In this interview, Don Levison explains how wristwatches evolved from pocket watches and ladies’ bracelet watches, weighs in on the advantages of collecting vintage Hamiltons, and shares his unabashed enthusiasm for Patek Philippe, Cartier, and other classic brands.
I got interested in pocket watches from working on mechanical things. I had an old car, and working on it gave me immediate satisfaction. It’s a thrill to fix something and get it to run. But I realized that keeping an old car in San Francisco wasn’t the most efficient thing to do, so I guess pockets watches became a substitute. From pocket watches I moved into wristwatches. Pocket watches are still my primary interest, but I love classic wristwatches, like old Rolex Bubblebacks and things like that.
It was supposed to be a retirement hobby, but it began to take over my life. I’d buy a set of screwdrivers, a pair of tweezers, and then I’d go to a meeting and buy some crystals or main springs. Now I’ve got a large supply of parts.
I probably bought my first watch to restore in about 1970. It helped that my dad was a jeweler, and that when I was a little kid I used to run errands for him downtown. When I got older, I still knew all his jeweler buddies, and as I got interested in watches they’d offer me wristwatches that came from estates. So in the early days I was buying Patek Philippe Tank watches for $300 to $500 and maybe selling them for $700 to $800. The same watches today are worth about 10 times that.
Restoring watches was just a sideline for about 20 years. Then, in 1991, I decided to leave my day job and step from one thing into another. Today I buy old watches and restore them, which means doing whatever it takes to get them in good running order and make them attractive. Then I try to find a buyer. I work privately, keep my own hours, and I don’t have a shop, which keeps my overhead low. And my commute from upstairs to downstairs is a hundred feet.
Collectors Weekly: What are some of your favorite watches in your collection?
Levison: My inventory is my collection. I’m always wearing something fun and unusual, usually just to test it. Today I’ve got on a Hamilton Ventura. The Ventura is a classic watch that’s rather famous among wristwatch collectors because it was one of the first models to use a battery. It was Elvis Presley’s favorite watch. He bought a lot of them and gave them away, and he wore one on a regular basis, including in his movies. The repro Ventura with quartz movements inside became increasingly popular after Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones wore them in “Men in Black.”
I’d say my favorite classic wristwatch is the Movado Polyplan. I think it was patented or created in about 1912, and from what I understand they made them into the mid-1930s, but very few of them. I’ve owned a bunch over the years and have sold some to the Movado Museum.
I have two Polyplans now, and I think I have the earliest one documented. The serial numbers for this series start at 400000, and mine is number 400080. As far as what I’ve read in books, the numbers go up to 401600 or 401700, So if we figure they made 1,700 watches from 1912 to 1936, that’s only about 68 watches a year for this particular model, and that’s not very many. I suspect their sales were much lower during the Depression as this was an expensive item, and is probably what caused the company to cease production.
The watch actually comes in three sizes, but the movement is the same in all of them. They called the movement Polyplan because it’s in three dimensions. The shape of the movement rises at about a 35-degree angle, plateaus to a flat surface, and then drops off again at about a 35-degree angle on the other end. It’s made that way to fit the shape of your wrist—the watch wraps around it.
Gruen came out with a competitive watch called the Curvex, but the movement inside was pretty flat. It wasn’t angular like the Polyplan. The Polyplan was very raked, and the movement fit into the case in a big curve. So it was very snug on your wrist. The more desirable ones are quite long—I think 55mm for the big model, 45mm for the smaller ones. It wasn’t uncommon for watchmakers to produce different sizes of the same model using the same movement. Rolex, Patek Philippe, Audemars Piguet or any of the major makers tended to use certain calibers of movements, and each of those movements would fit into several different sizes of cases.
Collectors Weekly: What is it about the wristwatch that makes it so desirable?
Levison: A wristwatch is a useful object that you can wear every day. Until cell phones came along, most people wore a wristwatch. Today, young people tend to go without them. One of my sons is a geek and he uses a cell phone, but when he goes to a party or something, he likes to wear one of the older watches I’ve given him. It’s one of the few pieces of men’s jewelry that isn’t considered effeminate or too showy. Not everybody wants to wear big gold chains, and earrings, and that kind of stuff.
