From his teenage years on, Bernhard Bulang was always interested in watches and specifically in the dials. An informal collector of early Swatch watches and other cheap models, Bulang remembers his first big-brand watch: a TAG Heuer Formula 1, which he wore surfing and when playing tennis. It was at this point that he also discovered his father’s old Heuer Camaro, a watch he would occasionally wear to school and that marked his first taste of vintage.
“As time moved on, I was always collecting vintage stuff,” he says. “I loved timeless objects that connected with me aesthetically as a designer, and objects that had a story behind them. I collected vintage fountain pens and enjoyed the emotion of writing or drawing sketches and concepts with them; writing in the modern era with a vintage pen. This has been a theme for me, the friction of the vintage and modern. A vintage piece combined with a modern surrounding – what I call pleasant friction. I love the idea of using a vintage pen and an iPhone 7 in the same meeting or writing on paper and saving an image of it to iCloud.”
Known today for his love of Rolex, Bulang actually started with an interest in other brands – classics like the Omega Speedmaster, Heuer Monaco and Patek Philippe Calatrava. Then one day he visited Dutch Rolex expert Philipp Stahl’s watch shop to view an early IWC Aquatimer. “Philipp showed me a vintage Rolex Submariner ref. 5513 and I was smitten,” he says. “I actually bought the Aquatimer, but within a week I returned and bought a vintage Rolex Submariner ref. 6536 – the ‘small crown’. From then on I was hooked and became obsessed in the details of vintage Rolex, becoming a prominent member of online forums and sharing the details and passion for these old watches. It was a crazy time where the now-accepted knowledge of vintage Rolex watches was still emerging and there were new discoveries every week.
“What excited me so much about the vintage pieces was the mixture of timeless, iconic designs coupled with the great history of the watches. Also, the style of these watches was a big magnet for me – the enduring design of the Oyster case, the warm patina on the dials, a faded inlay and the domed plastic crystal. Perfect!”
But the biggest attraction of all for Bulang was the people – a diverse group, all connected through a deep love for watches. The friendships, trust and support amongst the community was, for Bulang, the biggest treasure on the vintage Rolex scene, allowing him to make many great friends from all over the world – people with great taste, stories and devotion to vintage Rolex.
Around 2003, the internet was starting to become a hub, a meeting place for all the “crazy vintage Rolex nuts”. Bulang and Stahl were both part of this scene and, along with other like-minded collectors, were hungry to grow their knowledge. “We spent countless hours having endless discussions about the underline on a dial, the mixture of luminous materials in the early-1960s or the shape of the lugs,” says Bulang. “We had so many great talks on forums but we felt it was time to get everybody together and so we set up and hosted the first Passion Meeting. We invited a trusted group of watch nerds to join us for a weekend of pure watch passion and it was fantastic to meet the people behind the computer screens. The events had such a wonderful atmosphere – they were so relaxed and the level of trust from everybody was unique. These were no ordinary get-togethers.
“We also shared the images of these events on the forums and so were able to inspire others by showing incredible watches to so many people worldwide. We were able to share dozens of images of 20 Rolex MilSubs on a table, 30 Big Crown Subs and 20 Paul Newman Daytonas. Such images had never been seen before online and this sharing of the magic with people who could not be there was one of the most unexpected yet important outcomes of the events.”
No stranger to the watches mentioned above, Bulang has personally owned some of the most important grail watches of our time. In 12 years of collecting he discovered, among others, a perfect 6538 Big Crown, an original owner Rolex 5517 MilSub, a 5513 Comex and a 6241 Newman Daytona; all big pieces. Out of all the watches he had, however, the greatest one was the Rolex 5510 Big Crown Submariner. “You cannot explain it until you wear one on your wrist, but a big crown is so different,” he enthuses. “That watch had a real warm patina on the indexes and a little spot on the 11 hours marker. But just like Cindy Crawford, that little spot added so much character. That was what attracted me so much and I have learnt over the years that perfect is not always the best – it’s about character.”
“The ref. 6241 Newman Daytona is another big love. The dial design and stylish look of that watch are just amazing. I love the combination of elegance and sportiness. It’s hard to describe, but a Newman dial is just magical. Three-dimensional and one of the most beautiful and detailed dials Rolex ever made.”
One Careful Owner
In the world of Rolex collecting, original owner watches are hotly sought-after as they often bring with them a fascinating backstory. Bulang recalls one such timepiece – a Rolex 5517 MilSub – and the day he spent with its first and only owner who had worn it in combat. “It was one of the most emotional days in my collecting history,” he confesses. “On another occasion, an older gentleman contacted me about a Submariner ref. 6200 (a Big Crown) he needed to sell. He inherited the watch from his dad who had used it in the tests for nuclear bombs during the 1950s. He still had images of his father wearing the watch.”
These watches are often very sentimentally valuable and are charged with emotional memories. In the case of Bulang’s ref. 6200, it was even more emotional as the owner needed to part with the watch to fund the treatment of his sick wife. Bulang says it makes him incredibly happy that he was able to help by finding a new home for the watch and benefit both parties.
The Full Package
As his passion for the watches grew over the years, so too did Bulang’s interest in accessorising the timepieces with other lifestyle products and photographing them for his blog – 100percent Rolex Passion. Eventually he began selling what he refers to as “Curated Packages” on the blog. “I would take an iconic vintage Rolex and add accessories that I believed reflected the emotion or aesthetic of the watch,” he explains. “It could be a bracelet, a bag or a vintage knife complemented by different straps. This became the essence of Bulang & Sons, which we founded in 2012 – us curating style around collectable objects that we love. And it seems that others loved it too.”
Core to the marketplace that is Bulang & Sons is the idea of curatorship of styles and watches. “We believe that this is our main differentiator,” Bulang says. “Also, we only buy and sell what we love. Our tag line is ‘style for watch lovers’. The love for the watches is the common ground. But we believe that most ‘watch lovers’ also have similar values around tradition, long-lasting relationships, connection, and a focus on quality. This might be the jeans or shoes they wear, a bag, a piece of furniture or a car.
“We have had so much great feedback over the years where people have become interested in watches because we inspired them through our images and the way we published related or interesting articles on our site. And when people get into the watches, they often discover our curatorship and styling of the watches and subsequently begin to wear them with leather straps and accessories to mix and match their preferred mood and style.”
So, as a watch styling guru to the masses, what does Bulang feel are the emerging trends or undiscovered watches that collectors should be looking out for? He thinks for a moment and then shares a tip for the future: “I am not so sure if they are ‘still undiscovered’, but one surely undervalued watch for me is the Rolex Datejust. It is one of the most iconic watches of the Rolex family and there are so many variations to make you smile. Its timeless design and style just work so well for me right now. Long-time collectors neglected them in the hunt for Subs, GMTs and so on. But for sure they are sexy and the foundation of what many feel is the Rolex vibe.”