Revolution speaks to Lester Ng, Creative Director of Noble & Graff, a luxury leather trunk maker, about watch collecting and the accessories around it.
Tell us a bit about yourself.
I’m the Creative Director of Noble & Graff, we specialise in making leather boxes and trunks. I actually started off with tailoring and kind of fell into the leather trade when I started working at Alexander McQueen. They had too many clothing designers so they had me work on leather and I was instantly hooked. I had already collected a few pieces of old trunks before I started working on leather so I knew that it was quite a special thing to be in. I get to meet a lot of watch collectors because of the boxes. I’ve been collecting pocket watches for many years and then because I used to travel a lot and moved to a lot of places when I was a kid, pocket watches were quite difficult to collect and move around with so then I started collecting wristwatches.
How did you get interested in timepieces?
I was always into craftsmanship and things that are handmade. I used to collect a pocket watch part, which is the cock inside the movement which holds the balance. It was all handmade so all of them were unique. For me, it was very interesting to see how things were made by hand, you know the design from back in the day, and it was cheap to collect as well. It was like when kids collect Coca Cola bottles and stuff, for me it was collecting watch cocks. I’ve got books and books of those now, which is like research for me in design. I collect books as well, like war paintings and all sorts of heritage stuff. The first time I really looked into wristwatches was in London in Burlington Arcade, there’s a really famous Rolex shop with a massive selection there. People will go there to buy their birth year watch. I started looking at those but in the end I bought something brand new, a Glashütte which I still have. It was nothing spectacular but it’s just a nice dress watch and the quality is amazing, very underrated. After a while, I started collecting different brands and ended up collecting vintage Rolex. I still enjoy modern pieces, but I spend most of the time with vintage Rolex, or semi-vintage Rolex.
What do you usually look for in a watch?
In modern pieces I usually look at the movement, because with modern technologies most of the movements now are really beautifully made, the design, the complications, and overall the toughness of it. For Rolex, I love that you can wear it, you can bang it around it wouldn’t really matter, and you could go swimming with it, go hiking, pretty much do everything with it so it’s different, it’s like having a tank on your wrist.
You don’t only collect watches but also accessories, tell us about that side of your collecting habits.
Yes, after a while I started collecting different pieces like boxes, accessories that came with watches, NATO straps, and bracelets because there are so many different variations. It’s quite fun and interesting to learn about. Like old bracelets from Rolex for instance, they’re quite thin and lightweight and then it kind of developed into solid links. You can see the development, how the design progressed in terms of wearability. For boxes, it’s just one of the things that is quite interesting because they’re relatively rare. They’re not easy to maintain because of the humidity over here and are generally quite beaten up. Sometimes I buy them just to stop an itch from not buying watches [laughs] but I buy boxes because of the design, the really old school design, typography and how it was made. It’s very expensive to produce boxes like that now. Like gold foiling, maybe it’s not that big a piece, but for them to gold foil like this, it’s quite a complex process. Even for me now, from a design point of view, during the milling process there’s a lot of wastage, so that’s why it’s very expensive to do these boxes and for me this is just beautiful. No one does this thing anymore.
Do you have an endgame for your watch collecting?
For vintage Rolex, yes, and I more or less already achieved it. For me it was the Milsub, it was my holy grail for a very long time. I already had a couple of Milsubs, and then my top four is the Milsub, the Big Crown, the Milgauss and the Bakelite GMT. I reached three of the four goals already so, not that I’m bored with it, but you know I’m very happy that I managed to hit them. There are still a few pieces I would like to have. Definitely the Milgauss I would love to have someday because then I will have completed my favorite four Rolex pieces. In terms of modern pieces, I’d want to try having some Patek complications, they are massively underrated. One I definitely want to have is a 3970, or a 5004. These two would be my Holy Grail of Patek Philippe.
You have a business creating trunks, leather goods and watch boxes. How did this adventure start?
I did my Master’s Degree in tailoring and at the same time I did an Artefact Degree as well. So I was doing two degrees at the same time just because I always wanted to learn how trunks were made. I went to an old trunk company in England and asked all the craftsmen to teach me how to make things like that. I learned a lot of new ways to construct items. For instance in a bespoke trunk, we do things inside out instead of having a size ready and then you start to work on the inside. This way, everything will be perfectly sized because you calculate from the inside to the outside. So the inside will slot in exactly to the millimeter if you want to. There’s also this little edge to keep the moisture out and when it closes, you can feel the air gap. All these little things you won’t be able to experience without having a seasoned craftsman tell you, so I really enjoyed it, and when the first economic downturn came, a lot of old English companies went bankrupt. So, my classmate and I just decided to relaunch a brand by ourselves and keep the old heritage and tradition of leather making.
