Jose Martin V. Ursúa

That Old Magpie Brain: Reflections on a Collector’s Journey

Beyond Acquisition, the Thrill of the Hunt and the Lure of History

They say that three data points make a trend. Does that also mean that three or more like objects compose a collection? If you are a regular reader of Calibre, then the odds are high that you consider yourself a collector of watches. It also wouldn’t be unreasonable to extrapolate that you collect other things as well, whether they be stamps, cameras, or fine art. So what drives us to acquire more than our practical needs dictate? After all, many are satisfied by having just one example of something desirable: a car, a house, even a spouse! Surely, as refined men of culture, there is something that separates us from the thieving magpie, driven by instinct to collect shiny objects to line its nest. Or are we just magpies with more disposable income?

I can speak of my experience in purchasing my first proper watch. And by “proper,” I mean something beyond the $100 fashion quartzes (and one $90 mechanical Soviet watch) that I wore from elementary school and through my university years. About 15 years ago, I was working a proper office job, in a bank’s head office skyscraper at the end of Ayala Avenue. This was serious business, for serious men! It was time to put away childish things like the corroded “Benetton by Bulova” that I had worn daily for over a decade. Months of intense research followed — at times excruciating, but mostly exhilarating. I had mentally committed to spending over $2000 for a watch, and the last thing I wanted was to pay that princely sum for a piece that I wouldn’t enjoy forever. At last, I settled on a watch that is one of our hobby’s staples: The Omega Speedmaster Professional aka “The Moon Watch.” This was not the blindingly obvious option that is today, so it took some time before I gravitated toward its functional and elegant looks, and its place in 20th century history. There were a couple of close calls with similar watches in its family — specifically, a Mark II and a Speedmaster Reduced — but these would only reinforce my resolve to buy the real deal. At last, I took receipt of a 2008 Moon Watch, moved it from its awful lipstick-pink box onto my wrist, and all was right with the world. For about six months.

The Speedmaster was supposed to be my one and only watch to accompany me to the end of my days. Instead I sat in a tcc on Orchard Road, negotiating over the price of the Longines Legend Diver ensconced in the huge wooden box on the table. The time I had spent researching my first purchase opened my eyes to the broad, deep, and endlessly fascinating world of watches. One rabbit hole led to another, and I exhaustively bookmarked and read through countless websites. I marinated in watch content, absorbing facts and opinions that would ensure that I made the right choice. But there also came a realization: The Speedy was the perfect watch for me… most of the time. Surely, I needed one more watch to fill in the gaps, and wouldn’t this classic Super Compressor-style diver fit the bill? That process would repeat a few more times, before I no longer felt the need to justify the next acquisition.

It’s amazing how quickly one’s attitudes can change on collections. One of my other passions is bicycling, and in my life I have owned exactly three road bikes — and until recently, never more than one at a time. Prior to October of this year, my ride was a 2012 Cannonade SuperSix Ultegra. With one decade and 35,000 kilometers behind it, this lightweight and purely mechanical racer is thoroughly depreciated, but still more than a match for others on the road and to my own level as a rider. Last month, I finally took the plunge and bought a modern bike — a Time Alpe d’Huez with wireless electronic shifting, hydraulic disc brakes, tubeless tires, and cables routed within the frame for better aerodynamics. All non-crucial items, but they definitely enhance the quality of life on the saddle. Within two months of getting this dream bike, I was on eBay eyeing a 20-year-old Calfee Tetra with Campagnolo Record components. (I realize that I’m going hard into jargon that only cyclists of a certain age will understand, but that’s part of the appeal of our hobbies, isn’t it?) This Calfee was, more or less, a modernized version of the bicycle ridden in the early 90s by Greg LeMond, 3-time Tour de France winner and one of my childhood heroes. It’s a gorgeous example of early carbon fibre framebuilding, with spiderweb-like gussets where the tubes intersect, and the material’s 3K weave gleaming under the clear coat. And it was in my size! (Well, almost. It was 1cm too big.) In the end, I held back due to practical considerations (i.e. Where do I put this thing? How often would I actually ride it?), but I surprised myself by even contemplating a third bike. Chalk that up to the power of nostalgia, and the speed at which momentum builds in a growing collection.

“Through these watches, I collect stories that I find fascinating. They may concern the watch’s significance, its provenance, or an owner’s long journey in acquiring it.”

The Singapore Longines was my onramp to the watch collector’s road, on which I continue to travel. In the early days, the motivation was mostly superficial: Is it beautiful? In fact, it didn’t even need to look particularly good on me, which is why I have a lovely Panerai Luminor that is honestly too big for my wrist. As I accumulated more watches, their appearance was still a vital factor, but I was equally fascinated by the history of each timepiece. How did it factor in a watch company’s evolution? What is its significance in horology, or even in the broader culture? You could say that I’ve become a collector of stories that I find fascinating — even those that I know would mightily bore the layman to tears. Perhaps the story is less about a watch’s importance, but rather a narrative about its byzantine development, or an owner’s long journey in acquiring it. I am especially fascinated by that latter pursuit: Research, chasing down leads, and obtaining rare parts and accessories all require much effort but can be so rewarding. The story might never be told to another (as mentioned, these can be mightily boring!), but keeping it in one’s own memory is satisfying enough. On the other hand, “I worked, saved $20,000, and spent it at the AD” is not a tale that I find especially hair-raising. If that is your “Grail lore” then you might be missing the point of Grail watches entirely.