Anyone can wear a wristwatch, but people buy a watch for different reasons. The most obvious is for telling time, but a wristwatch can also make a statement. It can be very flashy with a lot of dials, moon phases, and this and that. Of course, nobody really uses moon phases anymore. Farmers used them on pocket watches to determine whether it would be a full moon or a crescent moon. So did travelers, who didn’t want to travel by stagecoach on nights when there was no moonlight—there were no streetlamps on the open road, and highwaymen were prevalent.
So the moon phases actually had a function when they were first used on watches. But today it’s mostly just for show and fun. I like moon phases on dials. You also have perpetual calendars that automatically adjust for the odd days of the month and leap year, and you have repeater wristwatches with a little lever on the side of the watch that strikes out the hours, quarters, and minutes. Chronograph wristwatches help you time an event, automatic wristwatches don’t require winding, the list goes on and on.
“The Ventura was Elvis Presley’s favorite watch.”
When I lecture on the development of a watch, I always like to say that watches absorbed most of the creative energy of mankind for nearly 500 years until the advent of the automobile. Only firearms might have competed with watches in the 16th century because they were mechanical and also incorporated all kinds of decorative arts. Almost every decorative and precious substance was used in watches over the centuries. The same was true, to some extent, for firearms but the watch, I think, was king. It required a lot more development in terms of precision and accuracy.
For example, there’s a good book called “Longitude,” by Dava Sobel, about the struggle to create a clock that could tell time at sea accurately enough that ships could determine their location. Many ships wrecked because they didn’t know where they were. And so the British government offered a prize to the person who could develop a clock that could accurately tell longitude at sea. If you knew the time, you could tell longitude, and that was what they were really after, because they could already determine latitude with their existing instruments. A clockmaker named John Harrison finally took the prize.
Collectors Weekly: What are your clients looking for in a watch?
Levison: I’ve worked with some pretty interesting characters over the years. Watches say something about the wearer, such as how successful they are. Some people choose to wear big, heavy gold watches like a Rolex President, which I happen not to care for. I think they’re too heavy, too gaudy and ostentatious. I like something a little subtler, like a Patek or a Sport Hamilton.
I sold a Patek to the CEO of a corporation, and he said, “I’ve got all my people in the room, my board of directors and the senior vice presidents, and they all like to wear Rolexes because they want to show they can afford a watch like that. But I just sit here with my little Patek Philippe with its leather strap, and I know that I’ve got the best watch in the room.” It didn’t look fancy or say much from the outside, but he enjoyed wearing it. The scarcity and quality appealed to him, as well as its subtlety. He knew it was one of the best watches made.
I think Patek is one of the top names, if not the top name. One of their great slogans went something like, “You don’t own Patek. You’re only its caretaker for a period of time.” The idea is they’re durable if taken care of, and they’ll last for decades and be handed down for generations, which is true. They’re really well made. You go out and buy a cheap watch, and it may or may not last for various reasons, but often they aren’t as well cared for as an expensive watch.
People also look at a watch as an investment. And that’s relatively important to what I do. People buy these things not only to wear them and enjoy them, but so that the value will increase. Prices go up and prices go down on various models, categories, and brands of watches based on various factors, including economics, fashion, and the desires of collectors.
Interest has actually declined in the very early collectors’ pocket watches because a lot of the older collectors who kept them in good order have died or retired. And people are concerned that there’s nobody left to restore them and keep them running. It requires a much greater degree of horological knowledge to appreciate these older pieces because there are many more technical elements involved in them than in most of the modern watches. Some newer watches, however, are quite complicated, and because parts are generally not sold to watchmakers, the watch must be returned to the factory for service at great expense. Time will tell how this works out!
Collectors Weekly: Are vintage and antique wristwatches more sought-after than new watches?
Levison: Not necessarily; it’s just a different group of collectors, different people who like different things. It’s like cars. Some people love cars from the 1950s, with the big wings and chrome, and other people like new sports cars. It’s the same with watches.
Collectors Weekly: When was the wristwatch introduced?
