You’d think that in the age of mobile phones and smart watches that the good ol’ wristwatch would be in its death throes. But Singaporeans, it would seem, still love their wrist candy.
Look no further than the number of Facebook groups about watches. Today, there are at least 27 Singapore-based ones, with some memberships, such as the Rolex Owners Club Asia, Seiko Club Singapore and Singapore Rolex Club, running in the tens of thousands.
And while many might simply be watch enthusiasts, a lot are actually collectors of one sort or the other.
It was a far cry from 15 years ago, when Sugiharto Kusumadi opened his first specialty watch store, Red Army Watches.
“Back then, it was mainly high-end; we didn’t have options for affordable mechanical watches, which collectors prefer,” he said.
Kusumadi, who also co-founded alternative watch microbrand store Watch Wonderland, reckons there are a few factors that have led to the popularity of watches in Singapore. These include having a high concentration of watch experts, journalists and bloggers; a high living standard, which results in discretionary income; and the fact that watches are the perfect collectible in space-constrained Singapore.
And then, there's the Internet. Online shops, online watch communities and the onset of Kickstarter, which has been used by many watch microbrands, has given watch lovers more options – enough to take the plunge and embrace or spark an obsession.
So, what is it about watches that makes people want to collect them? Is it simply about investments, the cool cache, or something else? We had a chat with some collectors to find out what makes them tick.
IN LOVE WITH G-SHOCKS ('CAN YOU SLAM A ROLEX AGAINST A WALL?')
Three years ago, Kelvin Lim decided to overhaul his only Casio G-Shock. It was the same watch the 39-year-old real estate agent had saved up for and owned since he was a student.
But for some reason, servicing the watch took a long time. In his frustration, he decided to buy another G-Shock online. And another. And another. After a month of waiting, he had 40 pieces to keep him company.
“It was relatively affordable and it was only after many months that I hit the three-digit figures,” he said.
Today, Kelvin has a whopping 470 G-Shocks in his collection. “If you factored it all in, I can afford a few Rolexes if I wanted to. But can you slam a Rolex against a wall?” he joked.
“If you want me to wear a delicate watch, I’m likely to damage it easily but G-Shocks don’t have that problem – getting a scratch is a badge of honour compared to scratching your Rolex, which is heart pain!”
His love for G-Shocks is legendary in the watch community, and Kelvin often steps in to defend criticisms about the brand at online forums. “Whenever there’s negative press or any misconceptions about a particular G-Shock, I’ll come in to clarify.”
But being known as a G-Shock connoisseur hasn’t shielded him from being criticised “very often” by others who look down on the kind of watches he loves.
But he remains unfazed, pointing out that there are G-Shock collectors out there “but we’re relatively below the radar,” he said.
And it’s also not uncommon for hardcore collectors to come to his defence at online forums. “We do tease him sometimes but we admire and respect him for his focus. I respect obsession,” said fellow collector Yang Minxiang.
The co-founder of Watch Wonderland would know a thing or two about obsessions – he’s also one of them.
Minxiang started collecting a decade ago – beginning with Russian watches that range from S$25 to S$50. And he’ll really go in deep. “I’ll collect maybe 72 different variants of the Vostok Komandirskie. Later, I went into Seikos,” he said.
Today, Minxiang’s collection numbers more than a hundred pieces from different price points. And like Kelvin, he’s not one to shy away from what others may think is unusual. “I even buy women's watches, because I like the idea and art of it. To me, a watch is not only for wearing but an object to look at.”
When it comes to watches, they all have their charm. “If I wear my S$50 Vostok Amphibia, I will speak about it as passionately as I would a vintage Patek Philippe. I find equal enjoyment in both,” he said.
And Singapore’s full of these obsessive fanatics of all sorts – from people who only collect Adidas watches to those who focus on Seikos or Russian brands. “We can be quite fanatical,” he said.
WOMEN WHO CHOOSE WATCHES OVER BAGS
If you thought watch collecting is a man’s world, try telling that to Nana Ahmad and Elaine Wee.
