We Need to See Mechanical Watches as Pieces of Art: Carson Chan

Ahead of the Singapore Watch Fair, GMT India caught up with panellist and watchmaking expert Carson Chan to dissect the world of vintage watches
We Need to See Mechanical Watches as Pieces of Art: Carson Chan
Carson Chan with his Cartier Pebble watch
October 25, 2022
We Need to See Mechanical Watches as Pieces of Art: Carson Chan

Known for presenting the best of the watchmaking world in Singapore, the Singapore Watch Fair has been a significant part of the JeweLuxe event. But starting this year, the watch fair — to be held at Tent@Ngee Ann City Civic Plaza from October 26 to October 30, 2022 — will be a standalone event even as it continues to engage with horology lovers through an array of experiential activities, top-notch watchmaking content, historical displays and panel discussions with leading personalities.

Among the distinguished speakers is Carson Chan, also known as the ‘Watch Professor’ on Instagram (@watchprofessor). A watchmaking expert, Carson has been the GM of Richard Mille and Bonhams’ Head of Watches before assuming his current role as the Chief Advisor of Fondation de la Haute Horlogerie (FHH), a leading not-for-profit foundation that promotes watchmaking excellence around the world. Carson will be speaking at several sessions during the five-day event; right from talking about the vision for the fair and what it means for the Asian watch market to discussing the future of vintage watch collecting and dissecting the collectability of both vintage and new Omega timepieces.

A few days before the event, GMT India’s Managing Editor Vidya Prabhu caught up with Carson during an online interaction. Excerpts from the interview:

Vidya Prabhu (VP): Do you think that the increased demand for vintage watches of late is merely a flash in the pan or do you see a sustained growth?
Carson Chan (CC):
Firstly, how do you define a vintage watch? There isn't a clear cut-off for a watch to qualify as a vintage timepiece. These days, 20-25 years seems to be the generally accepted time period. But I for one believe vintage watches have to be from the pre-nineties.

Yes, we do see good growth in the secondary market. But is this growth sustainable? The answer to this can be found in the modern market because I think that growth in the vintage market, also known as the secondary or pre-owned watches market, goes hand in hand with that in the modern market.

What we need to recognise is that watches, mechanical watches in particular, have witnessed an unprecedented change; I am talking about a change that no other consumer product has undergone. Until a few decades ago, we needed a watch to tell time. Today, that is no longer the case because of the digital devices that we all have. So it’s important to factor in this change when we look at the growth of the overall watch market. 

For sustainable growth, we need to adapt to today’s scenario. So, while watchmakers can talk about accuracy and functionality, it boils down to the art of watchmaking. 

Mechanical watches need to be viewed as paintings or sculptures — we may not need them, but we continue to want them. The good news is that we are moving in this direction, so there is hope for the watch market to grow sustainably. 

VP: At the recently held GPHG exhibit in New Delhi, auctioneer Aurel Bacs also talked about how people buy watches now not because they need them, but because they are passionate about them. What makes a vintage timepiece worth collecting?
CC: I really appreciate rarity and I know many like me who seek it out. These are folks who’d go after watches that have been made in a limited number. Personally, I am all about the story behind a watch: how does it speak to me? That’s what matters. 

I will give you an example. I am a big fan of Velocette, a line of motorcycles made in Birmingham, England. The company itself shut shop in 1971, but a few years before that, one of their motorcycles travelled on a racing circuit at about 100 miles per hour for over 24 hours, thus setting a record of sorts. And because that racing circuit has been demolished, that record continues to stand even today.

How does this connect with watches? Well, at the time of this feat, engineers needed a watch to keep track of time, so they strapped a timepiece called Everbright to the motorcycle. Now this bit of trivia makes this rather inexpensive Everbright watch so much more interesting to me.

VP: Yeah, that is a unique distinction the watch enjoys.
CC: Exactly. Another example I’d like to share is that of renowned Swiss watch designer and artist Gérald Genta. 

Dating back to 1954, the Universal Genève Polerouter is among the earliest masterpieces that Genta designed. It gets its name from the fact that the watch was made in honour of the new polar route — a shorter one between Los Angeles and Copenhagen that flew over the magnetic North Pole — operated by the Scandinavian Airlines Systems. Pilots and crew of these flights were actually given the resulting Genta-designed timepieces, which went on to become the foundation for the entire Polerouter series of watches. 

The point I am making is that it is stories such as these that make a vintage watch worth owning.  

Carson Chan's Universal Geneve Polerouter

: What advice would you give to someone who is looking to start collecting vintage watches?
: I’d say that it doesn’t matter if the watch is vintage or modern; if you are looking to collect watches, you need to arm yourselves with enough knowledge about the subject. Don't just read everything online, because there is a lot of misinformation or agenda-driven content on the Internet. Make this hobby fun and meaningful. Think of attending different watch events and watch collector gatherings. Events like the Singapore Watch Fair are ideal options. 

VP: We are seeing many storied watch brands choosing to reinterpret their vintage designs in a modern fashion. Take the Longines Heritage Legend Diver or the Zenith El Primero Revival G381, limited to just 50 pieces and celebrating the 50th anniversary of the game-changing El Primero movement. What do you have to say about such offerings?
CC: I think it’s a good thing. If you look at the automotive industry, it’s witnessing the same thing. Ford GT, with its three generations, is a name that immediately comes to mind. With the watch industry, we see many brands trying to bring back their iconic designs, but also tweaking them a little. Breitling Navitimer 806, in particular, has been quite faithful to the original. Such interpretations bring more attention to the original vintage timepiece. And there’s also innovation being offered in the new watch. A brilliant example to illustrate this would be Cartier. Their timepieces from both Coussin de Cartier and Masse Mystérieuse collections blend tradition with innovation.

VP: Speaking of innovation, what do you think of the technological advancements in watchmaking and how have they affected vintage watch appreciation?
I think technology can play a big part in extending the life of vintage watches. For example, with 3D printing, it should now be a lot easier — and economical — to manufacture components, including some of the tiniest ones used in these watches. That being said, if it's a George Daniels-designed watch where something broke, I'm obviously not going to look for a 3D-printed part; I am just going to ask renowned watchmaker Roger W. Smith to look at it. So, it depends on which timepiece we are talking about. 

Carson Chan's favourite timepieces include Cartier Pebble, Omega Speedmaster
and Universal Geneve Polerouter

VP: How have India-inspired vintage watches fared among global vintage timepiece collectors? And do you own any?
CC: India plays an important role in the watch-collecting scene; Favre-Leuba was a brand that did well in the past. I know quite a few watch lovers who are really into collecting their timepieces. I myself have been hunting for a vintage Favre-Leuba Sea Sky GMT. If you ever see one, please let me know!