“I don’t want to be a professor of vintage watches,” says Maurizio de Simone. “A lot of people think that. But my experience came from this long term business, and my passion lets me share knowledge to collectors. It promotes this kind of collecting so that more people can come in.”
The Italian has maintained a shop by the Spanish steps in the eternal city of Rome since 1983, back in the heydays of vintage watches. “The prices then were very cheap; wherein today it is $100,000, at the time it was only $100,” he says. “It was the golden age for us, we could find any watch we need. However, the prices and the profits were very small, but the quantities were a lot." Called Watchesinrome, the store is probably the oldest one of its kind that is still in operation, and features pieces from some of the best auction houses in the world.
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Despite shooing off tags of being the foremost authority in his line of interest, de Simone is respected around the globe. He counts watch journalists as friends, having written for a magazine himself. Auction houses and fellow dealers constantly keep him in the loop of the industry’s goings-on. And would-be collectors from different corners of the planet value his expert advice.
During de Simone’s short visit to the Philippines, we sat down with him at Vintage Grail, the popular watch shop at the basement of the Peninsula Manila. There, he discussed the nuances of both trade and passion.
You define these watches as art. Why so?
These watches were made by hand, and the watchmakers of important brands were producing in few quantities. Sometimes the age of the watch changes the dial, which changes the color, and every watch is different so It’s really like a piece of art.
People go to you when they want to start a collection. What happens during a consultation?
To buy vintage watches today is not easy because there are many shops around the world. But most of them are aren’t selling vintage. A few, like me, only deal with vintage, and are well-connected with the auction houses where catalogues have mostly vintage watches. Collectors also do not have the time to go around looking for the right place to find them, or to personally follow all the auctions. They need advice on what is trending now, and what are new discoveries. We stay in contact with them through social media. Often, at night, I will wake up and someone will call me from Australia, or the US, or from Asia, and I have to take care of all of them around the world.
What are the things that collectors need to be wary about?
Fakes, of course. Vintage watches are very expensive now, so there are scammers all over. We have to watch over our collectors to be safe.
Where should a collector start?
Most come from collecting modern watches—Rolex, Patek Philippe, Audemars Piguet. They promote a lot for the modern watches because the older designs are already sold. People know these watches from magazines, TV, and social media. Some of them are good investments, too, because these brands make good products even today. Some of them will be classic forever. On the other hand, the collectors see that the major brands are making these new productions from interpretations of the vintage watches. The collectors will start looking at the vintage watches, and will slowly come into the vintage watch world.
How do you measure the value of a watch?
We have three rules. One is the rarity, and the second is the condition, which are both important. The third one is the full set. For example, a watch coming from the ’50s with the original box, papers, and receipt? That is worth another 20 percent of its base value.
How do you find these pieces?
It’s not easy. In the past, there were auctions where dealers could buy large quantities of watches to set up a good stock. Today, it is hard because the good pieces are few and there is a big competition. Sometimes I am more of a collector than a dealer, because I buy something in the auction, then I keep it in my safe for two to three years. Then later, when someone asks for that particular watch, maybe I’ll decide to sell. Otherwise, I know many other who improve their collection by trading, buying a full collection when somebody wants to sell without paying the premium of the auction houses. These are the only ways that I can buy. I never buy over the internet because it is risky. I always suggest not to do that. If you don’t know the dealers personally, it is better not to go this way.
What makes a watch vintage?
Wrist watches were born in the ’20s, so 100 years ago. But those were very small, delicate, and simple and not very fashionable now. The good ones start from the ’30s up until the ’80s. Those are the golden age of the vintage watches in the Swiss industry. We can say that, for example, Rolex is desired by a lot of collectors. They made sports watches starting from 1954 up until the ’90s. They are still very collectable.
Why do you single out only a few brands?
There are many brands. But I must admit that everyone is mostly focused on three or four brands: Rolex, Patek Phillipe, Audemars Piguet, and Omega. There are others like Longines which are good. But those four are the ones that everybody wants because those are the watches that are growing in valuation. While collectors are moved by passion, good investment is also a key that you should never forget.
And why is it so exciting for you?
Because it’s my life. After 36 years of doing this, my life is mostly about following the watches and the watch world. Recently, we had a dinner with many of the old timers like me and other journalists. We were thinking of making a book with all the history behind the watches. What I like more is the passion. I want to share the passion, and then the value is secondary.
Photographs by Medal Elepaño