Last month, the two women were spotted in a sea of male watch collectors at Watch Wonderland for the first Seiko Perspectives gathering.
“I think other than us, the only women were the Seiko staff!” said Elaine, with a laugh.
The 43-year-old project manager started collecting in 2017 – as a way for her and her husband to get over the passing of their beloved dog, Patches. “We decided to splurge to get over our sadness,” she said.
And splurge they did – they got each other a Rolex each. “And there was no turning back,” she recalled. The couple started reading up on watches and they now have a joint 40-piece collection ranging from Seikos to microbrands to a handful of luxury pieces.
To think that before that, Elaine kept teasing her friend Nana: “You only have two wrists, why buy so many watches? Now I understand!”
Of the two, Nana has been collecting longer. The 46-year-old had been buying watches here and there since 2000. But it was on a trip to Japan in 2016 and seeing the Japan-only Seiko models that she caught the bug.
Furthermore, her husband suggested that she collects watches instead of bags. “He’d rather I bought them because at least they’ll look good for a long time and you never know when they’ll be collectors’ items. A handbag you’ll use for one to two years and they start to deteriorate,” she said.
Today, Nana has around 90 pieces (mostly Seikos but with some luxury and microbrands, too) and even an Instagram account (@wristed_time). And about the collection? It’s all Nana’s; her husband just borrows the watches from time to time.
Being the rare female watch aficionado hasn’t been a problem for the two women. While there have been the odd surprised comment about Nana’s preference for “men’s” watches, she said: “I don’t see any discrimination. I think they’re beginning to see there’s a group of women who loves watches, men’s watches.”
Elaine added: “We just like watches and talk about our hobbies, although hopefully, there will be more female watch collectors joining in.”
THEY’RE NOT WATCH SNOBS, THEY’RE WATCH GEEKS
Twenty-five years ago, Lim Ee Chiat saved up for his Rolex. And when he got it, he did the unthinkable – he dismantled it.
“I was curious, but I couldn’t put it back together! I spent about S$600 just to fix it but that’s how I started to like automatic and mechanical watches,” said the 47-year-old engineer.
Meanwhile, James Martin Lim got into watches by default. The 49-year-old businessman’s wife worked at City Chain in the 1990s, so they would inevitably get watches – before James started to seriously collect them in 2009.
Today, the two are well known in the community for their collections – Ee Chiat’s a lover of vintage pieces, while James has a broader collection from all sorts of price points.
And while they do have many luxury watches in their collections (and also a reputation for them), they’re far from being the stereotype associated quite often with collectors – the watch snob who dismisses a Seiko. (We’re looking at you, Robert Downey Jr.)
“Watch collecting has long been associated with expensive brands like Omega, and there are people who are high-end watch collectors who do tend to look down on others who buy, say, microbrands,” said James. “But a watch is a watch – regardless of the brand, you can be a watch collector.”
For Ee Chiat, looking solely at price tags (and even primarily at the investment aspects of watch-buying) is a surefire way of losing that magic. “There’s a fine line between a watch collector and a watch investor. If you cross the line and think ‘will this watch depreciate or appreciate (in value)?’ you’ll lose a bit of the passion.”
Watch snobs James and Ee Chiat may not be but when it comes down to labels, there’s one stereotype that fits the two: The watch geek.
During a recent online release of a limited-edition Seiko Alpinist model, they recalled calling and messaging each other at midnight just to make sure everyone’s awake and can go online to buy it. The same thing happened during the release of an online-exclusive model of Omega’s famous Speedmaster, which sold out in a few hours.
But if you think that’s not geeky enough, how about this: Some of them collect … watch parts.
Ee Chiat, for instance, collects watch bezel inserts, which he self-deprecatingly describes as “aluminium junk”.
“You know what the worst thing is? Even if people offer me S$8,000 dollars, I will still not sell!”
Photography: Aik Chen. Art direction: Jasper Loh