Levison: I think the first wristwatch or bracelet watch was made for one of the English kings back in the 18th century, probably George III. He was a big collector. He supported the sciences to a great degree, and I think somebody made him a bracelet watch, or maybe it was for his queen. I just can’t remember the first one, but I can speak more specifically about early 19th century models I’ve owned from France and Switzerland. They made bracelets that incorporated pocket-watch movements.
Some had covers that popped up so the face was hidden. You couldn’t see the dial unless you pushed a little button, and it would pop open so you could read the time. Others had the dials incorporated into the watch face so you could read it, just like a wristwatch today. Others were portable or transferable. You could wear the bracelet without the watch in it, or you could snap a watch into a holder that was incorporated into the bracelet.
The first commercial wristwatches I’m aware of were produced during the late 19th century, around 1870 or so. They were usually made of silver, and while they closely resembled wristwatches which were to follow, they must not have been very popular as not very many have survived.
The ones I’ve seen from this period were unsigned, but they have enough similarities that you can see they came from the same factory. You can find a few examples of these watches in coffee-table books, but they’re so scarce I just don’t see them very often at shows. I think I’ve owned two and seen only a few in books in nearly 40 years of being interested in watches.
The pocket watch was still king in the late 19th century. And then, in the early 20th century, as the story goes, there was a need for army and artillery officers to have a watch handy to time how long a shell was in the air in order to gauge its distance, so that weapons could be adjusted for accuracy. Some of the early wristwatches were made for that purpose, and some very interesting examples came out of the Soviet Union when the Berlin Wall came down.
I bought one Russian watch from that early era, a combination pocket watch and wristwatch. It was silver plated because they couldn’t take gold out of Russia at the beginning of the 20th century. They attached a strap to each end and made it into a wristwatch. Paul Buhre, Henry Moser, and a few other Swiss companies made these oversized artillery officers’ watches.
Other market leaders included Cartier, which developed the Santos in 1904 for aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont—he wanted a watch he could wear on his wrist while flying. The Cartier Tank was developed around World War I. These were the market leaders. Cartier was actually pretty important in the development of the wristwatch. Tiffany was a large retailer but was much less important as an innovator.
For a while, I owned an early Patek Philippe wristwatch from 1912—it ended up in the Patek Museum and in their book on wristwatches. It was actually a ladies’ wristwatch that very much resembled a pocket watch. When I first owned it, there was quite a bit of controversy over whether it started out as a pocket watch or a wristwatch. Even the factory was confused, but finally they determined it was actually made as a wristwatch.
In fact, just before World War I there was a lot of experimentation with bracelet watches. They gained in popularity, but they were still only owned by the few because they were expensive. Eventually manufacturers started making things that people could use to convert their small pocket watches into wristwatches. For example, there were a lot of popular ladies’ fob watches, which women wore on a neck chain. So some makers started producing cases that you could snap fob watches into to create an instant wristwatch. Other firms put lugs on these old fob watches so that, again, they could be worn as wristwatches.
In the 1920s and ’30s there were a lot of different avenues like this that led to the popularization of wristwatches, and by World War II, the pocket watch was pretty much dead. Companies were still making railroad watches through the 1930s and into the early ’40s, but not very many dress watches.
Today, firms continue to make pocket watches, but generally they’re special order, and they do it more to show their factory’s ability to miniaturize and develop complicated watches. Patek Philippe is famous for this (a recent Patek Philippe Calibre 89, which is considered the world’s most complicated pocket watch, just sold at auction for 5.2-million Swiss francs), as is Vacheron and Audemars Piguet. They all compete with each other.
Collectors Weekly: How did wristwatches evolve from being a piece of ladies’ jewelry to a more masculine item?
Levison: I think men realized they were more efficient than a pocket watch. You didn’t have to reach into your pocket and take out a watch and pop open the front cover to read the time. It was much easier just to glance at a wristwatch. Like any modern trend, it caught on because there was a practical use for it, it made sense, and it was new. People were eager to try this newfangled thing called the wristwatch.