The acquisitive impulse is not the same for everyone, so I posed the question of collecting to others. The first was a coworker, whom I had clocked as a fellow enthusiast on the first day of my current job. I’d spotted a big Planet Ocean on his wrist, and it wasn’t long before we were talking. Soon afterward, he enjoyed a significant win by signing a lucrative partnership deal. How did he celebrate? He called his “watch guy” (i.e. a colleague in Hong Kong) who found him a brand-new Submariner with a reasonable markup. I hadn’t seen this coworker in a month, as his wife had just given birth to their second child. Over dinner, I asked him whether he planned to mark the occasion with a new purchase. He said he hadn’t decided yet, but emphasized that he buys watches that he knows will accumulate in value so they can be passed onto his children. Perhaps it’s the zeal of a new father, but he is always keen to emphasize that family is his top priority. In fact, he tipsily doubled down: “I don’t give a hoot about payments,” (for we both work in the payments industry) but he cares about it only insofar as it allows him to provide for his family. It didn’t give me much insight as to which watch he would be buying next, but since he was getting misty-eyed at that point, I switched to other topics.

Onto the next respondent: One of my best friends in Toronto divides his time between Canada, where his new wife lives and works, and south Asia, where he runs his family’s conglomerate. Despite having tremendous wealth, he might be the most sensible and frugal man I know and his needs will always override his desires. For example, he will continue to drive a 10-year-old Lexus IS250 that’s looking a little rough around the edges as long as it continues to run. (Until death, then.) He is also a keen hunter and fisherman, and the only items he owns that threaten to become a collection are his half-dozen rods. But he’s quick to deny that he’s a collector, because each rod has a specific purpose and, to him, “collection” implies frivolity. It took a lot of convincing (from his bride and from me!) for him to accept a white-gold Rolex Datejust as a wedding gift from his new in-laws. That gave him a third watch, joining a hand-me-down Omega Constellation and a cheapie quartz Armani. I get the feeling that the act of collecting is antithetical to his personality, and wonder what he really thinks about his good friend with such cavalier spending habits!

After my encounters with that incomprehensibly sensible pair, I needed to connect with a more likeminded collector. Calibre has featured Nelson Wu and the watch stand/sculpture that his company R Werk released earlier this year. Recent months have been exceptionally exciting for the “TYP-01,” which has garnered high-profile attention in the Laguna Seca paddock during Rennsport Reunion, and in artist Daniel Arsham’s “20 Years” exhibition in New York. I met with Nelson at Toronto’s motorhead hangout, RCLUB, and chatted with him on a comfortable couch next to a yellow Integra Type R, a white Testarossa, and an immaculate 912. When asked, Nelson had a characteristically long think about his own development as a collector, from haphazardly purchasing any camera lens that caught his eye to, now, seriously considering a step into the rarefied world of vintage Ferrari. He summed up his thoughts concisely: “Collection must encompass intent and curation. Otherwise, it’s just hoarding.”

“A collection requires intent and curation. Anything else is just hoarding. One does not become a collector by mere happenstance.”

By this formulation, one does not wind up a collector through mere happenstance. There must be a drive toward a goal, even if it is indiscernible to observers. I am reminded of the man who amassed 114 Volkswagen Golfs or even Grahame Fowler and his array of MilSubs and Comex Submariners. As the saying goes, there is method in their apparent madness, but there is a vast grey area in which a collection can be confused with a hoard. With an education in engineering, Nelson views himself as a collector of ideas that resonate. For example, as a lifelong Porsche fan he has often thought about acquiring a 996.1 GT3 (not the GT3 that most Porschefiles dream of) as it is a crucial component in understanding how the company became what it is today. Similarly, the aforementioned Ferrari would be a concrete link to Enzo himself, a titan who cast a very long shadow on motorsport history. Nelson feels that becoming the car’s custodian would bring him closer to that legacy and help him better comprehend the motivations and considerations that evolved the automobile.

Where does that leave me? I return to my earlier assertion that I am interested in collecting stories, whether they’re my own adventures towards acquiring a watch, or tales about the past lives of the watch that landed on my wrist. But I fully reserve the right to buy something that, regardless of provenance or context, is simply pretty and shiny, and would look good in the corner of my nest. All the rationalizations in the world do not alter the fact that these are unnecessary, emotional purchases. The magpie and the collector — we are birds of a feather.


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