months later, I’d scoured the universe and still not found a nice one. If you have enough money, you can buy near enough any Rolex you want, any Patek Philippe, but brands like Omega, Breitling and even Heuer, you just can’t, because there are so few out there. These owners become so emotionally attached to these pieces, that they just don’t become available.
And when they do, they go crazy…
Right, you know when you hold one of those mega rare ones, that you’re holding something very special, and these collectors feel that they’re important to hold onto.
So when did you open the store?
We were working out of our living room in 2013, we opened in 2014 and then we did our first exhibition about the Speedmaster in 2015. We had a policy in the beginning that we would sell all the watches we managed to acquire, even the absolute best. We would of course hold onto them for a short while and appreciate them briefly, but the business needed to make money. It wasn’t until a while later, that I realised the importance of keeping back some of the more rare and perfect conditioned pieces. We decided to put one per year away, until we had four in the safe; we now have five though, and that’s the one we’re showing in this article. This is the final one that we will not sell, because this kind of condition is becoming harder and harder to find. No one ever gets to see these.
It’s an honour…
We started out going around Geneva on a scooter with a backpack, and it’s nice to have a sort of memento of that. I still look at a picture of my brother and I on that scooter, when we would go and show watches to people in restaurants and bars.
You guys sound alarmingly close to those guys who go around on scooters with hammers, robbing watch stores in London…
[laughs] Yes, we looked exactly like those guys, but actually we were the opposite. Two chubby guys with beards, riding around Geneva.
Was there ever something you regretted selling that should maybe have remained a keeper?
Yes, there’s an infamous story. We had a piece in our safe, in the shop, which had a big sticker on it saying, ‘Do Not Sell’. We had a client come in, that had been recommended by Eric Wind, after he had told him, “If you want important Omega, that’s where to go”.
So he comes into the store, and Roy shows him the collection, and just says, “that’s it?”.
[laughs] Oh dear…
My brother felt kind of challenged, and pulls out this crazily rare reference and says, “oh yeah, well what do you think about that, then”; like, how dare you question my Omega authority. The guy say’s, “well, I think I want to buy that”. To cut a long story short he winds up buying the watch, for which he paid a very strong number, but I remember feeling like I regretted that one. Though, saying that, I don’t actually regret any of the sales we’ve made because it enables us to buy other things. We have our collection now, so now we can not feel bad about letting certain things go.
So the Speedmaster you’ve elected to show us, when did you become aware of this reference?
Straight away. In the beginning someone told me about a ‘lollipop’ Speedmaster and I was immediately on the hunt. The name caught me off guard, like, what’s this? a ‘lollipop’ Speedmaster? What are you talking about? So I began researching and just loved the look of this oversized bubble chronograph seconds hand. I had been told it was made for pilots and had learned that other brands were making this type of thing, but that it had been phased out because it was too heavy, or the lume would flake out. I didn’t care though, I had to have one.
"The name caught me off guard, like, what’s this? a ‘lollipop’ Speedmaster?"
How long did it take to find?
Honestly, it took me four years to find the right one.
And how did you find it?
Actually, a friend found it, as I had told him that I would pay a commission on top, regardless of the price. I went to meet the guy who had it, to try to negotiate, but he could see that I just had to have it, whatever he wanted. He even tried to increase the original asking price. [laughs]
Because he knew it was a no-limit type of thing for me. He was fair in the end, and I bought the watch. When you’re looking for that long for something, you’ve just got to buy it. This is the reason some lots at auction go wild, and a lot of people are left scratching their heads as to why. Like nothing is getting in the way - your kids will have to go to public school instead of private. [laughs]
Do you ever wear the secret stash out and about?
When we buy them, I’ll wear one for a few days maybe. But then it goes into the safe forever. I feel that it’s important to preserve these things; it’s an important historical object which becomes like a work of art, which should only be displayed. I feel like I’m not even worthy of the watch. [laughs]
Is there something out there that you’re yet to find?
Are you asking me what my white whale is?
Yes, what is your white whale?
I feel like we’ve gotten so lucky in the beginning that it’s become more about finding more of the same, which is becoming more and more of a nightmare. We had the Alaska Project prototype which we auctioned at Phillips, we had the Alaska III Radial dial which we sold privately. I mean, we’ve had a bunch of prototypes, but there are few watches that we could legally buy which we haven’t already.
What do you mean by that?
Well the Nasa-issued watches which have flown in space are the ultimate. But they’re property of Nasa, so couldn’t be bought by us.
Do you have any theories on the Omega Speedmaster that Buzz Aldrin wore on the Moon, which went missing?
Yeah, I mean, we’ve spoken with the Omega museum guys and the FBI has been chasing that one for a while with no luck. The generally understood theory is that it went missing during servicing, with rumours of it having appeared in London and California, neither of which proved reputable. The Buzz Aldrin Moon watch is on another level, in terms of its iconic status and importance. The Paul Newman owned Rolex ‘Paul Newman’ Daytona is cool, he was an actor and won some races. He’s an American icon, but this watch as been on the Moon, for gods sake! Though the Moon connection isn’t so present in our personal collection.
All of ours are pre-1961, and the first Speedmaster in space was during 1962 on the wrist of Wally Schirra. The Nasa connected watches are fun to hunt out and trade, but aren’t the ones for me to keep, personally speaking. There are some collectors out there who are crazily passionate about those things, much more so than us, and if there’s someone out there that can be more obsessed with a watch than I am, I believe they should be able to own it. It’s got to be passion, not just someone who has loads of money and wants to show off.
Not that Omega is a ’show-off’ brand typically…
Exactly, but if you knew what good condition reference 2915s were reaching privately, it’s huge numbers.
And near enough no one will recognise it…
They’ll probably be like, oh that’s cool. Is that the re-edition? [laughs]. Like, no you bastard, I spent $200,000 on this.
And they probably missed getting their allocation on one of the anniversary pieces…
I’m still waiting on mine with the Omega boutique, here in Geneva. Both Roy and I are waiting for those actually.
Oh, and Happy Birthday.
Glad you didn't forget.
You can visit the Davidoff Brothers' website by clicking here.