Watches

The $18m watch they couldn’t give away

Daytona PhilipsGive a watchnerd the keys to Marty McFly’s De Lorean and you’d have a whole different film. Instead of all that faffing about with the Johnny-B-Goode-meets-Eddie-van-Halen thing, they’d set the dials to 1963 and start beating down the door of their nearest Rolex dealer to stock up on Paul Newman Daytonas.

Originally, the ref. 6239 Daytona, the “Paul Newman,” was a the Ford Edsel of watches. A complete sales flop.

Back in 1963 when the Daytona first shipped out of Geneva, Rolex dealers struggled to sell them. In fact, the ref. 6239 was the cheapest Daytona Rolex made at the time, yet they still hung around on the shelves longer than canned cockroach soup.

If you’d put down your Gibson for long enough, Marty, you could have had one for way less than $300; dealers often had to discount them to shift them. People simply preferred the standard-faced watches.

So why the rocketlike ascent from dealer dud to — without exception — the most expensive standard watch ever sold at auction? It’s quite a puzzle, even given Newman’s fame. It certainly isn’t the stuff on the inside that’s worth the staggering figure. And to give credence to the value inherent in such things, the last watch that sold for anywhere near this sort of money was a one-off, extraordinarily complicated solid gold Patek Philippe.

Watch collectors get excited about movements, but there is nothing remarkable or even rare about the movement ticking away inside the Newman’s case. The ref. 6239 was powered by a standard, 17 jewel Valjoux calibre 722, with a balance running at a lowly 18,000 beats per hour. Of course you had to wind it yourself every day, no automatic system here.

If you’d taken the trouble to open the caseback on a lowly Harvard chronograph made by the West End Watch Co., you’d have found the very same movement. Likewise, near as dammit, in the contemporary Heuer Carrera, for under $200. The point is that the Daytona was far from the only watch with the Valjoux under the hood. If you’re a vintage collector, rummage in your watch box and there’s a good chance you’ll find something running a Valjoux 72X series movement.

More basic makers like Eterna, Longines, Wakmann; all produced watches built around the Valjoux 72X series. This isn’t to say it’s anything but a fine, accurate, and robust motor, but to borrow an analogy, it’s far from the exotic heights of Lampredi V12-style rarity.

The case itself was unremarkable too; stainless steel, not gold. Just a tachymetre scale around the bezel and pump pushers for the chronometer. The crystal was cheap, serviceable plexiglass. It wouldn’t shatter like sapphire, and you could even polish out the scratches picked up from tweaking your carbs.

This was a functional tool of a watch, never destined to be a collectible. Back in the 1960s, it was just one of the other watches Rolex were known for making then. Waterproof Submariners for divers; everything-proof Explorers for, well, explorers; antimagnetic Milgausses for engineers; and chronograph Daytonas for racing drivers.

So, had you been standing outside our mythical Rolex dealer in October 1963, you’d be forgiven for passing over the Daytona just like everyone else. And even as late as the 1980s you could have snaffled a ref. 6239 Newman Daytona for under $4,000.

And, it’s probably worth pointing out, to further democratize the watch, that the ref.6239 is far from the only Newman Daytona. That’s because the term refers specifically to the dial rather than the watch as a whole. You can spot a Newman by the art deco numbers on the crosshair sub-dials, the tiny squares on the five-minute marks on the chronograph sub-dials, and the contrast between the sub-dials and the main dial.

Here’s where we start to see some real cases for value besides tacit celebrity endorsement. Made by Rolex’s dial suppliers at Singer, the value of a Newman is all in the dial. You’ll find Newman dials on refs. 6240 (rarer than an honest politician), 6241, 6262, 6264, 6265, and 6263.

Before attempting to explain what happened to first hurl the Daytona into the limelight, you need to understand something about Watchworld. It is, in absolutely no sense of the word, a rational place. It’s the place where a bit of red writing on the dial of a Rolex Submariner lifts the price from $6,000 to around more than five times that. A bit of white writing (specifically the word “Comex”) is even more powerful, and it can turn a $6,000 watch into a $132,000 collectors’ item. A cracked, “tropical” dial caused by a manufacturing fault sees a similarly irrational value hike.