Most wristwatches were relatively expensive at first. They were made by some of the better companies, and few people could afford them. But gradually they adapted older watches to become wristwatches, and new companies got involved. Longines, Bulova, Illinois, Hamilton, Waltham, Elgin and many others all started making wristwatches.
Collectors Weekly: When did the wristwatch become collectible?
Levison: When I got interested in working on watches, primarily wristwatches, as a hobby in the ’70s, a number of dealers and collectors were already there. It was a wild time. Very few books were available, and a lot of the first ones to come out were coffee-table books with lots of pictures. There wasn’t much reliable information or history available. All of that has evolved over the last 30 years or so.
I remember going to shows, and I recall a friend of mine had a Breguet Wandering Hour wristwatch. It was very rare, and it sold for $3,500 or something like that, which was a lot of money back in the late ’70s. This sort of stuff was coming out of the woodwork (literally) and dresser drawers. It was an exciting time, and the excitement was contagious.
A lot of Rolexes were sold in those days, and many of them were fakes. Some people were making fake cases but using real movements in them. And the cases were so well made that after they were worn for a few years it would be very hard to tell whether they were new or old. There was this one guy in England who was making these things and also publishing books, and he would put the fake watches in the books. So the fakes became real by that methodology. His scheme was eventually discovered and he became “persona non grata” to many collectors, but that’s another story.
Collectors Weekly: So given all this background, who are the most sought after classic watchmakers?
Levison: Off the top I’d say Patek Philippe, Audemars Piguet, Vacheron Constantin, Cartier, and Breguet among the Swiss and French makers. And then you start getting into other brands, sort of a secondary level, but also quite interesting and more affordable: Hamilton, Longines, Omega, Gruen. I mentioned Movado and the Polyplan earlier, but not that many people collect just Movado, even though it’s one of the more innovative companies.
Rolex is another watchmaker that’s popular with collectors. The quality isn’t there, but the designs are. Rolex was one of the earliest large-scale producers of wristwatches to use automatic movements. Other companies did it earlier, but when Rolex developed its automatic movement, they kind of revolutionized wristwatches.
The other signature of Rolex is its Oyster case. Again, they didn’t create the oyster style—it goes back to pocket watches developed in England. The first oyster watches were hermetically sealed, front and rear, and even the crowns had screw-down caps to keep out water, dirt, and dust. There was even a company called the Oyster Watch Company that started creating wristwatches using this style of case where the front and back screwed down and the crown screwed down.
Rolex bought them out. Hans Wilsdorf, who came up with the Rolex brand, was a very smart marketer. I don’t know if you can give Rolex a lot of credit for creating things, but Wilsdorf recognized inventions that were interesting, good, and useful, and he quickly began to incorporate the latest innovations into his wristwatches. That’s one of the things that made Rolex such an important brand from the 1920s on, and that’s one reason why a lot of people collect them.
Collectors Weekly: What are the differences between classic watches and those made today?
Levison: The new watches are designed on a computer. The parts are made by what they call CNC machines, which are automatic milling and manufacturing machines. I’ve watched some of the parts being made for complicated Audemars Piguet watches, and they’re made with these machines. They come out in a stack on a string of wire, and then they just basically put a brush finish on them, bevel the edges, and that’s it. In the old days, these parts were all handmade and hand-fitted. So there was a lot more customizing and handwork done to finish a watch 30 years ago than there is today.
Likewise with the materials: The hands of a Patek Philippe watch were, almost exclusively, made out of gold. If you turn them over, you can see the finish work on them—they were finished by hand. The new stuff is stamped out, made on some kind of a milling machine, and then colored to resemble bluing, which was an old heating technique that could only be achieved by someone who was very familiar with the process to get a consistent and even color. Today that’s all done chemically. The dials on many of the better old watches used to be made out of silver or gold. Now they’re just made out of aluminum or base metal. Also, many of the better dials were made using hard-enamelling techniques for the signatures and chapters, making them more durable and capable of being resilvered without having to reprint them.
Hamilton is one of the less expensive vintage watches. For $200 or $300 you can buy a nice old Hamilton wristwatch. They had silver dials, applied gold numerals, the movements were beautifully finished, and parts are available for them.
