The last time I had lunch with my friend Lapo Elkann, I learned a highly descriptive term in Italian, called “Burrino”. This refers to the person in the farming community that churns the butter. Once the butter is ready, the burrino, or butter maker, travels to the city to sell it. Along the way he picks up, at least in his mind, the trappings of an urbane sophisticate. So much so that when he returns to his rural roots, he feels compelled to lecture his fellow members of the agrarian class on the finer points of city dwelling. He holds forth with great self-appointed authority on the currently-in-vogue hem length, the acceptable style of waistcoat presently favored by the haute bourgeois. And, if he is a particularly gifted butter maker. If his cows are so endowed by the great goddess of fertility, Aphrodite, to have udders swollen and overflowing with a river of milk so delicious as to drive even the most discerning gourmand to tears. If his cart is so massively overladen with concupiscent bovine issue that his donkey totters perennially at the precipice of cardiovascular collapse. If he were blessed with the mad money-making, loot-slinging acumen of an army of abacus-wielding Rothschilds. Then after a particularly successful day at the market, he might return home and flip back his shirt cuff to display to his ruddy-cheeked kin-folk his ultimate trophy, his testament to impeccable taste and the unerring symbol of his ascension to the ranks of haute-monde sophistication… yes, you guessed it — his Paul Newman Daytona.
Because, the Paul Newman Daytona is the ultimate symbol of horological connoisseurship, right? Whether pump or screw pusher, three or two color, steel or gold, the Paul Newman Daytona is the ne plus ultra, le choix nonpareil and key to entrance into a club that eschews all things banal, shiny and obvious, and instead practices a more-subtle form of reverse snobbism, in which the Art Deco-themed font and square hash-marked subdials on your Valjoux 72-powered chronograph clearly mark you as a member of the elite cognoscenti. Or does it? Because, considering the wild growth in popularity of the Paul Newman Daytona, its conspicuous appearance on the wrists of celebrities the world over, and the concurrent nosebleed prices it’s attained, it begs the question: has the Paul Newman Daytona shifted in status from the cool vintage collector’s grail watch to become the new membership card to an all-new society of butter-churning arrivistes?
But let’s back up a second and think about our culture of social relativism. Since time immemorial, human beings have strived to better themselves, in particular, relative to others in their peer group. And since the advent of capitalism, they have demonstrated their superiority to others in two ways: by how much money is stuffed in their mattresses and how unfeasibly large and gravity defying their wives’ bosoms are. But with the rise of the middle class or bourgeoisie, newly minted arrivals to the middle stratum of society added another challenge to their sense of self worth. They had to show that they had culture and taste as well as money. In other words, they had to seek out and to co-opt the trappings and symbols of the aristocracy.
No individual attempted this with more blundering charm than Molière’s protagonist/comedic foil Monsieur Jourdain from his play Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme. The name of this play is intentionally oxymoronic, since a gentleman in the court of Louis XIV could only be endowed with his title through noble birth. But a small thing like that was not going to get in the way of M. Jourdain’s single-minded determination to rise meteorically and batter down the vigilantly patrolled hymen of the haute monde, by living like a true baller and shot caller, ahem… albeit one with class. Of primary importance is the way he marshals his sartorial assets consisting of velvet breeches and vest, rhinestones and doublet with an all-important inverted buttonhole — “no marquis would have it otherwise,” says his tailor.
But say M. Jourdain was alive today. And if he was as smart and insightful as he was doggedly determined to rub shoulders with the Santo Domingos and the Thurn und Taxis of this world. If he studied the interweb watch websites voraciously, he would realize that what was cool a decade ago, has become the very apogee of douche-baggery in the post-financial-crisis era. He would ascertain that instead of the massive priapically winged Pagani in gulf-chic chrome finish, he should own a vintage Aston Martin V8 Vantage X Pack or a Singer Porsche. Instead of the blinged-to-infinity skeletonized quadruple-oscillator-equipped panjandrum of horological finery, today, he needs a watch that shows how cool, how savvy, he is. Because he is insightful enough to understand today’s snobbery exists just as obviously, but in direct opposition to the old snobbery. And the age of “discretion and subtlety” we find ourselves in offers just as many opportunities to flaunt one’s wealth, but just in a different way.
So he thinks to himself, “Clearly, vintage is where it’s at. Should I buy Eric Ku’s Mark I Patent-Pending, Single Red Sea-Dweller? Hmm, not obvious enough to enough people. How about an Omega Speedmaster ref. CK 2998-1 with lollipop hand and tropical dial from the Davidoff Brothers? Better, but still not recognizable enough. How about I bid on that Patek ref. 2499 in the upcoming Phillips auction? Good idea but with prices at about a million and a half and beyond, I’ll have some ‘splaining to do to the wife who’s got her eyes set on that Marc Chagall and the vaginal-rejuvenation surgery.” What’s the safe choice, the sure bet, the watch that’s clearly expensive but won’t give him anxiety wearing and that everyone is sure to recognize as a sign of his incomparable taste? Fortunately, he need look no further than the seemingly endless supply of the incredible, rare Paul Newman Daytonas littering the cyber highways of Chrono24.