If watch enthusiasts were rational, the place simply wouldn’t exist because we’d all be wearing ultra accurate, pennywise and reliable Casio F-91w’s or using our iPhones.

That’s why nobody really knows why these Daytonas have gone stratospheric, although plenty of people will assure you they do. There are few rational reasons behind its ascent, but it’s hard to pin a rise of this size on one thing. But what we do know is that towards the end of the 1980s, this dog got itself a pedigree, and a new name.

The stack of photographs showing Newman wearing his ref. 6239, particularly that shot by Douglas Kirkland, was the christening. The ref. 6239 quickly became known as The Paul Newman. Collectors love a Rolex with a name, so maybe this was really the whole reason; you’ll find BLNRs, Hulks, Gilts, Rootbeers, and Pepsis amongst other names affectionately given to certain pieces. But the association with racer and film star Newman propelled the ref. 6239 to a different level than any of those.

By the early 2000s, Newmans had leapt from sub $10,000 to $40,000 at auction. As the decade was drawing to a close, they’d risen to nearly $70,000. From there, the line on the graph is like looking up at the side of Mont Blanc. The other early Daytona references have been dragged up the slopes with it, but none has got anywhere near the Newman summit.

Funny enough, despite their common presence on untouched shelf space, now there’s intrinsic rarity in these watches. That’s because the singer-dial watches didn’t sell, and Rolex made relatively few of them to meet the relatively small demand. Collectors believe around only 2,000 were produced. Interestingly enough, whatever the true number may be, there are rather more Newmans on wrists and in watchboxes than ever were brought into existence in Geneva. Because the dial makes the watch, the unscrupulous but skilled among us can take a standard Daytona and graft on a Newman dial. They’re far from being the most-faked Rolex (that dubious prize probably goes to the Datejust or the Sub), but the rewards for successfully counterfeiting one are huge.

And that’s what makes Newman’s very own Newman even more special. Provenance does not come any better than this, but having a few fakes around doesn’t hurt the value of the real thing that’s provably so. The contemporary photographs, the engraving on the back, the family link and that wonderful story about Newman himself simply giving the watch away.

The watch that auctioneer extraordinaire Aurel Bacs declared is “history now” is the very peak of vintage Rolex collecting. Yes, the new owner has a beautiful, historic watch as well as a rather emptier bank account, nut what he or she has really bought with The Newman Newman more than anything is its perfect story.

Image courtesy of: Phillips

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Watches

One of the world’s classic watches. Yours for £8.

Chances are, as you read this, you’re no more than 3 metres away from a Casio F-91. It’s still the first watch for generations of children, the choice of half the British Army’s regiments (and practically standard issue for military training) and you’ll find them abandoned in office drawers, forgotten in bags, Blu-tacked to the dashboards of cars and even on wrists.

Casio wouldn’t tell me how many F91-Ws they’ve precision-glued together since 1991, but it’s got to be a few million. But this ubiquity is far from a bad thing. There’s an argument that the F91 is as much a Watchworld classic as the Rolex Submariner, the Omega Speedmaster or the Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso.

I’ll stick my neck out here. In my view, this £8 watch does the whole ‘form and function’ thing just as well as any other classic watch. But it’s the best kind of classic; a democratic one that pretty much anyone can afford and enjoy. No waiting lists, no buzz-to-enter heavy-carpeted boutiques, no sniffy watch salesmen. Just nip on line and your F will be beeping happily from a box on your doormat the next day.

When you unbox it, you’ll find you even get an instruction leaflet, clearly designed by a particularly devious, wizened and ancient origami master at the very top of his game. Although it’s tiny, it unfolds to the size of an OS map of Europe. Seriously, don’t bother with wallpaper – it’s cheaper to buy a crateful of F-91s and use the instruction leaflets. Two per wall should do you. I swear it’s even got a section in medieval Catalan.

This is a watch for less than the price of two pints of London Pride, a couple of Starbucks coffees (although I’d argue S’bucks has little to do with coffee) or a 3 minute parking ticket in central Oxford. Yet cheap doesn’t mean nasty. Not so much Sub as subfusc, it quietly and efficiently gets on with telling you the time (the date, the day and a few other useful things like when you need to wake up) without fuss. That’s what most people want a watch for.