Do you think that as a collector yourself, it gives you a better understanding of what people need in watch boxes compared to other makers?
Most of the boxes out there are just a simple slot. Maybe they don’t handle watches as much as we do. So we put a lot of effort to upgrade existing designs. For the biggest trunks, we make the trays with an angle so when you pull it out, all the watches will be facing you instead of having reflections from the top light, it’s small details like that. It’s a lot more work to do those but for us we enjoy this so much that it doesn’t matter if it’s extra work. The enduser will understand it as well because I normally only tell them afterwards. So for them, they order a trunk with a tray for 20 pieces and then once it arrives they say “Woah, I didn’t ask for it but it’s all well thought out.” They appreciate the extra effort we put into it.
Rolex Submariner “Big Crown” ref. 5510
Although most collectors tend to search for a Rolex ref. 6538 when it comes to “Big Crown” vintage Submariners — it was worn by Sean Connery’s 007 in Dr. No — the ref. 5510 is a much rarer example of the “Big Crown” Submariner as it was only produced for one year in the late 1950s before being replaced by the ref. 5512. Between 400 and 600 watches are estimated to have been produced. Lester’s 5510 is all-original on the inside and the outside. “The condition is pretty good for its age and you can see the radium burn. Yeah, this watch is still highly radioactive. You don’t get to see this a lot and to me it is simply a beautiful watch.”
Breguet Classique 5207
“For me this is a very special watch. I got it as a pair for my wife. We bought this for our wedding. I could have bought something else but for me they make beautiful watches. It’s one of my favourite watchmakers and also the dial is beautiful, it’s done entirely by hand with guilloché. It’s a very classy watch. I don’t wear it a lot, I just simply like to look at it. The movement is beautiful, and it’s just an amazing watch. Underrated.”
Rolex Day-Date ref. 18038 Onyx dial
“This watch is the most important watch in my life. It came from my father actually.” Lester’s Rolex Day-Date is a beautiful yellow gold example with a black Onyx dial. It remains in new old stock condition and still has the original Rolex sticker on the caseback, and there is a good reason for that. “He bought this brand new from Rolex many, many years ago and he never liked it. He bought this with his hard-earned paycheck, and he just needed something to remember by, but it was just too flashy for him so he kept it in the safe all these years. By chance, one time he was looking through my auction catalogues and told me, ‘Oh I’ve got one of those.’ It’s unworn, it is as fresh as it comes. The Onyx dial is brand new. It’s also too flashy for me so I don’t wear it. It kind of became the family heirloom so I’m just going to keep it forever and pass it on to my kids.”
Precista Royal Navy
The Precista Royal Navy diver’s watch might be obscure to most but it is actually the rarest of all British-issued dive watches. Only issued between 1981 and 1982, they have become quite collectible but still affordable if you manage to find one for sale. A re-edition of this exact watch, complete with new old stock ETA movements used in the original timepiece, was also released recently to cater to the demand for this vintage diver’s watch. “This is actually the original watch, you can see it has a Tritium dial. I was looking for this watch for many, many years. In fact, it took me longer to find this than the Milsub. It’s one of two watches that replaced the Rolex Milsub, the other is CWC, which is still available today and still supplying the MOD. Everything is original and the condition is really superb. I only came across, maybe two or three pieces of this, and I’m just really lucky to have one.”
Rolex Sea-Dweller ref. 16600
Part of the Rolex catalogue for 20 years, the Rolex Sea-Dweller ref. 16600 is the longest lasting Sea-Dweller reference. It was Lester’s first vintage Rolex but he likes to point out that when he started collecting, anything with a patina was vintage to him. Just like many of us, he learned a lot over the years by talking to more experienced collectors and studying watches. “A lot of collectors don’t consider crystal glass vintage but I got this simply because it is a beautiful watch. I knew it was very tough so it went with me and my wife twice to the Arctic. I don’t own this anymore per se because my wife loves it so much it kind of became her watch. I think this is going to be a family piece for us, it will be in my permanent collection.”