An Expert's Guide to Buying a Vintage Watch
We're pleased to announce that we have partnered with our friend Robin Mann, the vintage watch dealer and expert behind Mann About Time. Available at 9 Savile Row, Robin has curated a beautiful vintage cabinet featuring an edit of interesting and exclusive watches.
Below, we have a chat with Robin about his passion and process, and he highlights five of his favourite pieces available now at Drake's Savile Row.
Drake's: Hi Robin, how did you get into vintage watch collecting? Was there a gateway watch for you?
Robin Mann: Like so many of my generation, Casio and Timex digital watches were certainly a gateway. I lusted after a Casio Calculator watch during much of primary school. Not long after, having finally got my grips on one, my brother had a bike accident whilst borrowing it and it was unceremoniously trashed. I then moved on to a Timex Ironman triathlon (which I still have today) and wore for many years. It was then during my twenties whilst working in the art industry, that I started to focus on Omega watches from the 40s and 50s, specifically 30T2 models. I would buy, revive, wear, and then sell to fund the next one.
The great thing about Omega watches specifically from that era is the plethora of designs, and the accessible price point. Anything from £500 to £3,000 and you can have yourself a spectacular Swiss watch that can potentially last a lifetime. With the right care they can serve you, and the generations after, with a slice of history that serves a purpose. We vintage dealers are not adding more waste to the world, we’re merely conserving what’s already there, so ultimately it’s a clean (can I say green?) pursuit that is unwittingly rooted in sustainability. But really, they just have infinitely more character and soul than any modern watch. Vintage for the Win.
Drake's: What makes your selection for us special?
RM: There are a lot of sellers (of not just watches) who buy and flip, and that’s totally normal, and fine by me. But I’m a collector at heart — so I buy what I like, and I wear what I buy. I’ve adopted a business model that enables me to actually enjoy the watches I purchase. Pieces that I put to market might have been with me for months or even years – I work hard to enable a stock cycle that is replenished with watches that, as I say, have “had their time with me, and are now ready for the next custodian.” So I provide a watch that has already been enjoyed and coveted immensely, and one that I can verify and vouch for.
I have a trusted watchmaker, who is one of the very best in the business, who works on my watches, and ensures they’re regulated and good to go – being a one-man band, I take pride in offering personal follow up care – if there are any issues, questions or queries, I will personally ensure that’s taken care of.
Drake's What does a watch need for you to be interested in it? What are you looking out for?
RM: I mentioned it before, but condition is key. There are patina lovers out there, and I’m all for some attractive ageing that bears the appealing scars of time-passed. But there is a line, and I have to judge as to whether a watch is too far gone, or still on the right side of unique. I hate to fulfil a time-honoured cliché, but just as I did when exhibiting artists I believed in, I buy what I love. If I come across a watch that speaks to me, I have to make it mine. Again, to make the comparison with art, it’s very hard to push (or sell) something that you don’t truly believe in. If it’s grounded in a genuine passion for the product, the rest is relatively straightforward.
With that said, I’ve certainly found myself with a more focussed specialisation of Omega, Rolex and Universal Geneve watches from the 40s to 70s, with a smattering of chronographs and interesting bits in between. I like to think my collection, both personal and business is ever-cohesive – I think people in the community know the sort of watch that might come from Mann About Time, and it’s an ever evolving community of researchers and collectors – the journey to finding the watch that’s right for you is the start of the fun, I guarantee the first vintage watch will send you down the rabbit hole – it’s really a pursuit with no end-time.
Robin's Top Five
Omega Constellation Dog Leg Ref 167.005 (1967)
I am constantly on the lookout for good examples of Constellation models – this one has a particularly sharp case that still retains its sharp and recognisable bevels on the lugs – which so often you see having been polished out by someone overly eager to “clean it up.” This is exactly what NOT TO DO with a vintage watch – the less a watch has been interfered with the better – collectors look for originality, and that includes the very metal with which the case was forged.
This reference, along with some others in the Omega catalogue of the era, was designed by none other than Gérald Charles Genta. For those who don’t know, Genta is amongst (perhaps the most) revered Swiss watch designers in history, having penned the designs including but not limited to: Universal Geneve (Polerouter, also on sale), Audemars Piguet (Royal Oak), and Patek Philippe (Nautilus). It’s safe to say then, that from a design standpoint, this Constellation was borne from the very best pedigree, and is in fine company, at a fraction of the cost.