And these things are practically indestructible. Check the wrist of your garage mechanic. Your builder… And there’s a guy in Spain who has even filled his with olive oil (seriously) and pressure tested it to depths that would have that Submariner weeping.

Talking with ex and serving soldiers, they remember their F-91s from their time in camo (or more likely No5 dress) and they remember them fondly. As one said, “Robust doesn’t do the F-91 justice.” Another one talked of how his F (see, the affection of an abbreviated nickname already) had done everything he’d asked of it through two tours in Afghanistan, all without failing once or even needing a new battery.

Believe me, when someone hits the big red button there’ll be three things left: Nissan Micras, smiling, smug cockroaches and F-91s. And the F-91s will still be going ‘beep’ every hour.

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Watches, Writing

When a watch tells more than the time

Watches, perhaps because they are so much more personal than almost any other artefact, have a knack of telling stories that bring the past vividly into the present. Here’s one of them…

In the gathering darkness of the evening of September 28th 1944, a group of 12 German Kampfschwimmer (military frogmen) slipped into the Waal river in Holland and began swimming silently towards the road and rail bridges at Nijmegen.

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Arnhem bridge. Photo credit: Fellows Auctions

Their intention? To lay explosive charges under the main supports of the bridges – key strategic objectives on the way to Arnhem – and deny their use to the allied forces. Continue reading

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Musings, Watches

The 241 year old pendulum clock that’s more accurate than your watch

241 years ago today, John Harrison, one of Britain’s finest clockmakers died.  He left behind designs for a clock that makes the accuracy of that quartz watch on your wrist look pretty average.

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John Harrison (thanks to http://www.inverse.com)

Chances are, your quartz will be be reasonably sharp.  Probably just +/- 15 seconds a month.  Not shabby, given the low price of a mainstream quartz.  If you have a modern mechanical watch, +/- 15 seconds a day would be normal.  Still impressive, particularly with a balance wheel inside that has to revolve nearly 700,000 times each day.

But how about John Harrison’s pendulum clock built from a set of 241 year old plans? How long would it take to gain or lose a second?  Just to make the question more interesting, imagine it was designed by a man who’d started life as a rural carpenter who made his first clock out of wood.  Then imagine he’d decided not to lubricate the mechanism either.

How accurate would a clock like that be over 100 days?

This is Clock B, made by clockmaker Martin Burgess from John Harrison’s pendulum clock theory. Harrison was the eighteenth century English clockmaker who should have won the Admiralty’s Longitude Prize and pretty much invented the accurate marine timekeeper.  In January this year Clock B finally vindicated its designer’s 1774 claim that he could design a pendulum timepiece that was accurate to within a second over 100 days.

Harrison was living proof that you need more than talent to get on in life.  He endured knockback after knockback throughout his 63 year career.  The British Admiralty picked fault with each of his chronometers. Rivals criticised his work and publicly undermined him.  And his final assertions that his pendulum clock with his own grasshopper escapement could be accurate to a second in a hundred days were met with derision.

Harrison's H5 Chronometer

Harrison’s H5 marine chronometer

Little wonder that his snappily titled final work, “A description concerning such mechanism as will afford a nice, or True mensuration of time”, was so bitter. Later clockmakers referred to it as “…the ramblings of superannuated dotage.”

Two things in Harrison’s background seem to have combined to make him a remarkable and innovative clockmaker.  First, he was – in effect – a natural materials scientist.  He’s often portrayed as ‘just’ a rural carpenter, but that understates his affinity for, and experience with, the materials he used.

Rory McEvoy, Curator of Horology at Greenwich and a Harrison expert, explains, “Take the way he used metals in H3, his third marine chronometer.  The brass gear wheels in the movement are wide and very lightly made, yet they’re perfectly true. If you or I tried to produce wheels like that, with the inherent tensions within an untreated sheet of brass, we’d end up with something shaped like a crisp.”

Not only this, but Harrison instinctively understood the need to reduce – and even remove – lubricants from clock mechanisms.   As McEvoy explains, “Oil was the Achilles heel of any clock or watch. Harrison did away with lubrication altogether in his pendulum clocks and large timekeepers.”  Modern watchmakers are still trying to find ways to do this.