If you’re interested in learning a bit more about wristwatches, pick up “Complete Price Guide to Watches.” It’s been published every year for about the last 25 years. Originally written by Cooksey Shugart, it’s now done by Tom Engle, Rich Gilbert, and Cooksey Shugart. You can get it in almost any major bookstore for under $30. It’s sort of the bible for watch collectors. It’s got a tremendous amount of information on the development of pocket watches and wristwatches, and it’s a price guide, but only a guide.
Collectors Weekly: Of the Swiss watchmakers, who were the pioneers in wristwatch technology?
Levison: That’s hard to say because the early wristwatches were basically miniaturized pocket watches. Most of the movements were very similar. They used what’s called a lever escapement, and were created from the same materials. They were just smaller. Rolex (automatics) and the Movado Polyplan were innovative technically, and Cartier, Gruen, and Movado were innovative and creative in terms of the design. The latter were big in popularizing the Curvex style of wristwatch that fits your wrist.
Gruen made a great variety of designs, sizes, and styles. Technically the Curvex isn’t very innovative. They dished out the top plate of the movement to allow the case to curve a bit without being too thick, but the basic movements are exactly the same as in their regular wristwatches. The barrel is in the same place, as is the balance, fitted the same way.
Today you see a lot more technical development in wristwatches than we saw through the last hundred years because wristwatches tended to follow pocket watch developments in terms of timekeeping and manufacturing. Today, though, they’re using new materials for balances and hairsprings, and they’re inventing new escapements.
An independent watchmaker in England popularized something called the coaxial escapement, which he used in a very limited production of expensive pocket and wristwatches. But then Omega patented the design and is still using it in its wristwatches today. It doesn’t require lubrication. I think they had some problems with it developmentally, but now they’re over that, and it’s supposed to be pretty reliable.
Patek Philippe has created a new escapement made of silicon, or some exotic material. It doesn’t wear out and doesn’t have the lubrication requirements that old watches have. Old watches need to be cleaned and lubricated on a regular basis.
One reason the IWJG (International Watch & Jewelry Guild) just deals mainly in new watches is because they don’t have maintenance and repair problems. They’re under warranty or parts are available. Patek Philippe just stopped supplying parts for their older calibres a couple of years ago. So now you’ve got to repair or make a new part or find an old part that’s been lying around in somebody’s drawer unused.
It’s much harder now. I used to be able to call up Patek and get anything I needed within a few days. Now who’s going to service them? Who’s going to work on them? Parts are not available, so you can really only have them serviced by the factories. You have to send them back to Switzerland or wherever they’re made, and it’s expensive and takes a long time because they get backed up.
Collectors Weekly: Who were some of the innovators and design leaders?
Levison: Rolex, Cartier, Patek Philippe, and Movado to some extent. Also Gruen and Hamilton. Today, a lot of companies, big and small, are trying to be innovative in a very competitive field. They all want to be able to say: “We’ve got this new escapement, we’ve got this new technology, we’ve got this new design.” That helps sell watches.
The Chinese are hot on their heels. Right now the Chinese are making mostly copy watches, but they’re making some very good ones, not the 3-for-$10 variety. Factories in China are producing $25 to $35 mechanical watches that can do everything the real Swiss ones do, the ones that sell for $10,000 and up. But the Chinese watches don’t last as long and aren’t as well made. Even so, the big Swiss companies are having a lot of their parts made in China, shipping them back to Switzerland for manufacturing and assembly. They can still say “Made in Switzerland,” but a lot of the parts are being made in China.
It’s just a matter of time before the Chinese start using this machinery and what they’ve learned to create their own brands and become very competitive. I think at first they’ll create fairly standard watches, but they will improve on the quality and the marketing, just like Japan did.
I remember the days when “Made in Japan” was not considered a good thing. And now look at them. They’ve become dominant in so many areas—automobiles, television, cameras, hi-fi—and they’re still very much up there in terms of controlling the market. So the world keeps changing, and watches keep evolving and developing.
Collectors Weekly: How did Cartier become synonymous with wristwatches?
