Last week, I started the first leg of my trip to Vintage Rolex Asylum’s get together. Armed with a bag full of snacks for the 30-hour flight I would have to take from New York to Bali, I looked out of the window of my taxi. Nervous but intensely excited, I began mentally preparing myself for what would be the journey of a lifetime.
To fully understand my excitement, let me first provide some background. The Vintage Rolex Asylum (or VRA), founded roughly five years ago by a predominantly Indonesian group of Rolex collectors, puts on a biennial event in Bali for avid and passionate Rolex collectors. This is the third official event, and my first. A meeting of more than 70 of the most passionate and driven Rolex enthusiasts on earth, Bali VRA is an incredible get together that any Rolex junkie would dream about. Collectors from all over the world bring their best timepieces and a weekend of watch admiring and business negotiations ensues.
On the surface, VRA is only a group of watch collectors, but the gathering has come to mean so much more. Although we meet to discuss niche variants of vintage Rolex dials, and could spend hours talking about the evolution of crown guards, the overwhelming sense of camaraderie transforms the meeting into one of friendship. Positive energy abounds; we all say that though the watches are what brings us in, the people are what keeps us around.
I am still in shock at the breadth of this event. I started collecting watches five years ago. My passion has always been sports or tool watches – in particular, Submariners. Maybe I’m a sucker for a story, but I truly love how Rolex integrates time and sport in a romantic way; as the brand developed watches for the diver, it crafted an important relationship between the wearer, alone at the bottom of the sea, and the watch, the instrument keeping him alive. Being able to identify specific traits of these Submariners connects the modern owner to the original history; each watch tells a tale of time, people and their stories.
Influenced by a great shift of interest in watch collecting, the watches today are roughly five times more expensive than they were when VRA started. That’s a huge number. Transformed from an industry with less access to information on quality, an influx of intelligence has revolutionised modern collecting. Today, before buying a watch, all collectors inspect it with a litany of tests and opinions – with the exorbitant prices these watches are fetching, you must know what you are paying for.
Rarity and Condition
There are two factors for investment that are important to weigh up, namely the rarity and condition of the watch in question. Different collectors prioritize different factors. Of course, there is nothing wrong with a rare reference that has honest wear-and-tear, but it does call the investment into question. Will an extremely worn watch stand the test of time? I personally believe quality will prevail, but all original rarities are pushing strong numbers at auctions. Just look at the recent ref. 6538 “Explorer Dial Red Depth” Submariner to come out of Christie’s that hammered at just over $1,000,000 or the most recent prototype “Single Red Seadweller” from Phillips reaching over $700,000.
With this background in mind, I headed to the event. I expected to feel the emotion and humility I did at seeing all of these incredible watches. It is certainly not every day that a watch collector gets to walk into a room and see handfuls of big crowns being passed around, or every single Paul Newman variation in mint condition. Most of the watches I saw in Bali are the ones we will trade in and out of the group for years to come. Vintage watches are finite. The past days of treasures showing up daily on eBay are few and far in between. Today, it’s but a few times a year that something remarkable comes along – and when it does, it’s usually at one of the heavy hitting auction houses and demands a top premium.
One of the most insane watches I saw, though, touched on a very different note – one that makes me feel excited about the future of watch collecting, despite the limitations. All original and completely mint, the watch is a 1958 ref. 5508, with amazing tropical dial and detailed provenance from the original family in Egypt. Geoff Hess, one of the most notable collectors, owns the watch. While the condition of the watch, as rare and as intact as it is, would immediately excite any watch enthusiast, the story cements the importance of the watch.
The story goes like this: With a heavy heart, a son and grandson of the original owner were looking to sell this incredible watch. When they found interest with Hess, a plane ticket was purchased and the whole family travelled across the world from Egypt to New York City. Over the course of the sale, a friendship was formed. Understanding the importance of the watch to the family, Hess did something remarkably kind and beautiful to solidify the deal. He took something precious from his family’s history – a badge from his grandfather’s firefighting career he wore everyday as an NYC fireman – and gave it to the family when they agreed to sell the watch. With this act, Hess forever entwined the two family’s stories: Hess wears the watch and carries the family’s legacy, and the family holds his grandfather’s badge, and carries his.
This story really encapsulates, for me, what makes watch dealing incredible – the human connection. The connection exists not only between buyer and seller, but between us collectors ourselves. VRA has this special group chat on WhatsApp where everyone shares images of watches or silly events. In the mornings, we would all sit around a particular table in the lobby and really get to know each other. As the event came to a close, and most of us were on our way to the airport, one individual who had stuck around posted an image of the table now empty. This image remains in my head even as I am writing this article on the plane. The event is certainly not just about the watches. Looking at that photo of the empty table, I reflect that it is not the absence of the watches that make me emotional, it’s the absence of the people.
Watches too, are emotional. Not in the sense that they have feelings, but that they accumulate stories from the people and places they have been around. When an individual looks at the watch on their wrist, they remember where they were and most importantly who they were when they acquired it.
A watch can represent the whole journey from past to present, the accumulation of different lives, different people. At the end of the day, watches are more than tangible investments; they become part of us, and part of our history. And, as anyone in the VRA would tell you, if you want to become a true die-hard watch collector it is the metaphorical stories that hit home the hardest. No collector can place a value on that.