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

Episode 4 – and so it ends

So, my month of self-imposed watch austerity is up.  I’ve done it.  No watch but the F has passed my wrist in the last 31 days.  What have I achieved?  Well, clearly absolutely nothing.  This is first-world stuff.  Wearing a £7 Casio is not deprivation in even the remotest sense.  However, a glass of decent malt is clearly called for in celebration.  Don’t mind if I do.

In the real world I may have achieved nowt, but I’ve learned a few things…

There’s an F-91 near you

First, these things are everywhere.  I’d wager that, as you read this, you’re no more than 3 metres away from an F-91.  Casio weren’t able to tell me how many they’ve precision-glued together since 1991, but it’s got to be a few million.  They’re abandoned in office drawers, forgotten in bags, Blu-tacked to the dashboards of cars, on wrists and even (I saw it) on a string around someone’s neck.

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Sitting in a local coffee shop, looking idly out of the window, I saw ten Fs in as many minutes.  Is there a more ubiquitous watch?  I doubt it.  They’re just there, quietly getting on with the job with only an hourly ‘beep’ to remind you of their presence.  And the fact you can’t work out how to turn it off.

The classless watch?

Sitting in a meeting last week with some of the board of a UK utility company, I spotted one under the cuff of one of the directors.  He knew how to turn off the beep.  On the same day, I picked up a parcel (yes, another watch) from the local Post Office. The postie behind the counter was wearing – you guessed it – an F-91 – on a battered and faded NATO.  On that coffee shop visit I saw them on the wrists of super-trendy hipster types, the guy who emptied the street bins and the barista. It really is Everywatch.

They don’t give in – or give up

They’re near-as-dammit indestructible too.  Who needs a G-Shock?  I’ve worn mine on the Real Tennis court and it’s been belted with a heavy wooden racquet.  It’s fine.  It got dropped on the stone tile floor in the office.  Not a mark.  It’s survived the teeth-loosening, pneumatic-drill vibration of the flat-twin engine on my Ural 650 combo.  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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Am I about to give up my collection, ditch the vintage and declare unending loyalty to my F?  Well, no.  But there is a rather freeing simplicity to an F-91.  It does the job of telling the time, waking me up, timing my run all without fuss, bother or drama.  In fact, it does it so simply and effectively that I’m going to open the wormcan and say it’s firmly A Classic.

The ultimate cheap classic?

I’ll stick my neck out here. In my view, it does the whole ‘form and function’ thing just as well as any other classic watch. It’s the best kind of classic too – 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.

F91 and collection

And, if it gets trashed in the process of everyday life (unlikely as that is), you can just shrug and buy another with the change in your car’s ashtray.  You can’t say that about a Nomos a Breitling or a Rolex.

So what started out as a bit of a joke has been great fun.  It’s started conversations with new watchie friends, made me think and reminded me that a watch doesn’t have to cost the GDP of a small central European country to be engaging.  But it certainly does say something for my affection for the F that it’s on my wrist as I write this.  And it’ll be there, every so often, for a long time to come.  I’ve come not just to admire, but like, the F-91 hugely.  Beep.

By the way, in that parcel was a cal.1620 Omega LCD Speedmaster from 1977.  Yup, they made digital Speedies.  But that’s a whole other story…

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Watches

Episode 3 – The Devil’s Watch?

A little over a week ago, I decided to lock my watchbox and forsake my usual vintage mechanical, and high-end quartz serious tickers for just one watch.  And not any old watch at that – I chose, from Amazon, a £7, resin-cased Casio F-91W, the cheapest of the cheap.  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.  The plan?  To wear this single watch for a month.  No changes, no backsliding into Breitlingdom or Rolex City, not even for an evening.

It’s been fascinating watching watchie people’s reactions to my ‘one watch for a month’ experiment.  It’s been almost as fascinating watching the complete non-reaction of normal (i.e. non watchie) people.

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Watchland reaction has ranged from the horrified to the puzzled.  You see, to most watchies, quartz is what powers Satan’s nastiest wristwatch.  But even he wouldn’t allow a digital quartz into the seventh circle.  Digitals are no watchie’s friend.  Apart from a very select few of us who either obstinately believe function matters as much as form or are just plain contrarian.

Normal people simply don’t care.  Let’s face it, apart from muggers, no-one is really fussed what you’re wearing on your wrist.  Unless, perhaps, it’s so truly hideous that people can’t help spot it.  Or it’s a Rolex day-date or Sub.  If you wear one of the more obvious Rolexes (Rolexi?), you will spend some time answering the “is it real?” question from observers, never very satisfactorily and always with a slight blush of embarrassment.

No, the F-91W is a stealth watch.  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.

But, as utility-based as it is, I think I chose the wrong watch for my (admittedly lighthearted) experiment.

I’ve discovered, the F-91W, despite its unashamed utility background (or maybe because of it), achieves rather more than just timekeeping status.  It seems to have that indefinable thing that marks a watch out as remarkable.  It may even be (pace fellow watchnerds) a bit of a classic.

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I’d wanted a sort of antiwatch.  A watch that ticked all the opposite boxes from the usual contents of my watchbox.  But the Casio isn’t it.  An antiwatch, under my definition, would have been a watch that pretended to be something it isn’t. A plastic gold Armani thing would have been a better trial.  Or maybe even a fake.  But the Casio makes just as much of a statement as an IWC Ingenieur.  It is what it is.  Plain, no messing, no pretence.  It’s not – as I suggested – a sort of horological Toyota Pious.  No, the Pious is a car for people who have principles, but not enough of them to get a bicycle instead.  The F-91 is a watch for people who want something that tells the time as simply, cheaply and clearly as possible.  It makes a statement by completely not giving a tuppeny toss about making a statement.