Second, he was self-taught.  That meant that he was able to think outside contemporary clockmaking practice.  As McEvoy explains it, “Harrison came at things from a different angle, almost from first principles.  He wasn’t indoctrinated with current watchmaking ideas.”

It was this fresh thinking that led to the plans for Clock A, an ultra-accurate pendulum clock, being realised by clockmaker Martin Burgess.

Burgess B clock

The escapement of Harrison’s B clock

Clock A was commissioned from Burgess in 1975 by the Gurney family, a Norwich banking family.  Completed in 1987 (proving you can’t rush good clockmaking) they gave the clock as a gift to the city of Norwich where it ticked happily in a local shopping centre, the Castle Mall, until it was removed in 2015.  Burgess had also started another Harrison pendulum clock, Clock B, but not finished it.  The parts for the clock gathered dust on a shelf in Burgess’ workshop until 1993.

In 1993, he delivered a paper at a Harvard horology symposium where he talked about the ‘scandalous neglect’ of Harrison’s work in pendulum clock innovation – and, crucially, mentioned Clock B.  Art historian and clock collector Donald Saff read the paper, tracked him down and persuaded him to sell him the unassembled and unfinished Clock B.  Saff then commissioned English clockmaker Charles Frodsham to complete the project.

Once the clock was completed in 2014, it attracted the sort of attention from horologists that premier league footballers would be familiar with.  They began studying the clock in March 2014 and how it worked…

It quickly became clear that Clock B was something very special indeed. McEvoy continues, “We looked at the behaviour of Clock B very deeply, and we found that any fluctuations in its timekeeping were cyclical.  In other words, they weren’t a problem because they were wholly predictable.”  So although the clock’s timekeeping varied by a few fractions of a second, in effect, it evened itself out.

Finally, to determine whether Harrison’s words were indeed “…the symptoms of insanity” as The London Review of English and Foreign Literature suggested, Clock B was sealed in a perspex case in January 2014 and trialled for 100 days.  

To ensure there was no horological tinkering, the National Physical Laboratory and Worshipful Company of Clockmakers oversaw the trials.  At the start, Harrison’s B clock was running a quarter second behind GMT.  After 100 days of running, it was a mere 5/8ths of a second behind.

Harrison B clock 1

Harrison’s B clock – thanks to http://www.rmg.co.uk

Guinness World Records have confirmed Clock B as the “most accurate mechanical clock with a pendulum swinging in free air.”  But that bald description understates the achievements of both Harrison and Burgess.  This is a clock that is so accurate, its curator was able to measure the impact of barometric pressure on its going. “As the barometer moved up, so the clock slowed down with air density,” explains Rory McEvoy. ‘When we adjusted the clock to take barometric pressure into account, it was 96% accurate.  On most clocks, you wouldn’t even notice the error, let alone be able to correct it.  We don’t see this sort of accuracy until at least 150 years after Harrison’s death.”

You’d think that with pin-sharp accuracy like this,  Clock B would be a horological prima donna, throwing timekeeping tantrums if it was stopped or started.  But not so, says McEvoy, “Once it’s adjusted, Clock B is remarkably stable.  You can stop and start it without any problems.”   

So why did Harrison do it?  Why did he persist until almost the day he died in developing, defending and promoting pendulum clocks?  He had a vision that, one day, every port would have a public pendulum clock, accurate to within fractions of a second, for mariners to set their marine chronometers by.  This would mean they were able to calculate their position at sea to within a few nautical miles, thus missing shoals, sandbanks and rocks.  Harrison realised that accurate timekeeping wasn’t just a theory, it was a lifesaving practice.

So, today, the 24th of March, raise a glass to Mr Harrison’s 241st anniversary.  A remarkable man very much ahead of his time.  This year, take a trip to Greenwich and take a look at Harrison’s other remarkable marine chronometers – it’s well worth the visit.

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Watches, Writing

Happy Birthday, M. Breguet

Today will pass in most people’s diaries with never a thought for the man behind so many elements of the watch on their wrist.  Abraham Louis Breguet was born 270 years ago today in Neuchâtel, Switzerland.