But let’s back up a second here. Why is it that the world has suddenly gone vintage crazy? Part of it is because the post-financial-crisis world has gone back to embracing classic values and all things perennial. You need only look at the insane prices in the vintage-car market as proof positive of this. Another reason is that rich people have become aware that vintage watches offer better bragging rights than new watches. Says Swiss watchmaking’s greatest living genius, Jean-Claude Biver, “The reason people like vintage watches is because people always want what money can’t buy. Money can’t buy love and it can’t buy health, but pretty much everything else, it can buy. But a rich person doesn’t want to buy a watch for half a million dollars then meet someone else with the same watch. He wants something that is genuinely hard to find.” In other words, where exclusivity is the game, the relative rarity of vintage watches offers ever more insular street cred. But at the same time, he doesn’t want the watch to be so exclusive that no one recognizes what it is and correspondingly acknowledges what great taste he has. And for this, the Paul Newman Daytona is perfect. But let’s not dismiss that the watch, in every incarnation, is genuinely beautiful. Says auction superstar, and one of the key figures in increasing the popularity of the Paul Newman Daytona, Aurel Bacs, “Look at it. It is genuinely stunning. Probably one of the most perfect and beautiful chronographs ever made.”
And just how rare is the Paul Newman Daytona in reality? It is believed that for every 20 normal-dial vintage Daytonas, there is one Paul Newman in existence. Renowned journalist and edifier of all humanity Nick Foulkes explains, “The Paul Newman Daytona was perfectly positioned to become the new ‘it’ vintage watch. First of all, it is perceived to be rare, which it is in comparison to the normal-dial Daytonas. But in reality there are a lot of them out there, enough that as long as you have enough money, you’ll be able to pick one up. It is also distinct-looking enough that even people with very little knowledge about watches can recognize that it’s expensive and that is certainly key in the game of vintage-watch one-upmanship.” To add to that, I also think the Paul Newman Daytona has definitely become the point of entry into vintage watches for the hedge-fund guy who’s just made a lot of money. He wants to pick the watch that will immediately distinguish him as a connoisseur. It is the most obvious choice because it has a unique appearance and, of course, there is the mythology surrounding it. And it’s rare enough that it’s not easy to get, but easy enough to get if you really want one.
But has the Paul Newman Daytona reached a point of oversaturation? Has it become so obvious a choice that it has lost its panache? One major warning sign is how it has become completely entrenched in popular culture as the preferred celebrity wrist swag. Beyond double platinum recording artist John Mayer, it can be found on the wrist of Ellen DeGeneres, Adam Levine and Ed Sheeran. Specifically, Jake’s excellent Rolex blog clocked Adam Levine wearing a ref. 6241 white-dial Paul Newman, ensconced in the red leather throne of his TV show, The Voice. But he was also seen with a black-dial version of the same watch. Ed Sheeran was spotted on another watch blog wearing a black-dial ref. 6241 while performing at the 2014 Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show. Hard man Jason Statham also appears on Jake’s blog apparently wearing an ultra-rare black-dial RCO PN ref. 6263. What is clear is that the Paul Newman-dial Daytona is becoming a permanent fixture in the world of celebrity, begging the question: how much longer before Kanye and Kim are spotted wearing matching Paul Newman swag as they renew their vows?
Also alarming are the seemingly unending contemporary homages to the Paul Newman dial from garage companies that modify new watches with a modern take on this iconic dial. But maybe they are just doing what Rolex fans wish the mighty green giant, Rolex, would do. I recall, in 2013, I was asked by Rolex to write the first story in their inaugural edition of their in-house magazine, celebrating the model’s 50th anniversary. As I was composing my words, I allowed myself to dream for a moment that Rolex would create a stirring homage to this, their most legendary timepiece. Would watch lovers the universe over lose our collective minds if Rolex were to come out with a contemporary yellow-gold Paul Newman with a ceramic bezel, or Panda-Dial platinum version? Unfailingly yes. Even the most jaded watch collectors amongst us would go misty-eyed with emotion, so powerful is the Paul Newman mythology and so deeply entrenched is that damnably beautiful dial in our emotional response system. Is that going to happen? I have no idea.
But back to the vintage Paul Newman watches. Are they played out? Have they become outré and gauche symbols of overt-hedge-fund-dude dick-headedness? Or are they still stirring classics? Let’s look at the question from the perspective of the celebrities wearing them today and what they’ve achieved. Because as someone who is most decidedly not a descendent of aristocracy, shouldn’t I applaud the burrino or the bourgeois gentilhomme, that through sheer testicular fortitude and a healthy dose of Nietzschean Will to Power has risen above his station in life, shattered the confines of his economic stratum and blasted through the glass ceiling of small-minded prejudices? If Ellen DeGeneres wants to wear a million-dollar black-dial RCO screw-pusher Paul Newman ref. 6263 on every one of her four limbs as she makes sweet ineffable love to her partner, Portia de Rossi, on a waterbed inflated with Henri Jayer Cros Parantoux, the more power to her.
Because she, along with Jason Statham and Ed Sheeran, all began their lives as proverbial underdogs, one hawking stolen wares in a street market and another busking on the sidewalk, and each has clawed forth and extracted the sweetest nectar from life, thanks to a back-breaking work ethic, combined with exceptional God-given talent. And what about Adam Levine? I defy any man, woman or child to not admit the guy has talent in spades. And all of them want to rock out with their exotic dials out, who am I to player-hate?
In conclusion, yes, without a doubt, the Paul Newman Daytona, in all its many manifestations — including the tropical-dial versions that look crapped out the ass of a civet cat — have become the definitive rich guy’s timepiece of choice/celebrity swag of the moment. But after the vagaries of trend and ephemera have passed, after the pendulum of prevailing cultural mores swing back in favor of Dom Pérignon-bearing bottle-service hostesses replete with incendiary sparklers protruding from their varying orifices, gold-plated Lamborghinis and all things bling, when vintage watches go back to being just old watches, the Paul Newman Daytona, as Aurel Bacs correctly put it, “will always be one of the most beautiful watches of all time.” And in this — as in all things — Bacs is correct.