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

A late graduation present

I knew I wanted a Submariner and a Lotus Elan by the time I was 10. If you were a kid in the 1970s, you’ll remember the Rothmans ad. You could stand, looking up at the billboard, and see the driver’s Sub just visible under his shirt cuff as he changed gear in his Lotus, presumably on the way to Le Mans with his gorgeous girlfriend in the passenger seat. I couldn’t have cared less about the ciggies, but who wouldn’t be hooked on that watch?

I’d press my nose against Mallory’s window in Bath and gaze longingly at the Subs, Datejusts and Explorers. But slowly, the more I looked the more I came to realise that the watch I really wanted was the GMTII.

The staff at Mallory’s were kind to a brassic, watch-obsessed brat. After being nose-to-glass for half an hour or so I’d eventually pull up enough courage to go in. As the door closed behind me, the noise of the traffic faded to the ticking of clocks and the smell of leather and expensive carpet. With 50p a week pocket money (earned the hard way from cleaning my somewhat OCD father’s car), it was an intimidating silence.

They seemed a little surprised at a 10 year old watch tyro asking if they could spare a Rolex catalogue, but they not only handed one over, they found a smart bag, added a few Omega brochures too and patiently answered my questions. The watches themselves seemed too remote, too special, to even ask to try on, but I was in heaven.

Image of Rolex GMT II - circa 1989 with 'Pepsi' bezel

Once at home, I’d carefully cut out the lifesize picture of the stainless (never the two-tone or 18ct) GMT II and try it on for size. Sitting at my desk in my bedroom I vowed that, one day, I would own the real thing.

It wasn’t a matter of “if” but a matter of “when”.

Sat there at my desk, I promised myself that I’d get my Rolex GMT-Master II when I graduated. But, after the A levels and degree work, that date came and went. With a nasty beer and guitar habit, I’d left college with something of a debt to pay off. I had barely enough to pay the rent, let alone buy expensive watches.

Then it was when I got my first pay cheque. Then my first promotion. Then when I realised I wasn’t cut out for being an employee and started my own business. Then it was when we’d survived a year. Then it was the first ‘real’ client we closed. Then it was the five year anniversary of the firm. Then it was surviving the recession. I kept rushing past the milestones but none seemed big enough for my GMT.

Finally, it was just because the right watch was there and I decided the time was right. I spotted ‘my’ Rolex GMT-Master II on a watch forum and dived in. No, the Oyster bracelet wasn’t original, but I’d have happily put it on a NATO and still grinned. I had the watch I’d dreamed of for 33 years.

In 1954, back when the first GMTs – the 6542s – rolled out of Rolex, they were the preserve of the smart set. Pre-cheap flights and package holidays, there was little point in a watch with a second time zone – the GMT’s reason for being – if you were travelling between Walsall and Eastbourne. Instead, GMTs were snaffled by pilots, aircrew and businessmen, lending them an almost unfeasible air of cool.

The second timezone worked with a typically Rolex simplicity. You set home time using the 24 hour hand and moved the 12 hour hand to local time. Then you simply read home time from the bezel and local time from the dial as usual. If you were terribly important and needed a third timezone, you could just adjust the bezel again to suit.

Image of Rolex GMT II - circa 1989 with black bezel

The original bezel – along with the 24 hour hand, the distinguishing feature of the Rolex GMT-Master II – was not only Bakelite but luminous, because of the radium-filled numerals. But Bakelite bezels didn’t survive the sort of abuse regular travellers can dish out, so in 1956 Rolex switched to aluminium. They only replaced the metal in 2007, giving the 116710 a practically indestructible Cerachrom insert. Not that anyone complained about the perfectly good aluminium bezel.

Over the years, the movements evolved. From the first 1036 that also featured in the Submariner, Air-King, Explorer and Oyster Perpetual through the hacking, quickset 3085 that powered the 16760 and, today, the modern 3186, running a parachrom hairspring with a Breguet overcoil.