Levison: First Santos-Dumont asked Louis Cartier to create the Santos watch. It’s still being made. Even at the beginning of the 20th century, Cartier was big in ladies’ pendant watches and clocks, so they were not new to horology. But they were quick to pick up on new designs and new styles. I forget why they came up with the Tank watch, but the early ones are quite interesting, and they developed those early in the 20th century, modeled after the profile of a World War I tank. That’s where they got the name.
Cartier was one of the leaders stylistically in the development of the wristwatch, but not so much technically. The quality of the movements back then was very good, and the design of the cases was stylish and innovative. But they weren’t necessarily technically advanced. I think the most complicated early Cartier watch I ever had was one with sweep-center seconds, which was no big deal. They were pretty mainstream mechanically, but they were very good at design and style. A rare or early Cartier chronograph or repeating wristwatch brings tremendous prices at auction.
Collectors Weekly: What can you tell us about wristwatches in America?
Levison: I don’t know who came out with the first wristwatch model here. It could have been Elgin, Waltham, or Illinois. There was a lot of development going on at once, so that’s why it’s hard to say. They were all in the same boat making pocket watches when the wristwatch came along.
Hamilton was a very early developer. They bought out Illinois in 1927, which was after Hamilton itself got into wristwatches. A lot of their early movements were of standard design. Hamilton became a big innovator in 1957 with the Hamilton Electric. People can spend a lot of money buying all the different models. They’re fun to wear and each is a little bit different. But they’re iffy in terms of running capability. The first model, the 500, was surpassed after a few years by the 505, which eliminated some of the delicate components inside the movement that made them unreliable and difficult to repair.
Bulova followed Hamilton, and then the Accutron took over where Hamilton left off. Hamilton had created this great new watch, the Electric, but they had difficulty keeping it serviced and running. The company lost a lot of money during that era and almost went under. They went back to mechanical watches for a while. I’m not sure exactly the circumstances when they were sold or bought out, but they started using Swiss movements.
Accutron basically killed off the Hamilton Electric. It also used a battery. It was a very popular model in a lot of designs, and they were more reliable. When I’m not testing a watch for reliability, I wear an Accutron Spaceview every day. The internal works are complicated, and like the Hamilton Electric, they’re electromechanical. However, they rely on early, transistorized circuit boards, coupled with a tuning fork and mechanical gears. Not too many people work on them anymore, but it’s a very creative, innovative technical design, just like the Hamilton Electric was. But the Accutrons were much more reliable than the Hamilton Electrics, which is why people still wear them today.
You don’t see too many people walking around wearing an early Hamilton Electric because the parts are hard to get and they wear out. The constant touching of the electrical contacts wears out the gold contact points. They get corrosion and carbon on them, and then don’t function anymore. So the thing is to not keep them running. You pull out the stem, and that shuts off the circuit so they don’t run. When you want to wear the watch, push the stem in and set the time. And when you’re finished with it, you pull the stem out again. That preserves them.
Collectors Weekly: Are you familiar with Hamilton’s prewar models?
Levison: There must be hundreds of them made under different names. Hamilton was very prolific, and they various models in gold-filled, gold, chrome-plated, gold-filled tops with steel backs, etc. Prewar Hamiltons are probably one of your best buys in wristwatches because they’re so well made. And they made enough of them that most restorers have a cabinet of Hamilton parts.
Just to give you an idea, here’s a partial listing from a page in the “Complete Price Guide.” Whitman, Whitney, Wilkinson, Wilshire, Wilson, Windsor, Winthrop. I could move up a couple of pages: Spur, Stratford, Steeldon, Stanford, Stanley, Stanson, Stormking, Stormking II, Stormking III, Stormking IV, Stormking Military V, a lot of Stormking models. It’s a fairly plain one. It’s unbelievable. They must have about 12 Stormking models.
Collectors Weekly: Were they all designed differently using different technology?
Levison: Most of the technology was the same. Some used rectangular movements. Some used round movements. Some used cushion movements. The number of movements was limited, but the designs varied. They had different lugs, slightly different shapes of the bezel. Some were rather radical, and some were very plain. Some have swivel lugs, and some were round. Some had flat backs, some were curved—everything you can think of.
