My Highlights: Watches of Knightsbridge July 2nd Auction
This upcoming auction from Watches of Knightsbridge is their biggest one yet with 585 lots from a huge variety of different manufactures. It never ceases to amaze me as to how smaller, almost invisible brands can sometimes create some truly interesting watches that rivals the ingenuity of the big boys. Like I said a few days ago, the brands we have today were the lucky ones when it came to the quartz crisis and just because companies like Favre-Leuba and Deleana didn't survive, doesn't mean that they don't deserve your attention.
Without further ado, here are my five personal highlights from the July 2nd auction and for more information about each lot, please visit watchesofknightsbridge.com.
Lot 7 - Blancpain Fifty Fathoms
When you first think of 'dive watch' , you'll likely think Submariner or at the very least Rolex. The narrative created by marketing is the Crown developed the first dive watch in 1953 however, like most popular tales, the actual story is a little bit different. The Italian Navy had been using Panerai during the 1940s but it was not a dedicated dive watch, rather a very water-resistant regular watch. The French Naguers de combat (Combat divers), led by Captain Robert Maloubier and Lt. Claude Riffaud, needed a watch that could survive their diving excursions and fit their stringent requirements; black dial, big bold numerals that could glow in the dark, a large minute hand and a rotating bezel. After approaching several watch manufacturers it was the CEO of Blancpain, Jean-Jacques Fiechter, who finally agreed to make the world's first dive watch. It might not have been solely a business decision as Fiechter was an avid diver himself so perhaps he knew he could acquire a new toy to play with under the waves once Blancpain succeeded.
In 1952 Blancpain created the Fifty Fathoms, the first dive watch to have an external rotating bezel and an automatic movement. The 41mm case might seem small by the standards of modern tool watches, it was gigantic for its time and would still dwarf the early Submariners for years. It was water-resistant down to the depth of fifty fathoms (91 meters/298 feet) which might seem shallow but compressed air tanks were not yet in frequent use so this was the deepest man could safely dive. The Fifty Fathoms would eventually be used by military divers from Israel, Spain, Germany and America along with the greatest civilian diver, Mr. Jacque Cousteau.
This Fifty Fathoms is a civilian models from the early 1960s. The military pieces used radium to maintain a bright and steady glow underwater so to calm the nerves of civilian customers Blancpain added the now iconic NO RADIATIONS symbol on the dial (Technically tritium is still radioactive however the levels are far less than radium). Those hour markers have developed a wonderful patina over the last fifty years and the No Radiations symbol is still crisp and vibrant. Whilst not as subdued as an early Submariner, the Fifty Fathoms is far more interesting and dynamic.
Lot 49 - Delbana Yachting Chronograph
I don't know much at all about this watch and I don't think that matters. I said over a year ago that when it came to picking highlights my main deciding factor would be that I found it interesting and this is certainly interesting. The Deleana is one of the most colorful vintage watches I've ever seen and it is for that reason alone that I've picked it. You have a red bezel that has faded to a delicious burgundy, a red dial that has morphed into a deep purple and then a bright orange lollipop second hand as well. The electric blue and pink sections on the chronograph sub dial just scream out loud to finish the whole piece off.
I'm reminded of Alan Maleh's episode on Hodinkee's Talking Watches when I look at this watch. He describes his collection not as a series of reference numbers or case sizes but as fashion accessories that can accent his wardrobe or just excite him visually. His collection is purely aesthetically driven. It's not a strategy I usually follow myself but for this watch I'm willing to make an exception. As Deleana isn't exactly a well known brand I can imagine this being overshadowed by some more recognisable names but it shouldn't be. The auction estimate is quite low, 300-400 GBP, so for me this is a great opportunity to own something that is pure, unadulterated fun.
Lot 123 - Favre Leuba Bivouac Altimeter/Barometer
Whilst it might seem I picked this Favre Leuba out for it's exciting color scheme, there is a valid watchmaking reason behind my choice. This watch was the first mechanical altimeter watch and it was made for alpinists and gliders in 1963. On the case is a small hole that allows a small amount of air to fill a pressure chamber and if there is a change in elevation or barometric pressure, the red central hand will rise or fall to indicate the current height. It's ingenious watchmaking and made all the more impressive that it was made over fifty years ago. A digital altimeter will be more accurate and reliable but there is something so magical about the desire to stretch mechanical watchmaking to its limits so new and exciting watches can be made.
Fabre Leuba actually created a sister watch called the Bathy 50 which worked as a depth gauge. Both watches had a heavily modified Peseux 320 movement inside of them. The Altimeter was actually used for climbers first ascending the Matterhorn as by seeing a sudden change in air pressure could warn the mountaineers of incoming snowstorms. This sky-blue variant is the rarer of the two dials and is my personal favorite. Like the above Deleane, it is refreshing to see some color and visual variety in these tool watches other than plain black dials. That inner height dial is still as vibrant as ever and is complimented beautifully by the yellow accented bezel.
Lot 144 - Heuer Autavia
From two relatively obscure brands to one of the most talked about lots in this auction, the Heuer Autavia Ref. 2446. It's an absolute wonder of a watch and despite one issue, I can see it fetching a high price come next Saturday. The one minor issue is that whilst the dial is a 1st generation, the hands are actually 2nd generation. The 1st generation hands are the same shape are known as 'all-lume' with the tritium lume covering the entire hand whilst these dauphine shaped hands have a thicker steel border with recessed lume on them. It's a minor quibble seeing but it is one worth noting considering how reverred this watch is. There are small age marks on the hour hand but frankly the rest of the watch is in such immaculate condition I don't think it matters.
The bezel quite frankly is perfect. There is not a mark or scratch or ding or dent anywhere on it which considering the target market for Autavias, race car drivers and enthusiasts, is a miracle. The triangular lume pip at 12 has faded through age and there are some minor patina on the 8 & 9 but these serve to confirm the age of the bezel and only highlight just how white the rest of the hour markers are. The hands and hour markers have the same outstanding creamy patina and the subdials are as great as the day they were made. Oh, the lugs? Crisp, unpolished and beautiful.
I don't want to get too much into the history of the Autavia here so for anyone who is interested, please read Bexsonn's fantastic break-down of this watch right here. His photos only further the amazing condition of this watch. Despite the 2nd generation hands I think this watch is going to be one of the big sellers on the auction, come Saturday we'll find out.
Lot 370 - Rolex "Double Red" Sea-Dweller
The Rolex Sea-Dweller is one of, if not the, greatest achievement that the Crown has created. It's not as luxurious as a Paul Newman nor as versatile as a Datejust but in terms of battling the forces of nature it is the best. During the 1960s and 1970s advancements in diving techniques and equipment meant that divers could last longer and go further than ever before. The Fifty Fathoms of 1952 now was incredibly shallow water with divers from COMEX staying for weeks underwater at depths of hundreds of meters which wreaked havoc among their watches.
Whilst Omega went for the brute force method that resulted in the outrageous PloProf, Rolex (along with Doxa) created the Helium Escape Valve that stopped watches from exploding under the pressure of decompression. (Click here for the in-depth story about the creation of these watches). This Ref. 1655 is one of the later Sea-Dweller from 1975 and has the much desired double red line above the depth text. If Rolex were to ever release a "Black Bay" style Sea-Dweller with this text I think the watch internet would break.
When it comes to dive watches you never want them to be in too good condition as half the fun is knowing that this was a watch that was used. The bezel has some minor scratches and dings and there is a slight part of the seconds hand pip that is missing but these just add to the character of the piece. Add the perfect dial and hands to the mix and you are onto a winner.