Universal Geneve Polerouter Super Automatic (c. 1960s)
This watch chose me! I have a collector friend in Philadelphia, who having bought a watch from him for my own personal collection earlier in the year, has really turned me on to the huge value to be had from Universal Geneve watches from the 1940s through 60s. This is a particularly uncommon Polerouter, in superlative condition – so we agreed over many conversations that it had to have a place at Drake's, Savile Row.
Most Polerouters from the era feature arrow or dauphine (pointed) hands – the baton hands on this particular piece really mark it out as a departure from the more common designs. Look at the typography on the date wheel – total design, which you rarely see today. Finally, the oversized screw down crown – a feature you normally associate with a tool or sports watch – whereas here it’s employed on a more formal (semi-dress) watch – the result is a piece that straddles sports-formal, and one that for me just works.
This too was designed by Mr Gerald Genta – to think that you can wear a Genta design for well under £5k makes it an undisputed draw, and a great gateway watch to collecting.
Longines Conquest Automatic Rail Track dial Ref 9020 1 (1959)
Condition Condition Condition. This is a mantra all dealers do, and collectors should, live by. When an attractive watch becomes available and the condition is excellent, it’s really a no brainer. It’s easy to aspire to certain watches and buy whatever you can get your hands on, or whatever your wallet might allow – the best piece of advice I can give is to always buy the best example you can afford / find. It helps when the design is as harmonious as the Conquest Rail track. Oh, and it comes with its original box.
The fact that it is replete with its original box is a huge plus. There is a misconception today that vintage watches in order to command the highest prices should have “box and papers” – the fact is, they are so easily faked now, and the individual components so readily available on a certain one name auction site, that collectors are becoming less preoccupied with this sometimes futile question (the first question should always be how is the condition; box and papers are an added bonus).
When a watch is in such extraordinary condition as this though, and the typographic design on the (clearly correct and original) box accompanies the watch itself, it genuinely does become a benefitting factor. Don’t forget that when people bought (or were bought) these watches in the 50s and 60s, they had no idea that they would form what has become known as the “Vintage Watch Market” – the boxes were more often than not discarded or tossed to one side – only for unscrupulous sellers to piece together “full sets” decades later. Sometimes you just have a feeling when the box and the watch do indeed match though – this is one such case.
Omega Suveran Ref 2400-1 (1944)
What at first glance looks like a fairly standard sub dial Omega with a caliber 30T2 movement (a legend in watchmaking, and considered one of the greatest movements ever manufactured) – flip the watch over and the caseback carries a deep and tough Swedish engraving – said engraving denotes the watch a Suveran, or Sovereign in Swedish. This was a watch issued by the Swedish Government during WWII to fund their wartime economy. Any watch with wartime association is an appealing prospect, but one that has actual Military and Governmental provenance becomes all together more important.
I think the above just about covers it – but furthermore, with the watch having been made in 1944, the numerals and hands were produced by applying luminous paint containing radium, known for retaining its fluorescence and therefore night-time legibility for a long time. Radium was banned in the 60s due to its lingering “radioactivity”….but in the vintage watch world it is a prized commodity. It served in the war – say no more.
Omega Automatic Seamaster Tv Dial Ref 166.0207 (c. 1970)
Not all that long ago I wouldn’t have chosen a watch like this. It’s later (or newer) than I tend to focus on – but tastes do change and evolve – and having handled a lot of watches over the years, you start to see the appeal in different design ideas. The integrated bracelet style synonymous with the 70s, the boxy case, the clear and simple layout, it just started to speak to me, and when you try it on, you realise just what a great value proposition it is.
I also think it has an uncanny resemblance to the Patek Nautilus – which given the waiting lists and sky high prices can’t be a bad arguable doppelgänger to propose..! If you picture a “Seamaster’ you might think of the 50s and 60s classic round cased dress watches, or perhaps more recently the (in my eyes) rather clunky noughties behemoths that Mr 007 now wears – you don’t necessarily associate the model with a rectangular block of maximal minimalism – and I like that.