One of the most popular watches today in the Hamilton category is the Spur [see photo at top]. It must not have been popular in its day since so very few were made. It kind of resembles a rotating circular saw with cutter points around the edge. They sell for about $5,000 in white or yellow gold. And that’s up there in the top echelon of the Hamilton field.
One reason they’re so expensive is because so few were made and because they have the popular classic Hamilton enameled bezel. These bezels are all the same. They’re interchangeable between three different models—the Piping Rock, the Coronado, and the Spur. I try to keep those three sports watches in stock because they’re very popular, along with what’s called the reversos and doctor’s watches, which have an oversized seconds bit so the doctor can read it easily when determining the pulse. You can use it in lieu of a stopwatch.
Collectors Weekly: In general, what do collectors look for in a vintage watch?
Levison: First of all, they’re probably looking for something that’s a little rare and desirable, something they’re not going to be bored with when they wear it and own it for a while. So it should have some character to it. The condition is very critical. The case, the movement, originality, and lack of poor or obvious restoration are all very important. Certainly functionality is important. Does it keep decent time? And then, of course, if it’s a calendar watch or a chronograph, does it work properly?
Scarcity is very important. Some people try to amass a collection. For example, in Hamilton Electrics, there are maybe two- or three-dozen models that are very collectible, so maybe they want one of each. They probably won’t buy another Ventura if they’ve already got one, but they might buy a Spectre if they run into that.
Investment potential is another consideration. Is it a watch that is going to maybe increase in popularity and therefore in value? It’s not like a startup stock where you can buy into a new laser company and all of a sudden they come out with a new product, and the stock quadruples overnight. That doesn’t happen in watches. But I think people maybe look for something that will retain its value and at least keep up with inflation.
Like anything else, if you get in at the right time and buy something that maybe needs a little work, you can buy it a lot cheaper. I recommend that any collector learn how to do some of their own work to cut their costs and overhead and therefore improve their chances of making a profit when they sell. Know what the market value is and try to stay within that parameter. Don’t get carried away by buying high retail. If you want a good investment, buy from somebody who’s reliable. It’s also important to get the basic description in writing.
Collectors Weekly: What about chronometers?
Levison: Chronometer is a confusing word. Two hundred years ago, if a watch was designated as a chronometer, it indicated that it was made using a certain type of escapement, either a spring detent or pivoted detent escapement, which was developed in the late 18th century. By the mid- to late-19th century, companies started using the term “chronometer” as an indication of accuracy. It didn’t necessarily have to have a pivoted or detent escapement to be a chronometer—it was an indication of timekeeping accuracy under various conditions.
When the Geneva and Neuchatel Observatories started holding time trials on pocket watches, a lot of companies participated for marketing purposes so they could say their watches won an award at the Geneva time trials. England also had time trials in the observatory at Kew Gardens.
Rolex was one of the first manufacturers to start entering its wristwatches in time trials. They would send their watches to the Geneva Observatory or one of the others, and they would get certificates for a lot of their higher-grade models, saying that the watch met “chronometer requirements.” It gave them a great marketing advantage over companies that just sold regular watches that didn’t have chronometer certificates.
So Rolex popularized the concept of obtaining chronometer certificates for wristwatches. Omega then started doing it with their Constellations. Patek didn’t really do it for wristwatches as far as I know. What Patek does is stamp their movements with a Geneva seal of quality. Some of them have one stamp, and some of them have two. But nobody has ever been able to explain to me the difference. It’s the same stamp. One would be like on a bridge, and one would be on the lower plate. And that just means that it met certain standards of quality production. It doesn’t mean that it ever went to an observatory for testing.
I’ve never owned a Patek observatory wristwatch (they did have their pocket watches tested), and I don’t think I’ve ever seen one. I don’t want to say they never did it because there are always scarce things out there that you haven’t seen before. In fact, very few companies went to the trouble of sending their watches to observatories for testing because of the time and expense. It would take maybe six months between when a watch was made to when it could get out of the observatory and be available for sale.