Automatic winding, tourbillons, gong-repeaters, more accurate escapements, better hairsprings, shock-absorbing escapements, lubrication-free escapements… Breguet was responsible for either inventing or significantly improving them all.

Yet, for a man who brought such ordered beauty to watchmaking, he lived and worked through some of the most chaotic and ugly times in European history.

Imagine. It’s the 1780s, you’re a French watchmaker and your work is not only being bought by Marie Antoinette but the titled and wealthy glitterati of the day. Even better, the French Queen is – in modern parlance – your brand ambassador, telling anyone who’ll listen that you’re the finest watchmaker in France, if not the world.

Cut to May 5 1789 and the start of the French Revolution. Proof, if ever it was needed, that celebrity endorsement can end up being rather more of a burden than a boost.

Welcome to Breguet’s turbulent life. As watchmaker to the rich, royal and famous, hanging around in revolutionary France was likely to cut Breguet’s career short in more ways than one. Being both smart and commercial, he packed his tools and headed home to Switzerland.

And that’s where he conceived the idea of his single-handed Souscription watch. It was a perfect idea commercially, horologically and democratically. Anyone could make a down-payment (a souscription) for their watch which allowed Breguet to keep his cashflow running and start making it.

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Breguet’s Souscription No. 580 from 1800. Image from http://www.artcurial.com

The watches were simple (by Breguet’s standards), and were designed to be repaired by any watchmaker. You’d set the single hand with your finger or a sliver of wood and wind it through the hand’s centre. That’s because the barrel is in the middle of the watch with the balance and second wheel engineered symmetrically around it. No need for friction-generating motion work either. Genius.

You could even have your Souscription fitted with Breguet’s montre à tact system that allowed you to feel – rather than see – the time by touching tiny protrusions from the watch case.

62mm of simple, classical gorgeousness with so much history inside the case there’s barely room for that beautiful movement. The only thing better than owning one would be the chance to have met the man whose workshop made it.

Happy 270th birthday, M. Breguet.

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Watches

Rare vintage watch turns up in auction.

They always say ‘never meet your heroes’. The same often applies in Watchworld. That gorgeous IWC Portofino you thought was the pinnacle of refinement and gorgeousness turns out to look like an oversized Christmas chocolate coin on your wrist.

But sometimes it works out. Continue reading

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Watches

Seiko 7a28 – watchmaking history at pocket money prices

Fancy owning a little piece of horological history? Well, you could head over to Geneva’s Patek Philippe Museum museum with your jemmy, a striped shirt and a ‘swag’ bag and quietly remove their Rieussec Seconds Chronograph.  Feeling even braver?  How about the earliest chronograph yet discovered? The Louis Moinet, in St. Blaise in Switzerland?  Sadly, there are only two ways to get hold of watches like these – theft, – or complex midnight negotiations with a bloke with horns and a pitchfork at a remote rural crossroads.  Like nearly every other mile marker along the road of horological progress, neither the Rieussec nor the Moinet are for sale.

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There is, however, an easier way if you’re prepared to be a little less choosy.  You still get a timekeeping milestone, but not at the cost of time behind bars or eternity somewhere warm.

How about the very first analogue quartz chronograph?  You’d better get a move on though; prices are rising faster than a traffic-jammed Morris Marina’s temperature gauge.

Just think of the history…

It’s 1982.  The Commodore 64 8-bit home computer is launched in the USA.  Heuer are still making watches like the digital Chronosplit and the Swiss watch industry is being stabbed to death with pointy quartz crystals.  But, even though some people think it is acceptable to wear a watch that is also a calculator, a compass, a barometer and a TV combined, there is a sense that digital watches aren’t quite where it’s at anymore. And that’s where Seiko – as they so often do – come in.

IMG_4996

Now, I know some watchie people are sniffy about Seiko.  But it’s hard to be convincingly rude about a brand that makes one of the most accurate movements in the world (the 9F series – that’s +/- 10 sec pa) and that not only grows its own quartz crystals, but ages them for three months to maximise stability.  If that ain’t a manufacture movement, I don’t know what is.