Given all that, I shouldn’t really have been surprised by people’s affection for the watch.  I’ve had a few emails from 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.

It’s currently doing something rather more domestic – timing one of Pip’s world-class culinary creations in the oven.  And I shall be sad when my month with the F is up. It’s not only earned a place in the watchbox, but my affections too.  I’ve actually grown fond of the damn thing’s sheer unassailable, unbustable, unapologetic functionality.  It’s the watch equivalent of a mongrel terrier.  It ain’t pretty, but by God it makes you smile and just plain works.

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Watches

Episode 2 – The Arrival

One thing is guaranteed to brighten up a standard, nose-to-desk sort of day.  The arrival of a new watch.  Our postman (for we still have such things in Burford as ‘our’ postie) handed over a package this morning, with his usual grin.

“Another five mill thinner and it’d have gone through the letterbox,” he said.  “Shame you’re in today.  I usually stamp on ‘em to make ‘em fit otherwise.”

Fortunately, I suspect my new arrival would have survived perfectly well.  I’d have been a little less relaxed had a vintage Reverso been in the box.  See, there are already advantages to F-91 ownership.

So, my first watch – ever – to arrive in an Amazon box.  Downloadable wristwear.  Whatever next?

Time to unwrap, clearly.

A new watch is always an exciting thing.  I was interested to see if the usual frisson was there with my the F-91 Antiwatch.  And it was.  OK, so it’s not the sort of thrill that comes from a unpacking a vintage Explorer or an IWC MkXII, but it’s a thrill all the same.  A sort of middle-of-the-road Muscat in comparison with Sauternes, maybe cheaper and less refined, but definitely worth a swig.

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And I have to say, in spite of my usual watch snobbery that would make Margo Leadbetter (google it if you’re too young) start thinking fondly of low slung jeans and baseball caps, I’m impressed.

I like lots of things to read with my watches.  I want instructions, guarantees, history, information, service bits and bobs.  I like bumf.  And the F-91 didn’t let me down.

The instruction leaflet was clearly designed by a particularly devious, wizened and ancient origami master at the very top of his game.  Although it was tiny, it unfolded to the size of an OS map of Europe. Chaps, 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.

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There’s another leaflet – presumably also in Catalan – catchily entitled “Disposal of Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment of Products for Household use (applicable in the European Union only)”  Not quite sure I understand what that means, but I can see it catching on as bedtime reading at Mrs Flangespindler’s Home for the Criminally Insomniac.  I couldn’t manage to read any more than the title though.

This too is printed on a piece of paper that makes a postage stamp look dangerously large, then folded by Origami San – clearly on a day where he really fancied a challenge.

The warranty card was probably in Linear B, but my electron microscope was out of battery by now.  The lovely people at Casio clearly don’t believe in stinting watchbuyers who like a bit of bumf.  And 3pt Sanskrit type too.  Bit of history of Casio watches would have been good though.

But what about the watch?  Well, it’s the Toyota Pious of the watchworld; a watch for people who don’t like watches but still need to tell the time.  And it does it all beautifully simply.  I had it set in under a minute and on my wrist.  Once there, you might as well have strapped on a gnat – there’s no weight to its resin case at all.  It makes my Timefactors Speedbird III feel like an Olympic discus.

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There’s something rather pleasing about the digits.  Clear, simple and, just like the watch, absolutely economical.  In fact, the whole concept of something this cheap that’s this effective and well-designed is really rather attractive.  I think we may get on…

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Musings, Watches

Episode 1 – Living on the plastic – for a month.

Episode 1 – July 9, 2013

And so it begins…

As a self-confessed watch addict, I know I spend too much time, money and effort pursuing the latest Ideal Watch.  I spend hours talking with watchie friends, comparing ideas and thoughts on new and vintage watches. I even spend too much time in the morning deciding which one to wear.  It’s not unknown for me to take a spare along in the briefcase just in case I fancy a change half way through the morning.

This is an addiction. Clearly.

So I have a plan.  An experiment, if you like.

I’m going to see what happens when I lock the watchbox (toybox?) and put my metaphorical chequebook away.

I’m going to be a one-watch chap for the next month.

But not just any watch.  Oh no.  That would be no good at all.  It needs to be the antithesis of everything that’s currently in the collection.

My thing is for classical, clean-lined and vintage.  So a Reverso sits alongside a 1964 gilt-dial 1016, an early GMT II, an Exp I, an HEQ Grand Seiko and a hunting pair of Nomoses (Nomoi?) along with a few others.

The ideal foil?  A Casio, clearly.  And not just any Casio either.  It must be cheap, resin and digital.  The complete opposite of the current mob.

So it’s going to be a Casio F-91W.

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And it’s not in the spirit of the the thing to buy my new, plastic Casio from a proper shop either.  Again, this needs to be the opposite of my usual watch transactions.  These are usually either over a glass of wine with a fellow watchnerd in a country pub, a London hotel or in a smart, vintage watch dealer.

So, with barely two clicks of a mouse, I’ve ordered a brand-new Casio F-91 from Amazon.  It arrives, courtesy of Royal Mail any day now.  And I’ll be turning the key in the watchbox, giving it to Pip for safekeeping, and strapping on, er, a plastic Casio F-91W-1YER. Snappy.  And I’ll be wearing it – no matter what the occasion – for a month.

Fellow watchies will understand the magnitude of the task.  Non-watchies will simply have confirmed their views on my sanity.

I’ll keep you posted.

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