The Bubblebacks and Prince watches are two of Rolex’s more collectible older models. The Bubbleback was an automatic, so named because the rotor needed additional thickness, creating a “bubble” on the bottom of the otherwise flat case. The Prince was a doctor’s watch, rectangular with an offset time zone and a big second hand. Some of them are labeled “observatory quality” and some aren’t. That doesn’t mean that either of them actually went to the observatory. They just say observatory quality on them. My guess is that Rolex started going to the observatory to test their watches in the ’30s, but it was very limited because a lot of Rolexes don’t say observatory quality. Once in a while, an early Rolex comes up at auction that was “observatory tested.” These are quite rare and collectible. When I started buying the more popular bracelet watches made after World War II, I found that a lot of them were observatory tested, some retaining their original rating certificates.
Collectors Weekly: How much do watchbands affect collectibility?
Levison: First of all, you don’t see too many original bands on watches. When you do, they’re often in horrible condition. Take, for example, the Hamilton Ventura: Some of them have black dials and some have silver dials. Particularly with the black-dial watch, they sold them with a two-tone band with a gold stripe running down the left side and the black stripe running down the right side. If you found an original Ventura band like that, it would probably add $500 to $1,000 to the value of a watch that sells for maybe $2,500.
I get old Pateks once in a while that have an old band on them, but I don’t know if it’s the original band. These watches may come from the 1940s and maybe the band was put on in the ’60s, so it’s still 40 years old.
Bands, though, are interchangeable and replaceable. So if you’re selling a watch, I find most collectors won’t pay you much more if you have a crocodile band on a watch or if you have a lizard band on a watch because they’re really going after the condition, quality, and scarcity of the watch. However, an original band in perfect condition on an old watch would be quite desirable and add value to the watch, but it’s very subjective and very rare. We’re talking leather bands here now, not metal bands.
Collectors Weekly: Are metal bands usually original?
Levison: They can be changed, too, but a lot of times they’re original. Rolexes came with a lot of metal bands. Patek sold its watches with and without metal bands, some signed by them and some supplied by other well-known companies. But the watch originally came with the option of having either a leather strap or a metal band. And so you see all kinds of watches with attached original or newer metal bands that were made for the watch, go with the watch, or simply match it. Some metal bands are integral to the case, but that’s a different kind of watch.
Collectors Weekly: What advice do you have for someone who is fairly new to wristwatch collecting?
Levison: One of the old standards is to buy the best you can afford because you’re less likely to tire of it, and it’s more likely to retain its value. There’s a certain amount of pride associated with owning a scarce watch. Secondly, buy something you enjoy. I basically tell people not to look at this as an investment. If it turns out to be an investment, so much the better, but buy something you think you’re going to enjoy wearing and not get tired of after six months. I think those are maybe the two most important things.
Some people might argue that brand name is critical. It is to some people; it isn’t to others. People who buy Pateks can afford to buy a Patek. Not everyone can. There’s nothing wrong with buying a Longines, Hamilton, Oris, Rado, Record, or any of the other brand names.
Collectors Weekly: How long have you been appraising for “Antiques Roadshow?”
Levison: I’m a rookie with them, actually. I’d been asked before, but there were conflicts. I have to travel to buy and attend shows. But I was asked to do this one well enough in advance that I could manage it. I just looked at it as an interesting experience, but it was the hardest single day’s work I think I’ve ever done in my life.
The watch table had lines snaking out the door. We started at 8 a.m. and went until 8 that night, with 15 minutes off for lunch. I had no voice left at the end of the day. The way I do appraisals, I feel I have to open things up to see what’s in them. Not everybody does that.
I’ve seen a lot of people just flip a watch over, look at the face, look at the back and say, “This is worth $50.” You really can’t do that. Maybe most of the time you can, but you’re going to miss a lot if you don’t take a watch apart and see what’s in it. The movement is at least half of the collectibility and value of a watch. So I spent a lot of the time getting watches opened, and that was very difficult. So if I do it again, I’ve got to be a little more efficient.
(All images courtesy Stephen Bogoff of www.bogoff.com)