Like every other sports Rolex, the GMT was designed to survive pretty much what any owner would throw at it. After all, 1954 aircraft cockpits weren’t exactly friendly places. So the oyster case is properly waterproof and cut from a block of 904L stainless. Unless you fancy a bit of bling, in which case you can have stainless and yellow gold, If sir or madam desires the full-on wrist-monument experience there are 18ct gold versions and even the Patriot; the equivalent of wearing a small Swiss bank account on your wrist. There have only ever been 20 Patriots; solid gold cases with pavé diamond-set dials, baguette diamond, sapphire and ruby bezels and gold President bracelets also diamond-set. Subtle they are not. But they are rather wonderful in a completely OTT “I’m so loaded I don’t care” way.

Image of Rolex GMT II - circa 1989 with 'Pepsi' bezel

Mine is altogether more subtle, although, to be fair, it would be hard to out-state a Patriot. It’s a 16710 with a cal.3185 movement, tritium dial and a rather beaten-up old Oyster bracelet. It arrived in a Rolex service box with a service certificate and that was it. And I was smitten as soon as I lifted the lid.

After a little research and checking serial numbers with reference tables I realised my GMT dated from 1989, the first year Rolex made the 16710. That explained the tritium dial, one of the last. But it was a date that had a rather more personal resonance for me. I’d graduated in 1989. So it seemed I finally – and quite unintentionally – had my graduation present GMT. It was just 20 years late.

I thought the Mallory’s story and this unintended coincidence might raise a chuckle or two even in such a serious place as Geneva’s Rue François-Dussaud, so I wrote a letter to Rolex’s chief exec at the time, Bruno Meier. I explained that I’d recently realised a dream, that I’d wanted a GMT since I was kid and that I was absolutely delighted with my watch.

Image of Rolex GMT II - circa 1989 with black bezel

And, in the meantime, I carried on enjoying my Rolex GMT-Master II; buying a black bezel to replace the Pepsi. It looked simple enough, but it’s pretty intimidating to be faced with a sharp, flat-bladed knife, a newly-beloved and rather valuable GMT and a replacement bezel. Then, once I’d realised that popping off the bezel to change it didn’t mean trashing my watch, it was fine. And I kept looking at my wrist even when I didn’t need to know the time.

When the phone rang at the office early one Tuesday morning, a couple of weeks later, I assumed a client needed something on a short deadline. Instead, a voice introduced himself as Rolex’s Marketing Director, explained that Mr Meier had passed my letter on and it had reached his desk. He said he was delighted to hear the story and suggested I hang onto my watch as, in his opinion, values were only heading one way. We chatted for a few minutes, then he wished me well and rang off.

I stood looking at my phone and wondering how many other marketing directors from the watch business would take the trouble to call a customer who’d bought a second-hand product and wish them well.

Since then other watches have come and gone but the Rolex GMT-Master II has always been somewhere in the watchbox. The second timezone has been very useful indeed and it’s done plenty of travelling. Watches are for wearing, so it’s done thousands of motorcycle miles, been on my wrist as I’ve rebuilt engines and never been babied or treated specially. But it looks no different today from the day I took it out of the box. It’s not the most exciting or valuable of Rolex’s offerings but it has a value to me well beyond its collectability.

Most mornings, the 10 year old and the present day me put on our watch and smile. Watches often tell a great deal more than the time.

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Musings, Watches

Old watches, old bikes and a bit of soul

It had been quite a day. We’d only ridden just over 160 miles, but through winding, high-banked lanes, over moors and finally down a flaky, clacky shale track that would have given a mountain goat vertigo. And now we’d made it. Tintagel. I climbed off the bike, helped Pip out of the sidecar and leaned back to drink in the view from the clifftop over the Atlantic. The bike ticked and pinged as it cooled in the breeze off the sea.

As I usually do on a trip like this, riding done, I unrolled the Ural’s toolkit on the ground beside the bike, opened a beer and started checking the machine over, part by part. This is therapy and my favourite part of the day. Miles covered, supper and another beer earned and in view and a chance to tinker with the bike as the sun goes down over the sea.

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