Back in the early ‘80s, Seiko decided that all this LCD technology was splendid, but how about building an analogue quartz chronograph?  One that didn’t go ‘beep’ and flash a lot of scrolling numbers at you.  So, being Seiko, that’s what they did.  This, ladies and gentlemen, is the very first analogue quartz chronograph.

They weren’t shy either.  Contemporary ads proclaimed “Watch history being made” and with the watch photographed against the dashboards of Porsche 911s and Ur Quattros, it was clear Seiko were pitching it high.  And they didn’t mess about.  The 7a series does that wonderful Seiko thing of seeming simple but actually being eye-wateringly impressive.

Let’s start with the movement…

7a28 movement 2

Seiko planned to take on the Swiss at their own game.  So rather than a modular, disposable plastic movement, the 7a series had a proper, quasi-decorated 15 jewel metal movement that could be regulated, disassembled and repaired.  It even has a very traditional finger damper spring on the centre seconds pinion.  Seiko really threw investment, thinking and effort into this one.  This explains why, despite often impressive abuse, so many survive.

Notice those little rectangular plates over parts of the movement?  Each of those protects a tiny stepper motor – one for each of the chronograph functions. And that’s what this watch is all about.  Press the button at 2 o’clock and the chrono starts.  Instead of a blizzard of flickering digits, the centre seconds ticks off the seconds one at a time while the 1/10ths dial zips round. In fact, it’s moving at 1/20th second intervals.  The minutes total up over at the 9 o’clock subdial and there’s a running seconds at 6 o’clock.

7a28-1

Today, that’s all pretty unremarkable.  But back in the early 1980s, when most watches had little grey, digital screens, this was serious stuff.  And it got better.  Hit the button at 10 o’clock and the chrono keeps running, but the hands stop.  So not only do you have a chrono, you have a split timer.

If you enjoy fiddling, you’ll discover something else about the 7a series… if you push and hold the 4 o’clock pusher, the two chrono subdials and centre seconds whizz round and reset themselves. And all this for around $250 back in the early ‘80s – that’s a blinding amount of watch technology for a mere $650 in today’s money.

The movement even found its way into watches carrying rather more upmarket logos, including the Ferrari ‘Cal. 531’.

But the lovely thing with the 7a series watches is that they have something for everyone…

If you like your complications, you’ll find something in the 7a series that suits you.  There are tide timers, moon-phases, Sports Quartz, fishing models (the 7A48-7050 Fishing Master with a moon phase and tide indicator), military versions (as supplied to the RAF and the South African Airforce).  If you fancy a military 7a though, you’ll need deep pockets.  Even a couple of years ago, you’d see these for around £300.  Now, they’re being posted on auction sites at up to £995 (although this one from’83 cost rather less).

Seiko 7a28 RAF

Movie fan? You can go after the 7A28-7001 Giugiaro-designed chrono that pops up (along with a few nasty critters) in Alien. Even Bond got in on the action and wore a 7A28-7020 in View to a Kill.

Like horological mythology?  You can happily spend time chasing the ‘Vulcan Flightcrew’, yellow-faced variant, the 7A38-701B.  The story goes that RAF aircrews on the Vulcan long-range nuclear bomber were issued these.  The yellow dial apparently made them easier to read in the Vulcan’s darkened cockpit. One of these went for nearly £600 back in 2011 despite there being no good evidence for the whole Vulcan thing actually being, you know, true.  They may never have been issued watches (the casebacks certainly don’t carry military markings), but they’re still indisputably handsome.

RAF Seiko 7a28 (2)

And because there were so many made – and made well – there is still the chance of turning one up at a boot sale, in a junk shop or on an auction site for pocket money.  Even if it’s not running too well, the proper, metal movement is perfectly serviceable and you can still get parts.  There’s a dedicated (and excellent) forum for the 7a series over at http://www.seiko7a38.com with plenty of help and information.

So, a piece of real horological history, plenty of variation, movie and military cred and robust enough for a (thoroughly repairable) daily wearer.  And change – if you buy well – from £100.  That’s got to be a serious bargain.  And a whole lot cheaper than spending the next twenty years in a Swiss jail.

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In my view, the prices on these are headed just one way.  Get one while you still can.

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