Alice in Watch Collecting Land

My simple naïve life as a collector has served me well since I followed the White Rabbit with the pocket watch down the rabbit hole. I’ve journeyed cross the years with a collection that has taken various forms – buying whatever I came across and liked to a well curated collection that I enjoy today.

During my journeys I’ve come across several types of characters such as authorized retailers, sellers of pre-owned pieces (individual and businesses), watchmakers, watch assemblers, marketers, fellow collectors, auctioneers, and even a few Mad Hatters. Each was relatively easy to recognize and fit into their roles as expected.

Recently either my eyes have been more broadly opened or there are new characters in the wonderland of watches. They may be reflections or metamorphoses of someone I thought I recognized, or an entirely new character introduced at the last minute of the last episode designed to make the summer break full of anticipation – “what will happen next?”.

I’ll avoid discussing the metamorphosis of watch brands into retailers – like Alice after eating the cake – as this has been going on for many years. I personally prefer the multi-brand retailer who bring added value to the collecting process like access to new information, hard to get pieces without needing to buy unwanted pieces, and (dare I say) a friendly versus adversarial relationship.

And the shift from approved doors/retailers to direct sales by watchmakers has it’s own advantages that I have taken advantage of, not the least of which has been some enjoyable nights of talking watches over dinner and drinks around the world.

I’ll admit, the shift in the pre-owned resellers does throw me a bit. They are now brand owners (not just investors), watch hoarders, want to be stock market listed enterprises that appear to be moving from a valuable role connecting a seller with a buyer to businesses looking for other revenue streams. (I know, they are not the only ones doing so.)

But as these well funded buy/resell enterprises grow they have the ability (and profit motivation) to act in their shareholder’s best interest in ways that don’t always include acting in the best interest of the seller or buyer. Happy clients is not as profitable as scarcity, “instant collections” (piece #1 for each model, release, or boutique gathered together for sale to the impatient collector with lots of cash), or setting inflated price points and waiting for the right buyer because the monthly cash flow needs of a small business (or the selling individual) aren’t an issue.

The humanity of the relationship has been replaced by the business of the relationship.

I’m not anti-business. The pursuit of profit is what allows me to acquire my collection. I get it. But the humanity of collecting – the visits, dinners, tours, conversations, friendships build online with people whose real name you don’t know, the stories behind each piece – is part of the value of the collection. These buy/sell organizations are taking much of the humanity out and replacing with “let me ask my manager” negotiations. Makes me sad.

The auctions are another shift that feels like falling through the looking glass. I have a few pieces that I love in the collection that I would have never been able to afford if not for auctions. I’m speaking of auctions of the past when you could find great value on pre-owned pieces.

Auctions themselves haven’t changed, they continue to bring sellers and buyers together in an energy charged environment designed to get the bidder to “come back” with one more increase to not only win the watch but also instantaneous first place bragging rights. The global reach of online auctions certainly helps gather more bidders and therefore more bids. Sitting Iike the Blue Caterpillar in the darkness at 3am waiting for a piece I desire to come up isn’t something I do for anything else.

What’s new (for me at least) are the unlimited funds and urgency that appears to motivate the buyers. Seeing watches still available direct or available via other channels sell for more than they would new or for 4x to avoid a 3 year wait is enough to make the Cheshire Cat grin – if he was the seller or owned an auction house.

Maybe it’s just the exposure via social media or the amount of time collecting that has exposed me to more of the universe (remember, I am a simple, naïve collector), but now I feel I need to define what I am collecting for and what type of collector I am.

Collecting wasn’t meant to be about soul searching.

Maybe against my best interest, I’m not collecting for profit. I still plan to keep what I love until I either don’t love it any more or see my last second tick away on the watch on my wrist. Maybe this is why the business side of the experience sits askewed for me.

Where I’ve landed in my soul searching journey (and thanks for listening) is that I want to be a patron of the art of watchmaking. I’ve already focused the collection on the independent watchmaker (independent people more than brands) but as the journey becomes stranger, I feel the pull to double down on this route. I never thought of myself as a patron (so many have so much more to offer financially than I do), but with what I have, supporting individuals to create amazing time pieces that bring joy (a word not often used in annual reports) to the maker and the wearer seems a true path.

This seems a popular route as independent watchmakers have pre-sales stretching years into the future so my journey will be shared by many. But maybe it will continue to be fulfilling and meaningful beyond the acquisition process.

Maybe collecting mechanical art that measures time is meant to take time.

Maybe since what we do with our time is personal, the relationships we build in collecting homage to time should be personal.

Maybe we should measure a collection not by it’s transactions, but by the humanity of it, the stories it reflects, the memories it invokes.

Maybe I’m the only one who got distracted by the new and morphed characters in the watch universe and everyone else is at peace.

Maybe I’m just a character in Alice’s journey becoming self aware for the first time.