S ometimes it just starts with one thing that sparks a collector’s interest. It might be diving watches or military watches. Some are fascinated by highly complicated watches, minute repeaters, or vintage watches. There are just so many ways watch enthusiasts have discovered this passion. Many have started their collections with Rolex, and for good reason. Ahead of Sotheby’s Hong Kong Important Watches auction, specialist John Chan discusses the singular aesthetics and features of Rolex watches, and the fascinating history behind the designs.
What is it about Rolex watches that appeal to the collector?
Rolex has always been striving to make history. They were competing to be the first watch on the moon, and although, as you know, that title ultimately went to Omega, they were very close and put up a real challenge. Rolex made the first watch to go on Mount Everest – the Oyster Perpetual. And they worked with Pan Am to design the GMT Master, the first watch that could show two time-zones for pilots. The Submariner was the first watch to go 200 metres below water. The stories behind Rolex watches are very much a part of history. For Rolex, and vintage watches, in general, this appeal is all about technological breakthrough.
What are some examples of these technological breakthroughs and innovative features?
It is the continuous search, the striving for better materials. It all lies in the small details. Take, for example, the luminescence used on watches. On one of its earliest models with this feature, Rolex used something called ‘Radiant,’ which people later discovered is radioactive. They stopped using it then switched to the material called tritium, then to luminova and then to superluminova, which is what we are using today. Superluminova is the same material that can also be found on fire exit emergency signs, doorways and staircases. These aren’t rare materials and can be seen in everyday life, however, the example illustrates that continuous drive to improve the design. The dial is another example that has gone through many transitions. It has evolved from glossy dial to porcelain dial, to the style that we are using today. Watchmakers are still looking for the material that will create a dial that will last forever.
What is a good starting point when looking at vintage Rolex watches?
There are so many possibilities. As I mentioned, Submariner was a big breakthrough technologically, but it also has a lot of cultural significance. It was featured in the James Bond movie, and has been worn by a lot of celebrities. So I would definitely recommend looking at Submariners. These Rolex watches either have ‘big crowns’ or ‘small crowns.’ The former style was used by military personnel, who were required to wear gloves at all times, so the larger crown was better suited to allow them to set the time.
The Submariner went through different stages. The earlier ones in the 1950s didn’t have a crown guard. Thus, the watch looks sleeker compared to the ones today. The purpose of the crown guard is to secure the crown. If I were wearing this watch and, say, I accidentally hit the watch against the desk, the crown would probably fall off, so the crown guard is there to protect it. Rolex also designed features that were very specific to different purposes. Watches designed for the military have the lugs with the spring bar attached together, so the watch won’t end up flying off the wrist of the soldier during combat. These details are all specific to the context and time when these watches were made.
How does condition affect the value of vintage watches?
It really depends. For example, Lots 2306 and 2307 in the upcoming sale can turn into what we call ‘tropical dial’ (or some people call it patina). In other words, the dial turns into different shades of brown. This is because Rolex used a lot of red dye. As time goes by and the black pigments begin to fade, this exposes more red causing the dial turn brown. We don’t know if it will continue to fade or stay as it is now. It’s a chemical reaction to sunlight and humidity, so the colour changes naturally, making every piece unique. Some collectors are really drawn to this, while others prefer to collect watches that look brand new. It’s similar to the way collectors regard artworks – some prize the pristine condition and others find beauty in the unique character and traces of history in the object.
Is collecting watches similar to collecting in other categories?
Since I love vintage watches, I am also fascinated by wine vintages. In some ways, the mind-set is similar. Sotheby’s Wine Retail is hosting a pop-up store in Hong Kong Convention Centre at the moment. So these past few days, I’ve really enjoyed stopping by and listening to the wine specialists discuss the characters of different vintages, and different vineyards. Both wine and watches are ‘living art,’ – one is ticking and while the other one is ageing and breathing.
2306LotROLEX | SUBMARINER "SMALL CROWN FOUR LINE", REFERENCE 6536/1 A STAINLESS STEEL WRISTWATCH WITH TROPICAL GILT DIAL AND BRACELET, CIRCA 1957Rolexsubmariner "small crown four line", reference 6536/1 a stainless steel wristwatch with tropical gilt dial and bracelet, circa 19578 October 2019 | Sale Price 812,500 HKDEstimate 630,000 – 1,400,000 HKD8 October 2019 | Sale Price 812,500 HKDImportant Watches8 October 2019 | 11:00 AM HKT | Hong Kong
2308LotROLEX | GMT-MASTER, REFERENCE 6542 A TOP QUALITY STAINLESS STEEL DUAL TIME WRISWATCH WITH DATE, BAKELITE BEZEL AND BRACELET, CIRCA 1959Rolexgmt-master, reference 6542 a top quality stainless steel dual time wriswatch with date, bakelite bezel and bracelet, circa 19598 October 2019 | Sale Price 2,000,000 HKDEstimate 1,600,000 – 2,400,000 HKD8 October 2019 | Sale Price 2,000,000 HKDImportant Watches8 October 2019 | 11:00 AM HKT | Hong Kong
2309LotROLEX | SUBMARINER "BIG CROWN FOUR LINE", REFERENCE 6538A STAINLESS STEEL WRISTWATCH WITH GILT DIAL AND BIG LOGO BRACELET, CIRCA 1957Rolexsubmariner "big crown four line", reference 6538a stainless steel wristwatch with gilt dial and big logo bracelet, circa 1957Estimate 1,600,000 – 3,200,000 HKDEstimate 1,600,000 – 3,200,000 HKDImportant Watches8 October 2019 | 11:00 AM HKT | Hong Kong
2311LotPanerai/Rolex, RolexRolexradomir panerai, reference 6152/1 a stainless steel diver's wristwatch with sandwich dial, circa 19568 October 2019 | Sale Price 875,000 HKDEstimate 480,000 – 640,000 HKD8 October 2019 | Sale Price 875,000 HKDImportant Watches8 October 2019 | 11:00 AM HKT | Hong Kong
BUY NOW, DRINK TONIGHT. Visit the Sotheby's Wine pop-up retail store (open until 8 October) at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre or visit SothebysWine.com to order online. In addition to our regular auctions, Sotheby's Wine retail offers fine and rare wines in the best condition and with excellent provenance.