Under the Hammer: Talking Vintage Watches with Alex Stevens.
Asking questions and interacting with professionals is the best way to gain knowledge in any field, especially in a field that is as dense and difficult to navigate as vintage watches. I recently spoke with Alex Stevens who works at Watches of Knightsbridge cataloguing, appraising and valuing watches.
TC: What first got you interested in vintage watches and how old were you when you bought your first watch?
AS: I started out buying and selling antiques and collectables at the age of 14 or 15 at the local fairs, markets and auctions with my dad, but neither of my parents are actually into watches. Most people assume my dad was an antiques dealer but he actually collects rare books and some art too, so he was regularly going out hunting for stuff. From the age of about 10 I often went with him, so this probably gave me an appreciation of old things. The first semi-decent vintage watch I can remember buying was at 14, it was a Sicura divers watch I found at the bottom of a box at a car boot sale. I paid £2 and sold it for £110, which to me at the time was a lot of profit! From then on I got more and more hooked on vintage watches and educated myself as much as possible. A couple of years on from that Sicura I was mainly just trading watches, whilst also trying to study for my GCSEs - I guess you can imagine which I prioritised!
TC: I'd be happy with a profit of £108 even today! Since you started buying watches in your teens, how do you think the market has changed since then? How has the landscape changed when it comes to buying/dealing watches?
AS: On the one hand it is fairly easy for someone to set up as a watch dealer, but on the other hand it is getting harder and harder to find good, rare vintage watches. You can create a basic website and Instagram account in a few hours or so, so there aren’t big barriers, which has probably led to a new generation of dealers. For example, I think @visionvintagewatches has some fantastic pieces and does it well by reaching collectors directly through Instagram with low overheads. It’s also interesting how Instagram has created trends for certain watches - Enicar Sherpa chronographs, Polerouters and Wakmanns spring to mind! I would say that generally, getting into the vintage watch auction industry is pretty difficult, but not impossible.
TC: It was actually on Instagram where I first encountered the Enicar Sherpa Chronograph. Whilst it's sometimes hard to get in-depth information or conversation about watches on Instagram, it's a really great platform for discovering new models. What advice would you give to someone looking to purchase their first vintage watch?
AS: I think it’s best to buy what you like and not what certain influential voices say you should be buying - if you love wearing gold and it suits you then go for that, even if people say it’s not ‘what’s hot’ at the moment. Once you know what style you like, go to a reputable specialist where you can talk to an expert who can tell you everything there is to know about a watch.
TC: Glad to see that you & Toby are in agreement on focusing on what you want to wear, not what you're being told to as He said the same thing back in November. How did you come to work at Watches of Knightsbridge and what is your role there? How long have you been with them?
AS: At the start of my final year in school I approached Toby Sutton by email, saying I was keen to gain experience in the industry and to further my knowledge. I was fortunate he saw something in me and offered the chance to come and gain some experience. To the dislike of some of my teachers I jumped at the opportunities to come and work at viewings, auctions, do some cataloguing and condition reports and so on. We all got on well and it felt very natural, so it just went from there and I was soon offered a permanent position in the team. I finished school and moved to London. For me the auction is the best and most exciting part of the industry and nothing rivals or beats it. So many watches pass through your hands each day so you get to see so much. The amount I have learnt working with Toby and Simon Sutton in less than two years is brilliant and I am very grateful for it all. My role involves quite a lot of different aspects of the business, but one of the main things is writing descriptions and condition reports for each auction catalogue, which I really enjoy because you handle so many different watches. I run internet bidding during the auctions and do a fair bit of Instagram which is great fun. I also enjoy the personal side, like showing watches to clients and potential bidders, answering questions and enquiries, and taking watches in for consignment.
TC: What do you consider to be the most important aspect of a watch when it comes up for auction? Rarity, condition, story or the "X" Factor?
AS: I’m not sure there is one most important factor – I would probably have to say a mixture of them. A rare watch in excellent original condition coming with provenance of some kind generally always does well. It also depends on the watch, so for example a restored dial on one piece may not affect the value quite as dramatically as on another.
TC: Are consignees sometimes shocked at the value (either more than or less than they thought?
AS: It’s great when a watch makes over the auction estimate and gives the consignee a nice surprise. Collectors often catch “auction fever” over a rare watch in excellent condition, because they might not find another so don’t want to let it go – that can be good for consignees! On the other hand it’s not always easy giving a valuation as certain watches have depreciated a lot from their original retail price.
TC: During the consignment process, do you build a relationship with the owners? Do you see return "customers" time and time again?
AS: Yes, we often get the same collectors coming in to both consign and buy through the auction so you can build up a rapport, which I enjoy. You also get to know certain clients and their tastes so you can make recommendations. It’s nice when a client comes in and they’re wearing a watch they bought from the auction. I really get great pleasure from showing vintage watches to people and chatting to collectors.
TC: What myth/misconception about auctions/vintage watches would you wish the watch community could be educated on?
AS: Personally I think it's a pity that certain influential voices in the industry have created a culture whereby some new collectors are being made to think a vintage watch isn’t worth buying unless it looks as if it has just come out of the factory. It is obviously desirable to find watches in this condition, but for me it should not be the benchmark or expectation. Restored dials, relumed hands, replacement crowns and so on are just part of a watch’s life and history and should not be frowned upon so heavily. In reality these watches are generally still of merit and have a market value nonetheless. The way that no two examples of a vintage watch are ever the same is part of the charm. A good specialist auction house will provide a detailed description and condition report for each lot written by an expert who has handled and examined the watch, so in most cases it’s not really ‘bidder beware’ as some might suggest.
TC: Agreed. This ties in with what Toby said about the bogeyman of Frankenwatches and how we are led to believe that they are lurking in the dark shadows of every watch dealers catalogue. The notion of '100% original or bust' plays into that very nicely as a scare tactic (Intentional or not) by cajoling purchasers to pay a premium for an all original piece rather than one just as good with a replacement crown or hands. As long as those replacement parts are genuine,match the reference and the seller is open about the facts then I don't have any issue with it. How do you think is the most influential voice in the industry?
AS: Hodinkee for sure.
TC: What is your favorite piece to have been up for auction at Watches of Knightsbridge?
AS: So many special pieces have passed through the auction it’s very hard to settle on one! But either the 18k gold Rolex “Jean-Claude Killy” triple calendar chronograph in June 2015 which was such a fine and rare watch, or the Paul Newman Daytona 6262 in September 2014 which was very cool.
TC: That Jean-Claude Killy was such a beautiful watch and was one of my highlights from that auction. What was your first watch?
AS: I think the first ever was some kind of bright green calculator watch I got during primary school. But my first proper vintage watch was a 60s Rolex Oyster Precision I bought when I was 15, but there was a profit in it so I ended up selling soon after!
TC: My first watch was a cheap £25 quartz jump-hour from Burton. In hindsight it wasn't a very good watch as it the aperture was too small and impossible to read at night but I've had an appreciation for jump hours ever since. I've had my Zenith Dualtime for the past three years and despite the fact I write about them most days I've yet to get a vintage watch. I will confess to having scoured my nearby Goodwills after that Jaeger-LeCoultre Deep Sea was found for $5. No luck unfortunately. One day though! And finally what watch are you wearing now?
AS: My personal watch is a 1960s Omega Seamaster in 18k solid gold with a rare chequerboard or waffle dial, I’ve never seen another. It pretty much sums up everything I love about vintage watches and I wear it every day. It would be great to give it to a daughter or son for a special milestone in their life!