Collecting vintage watches can be a tricky business. There's the investment potential to weigh up, not to mention condition, originality and providence. To tick all the boxes for something suitably old and covetably Swiss, you'll need to burn a serious hole in your pocket.
The alternative? Switch rich for kitsch, says Sydney antique dealer Christopher Becker, and blow a lot less dough on something that will put a smile on your face every time you look at it.
Becker is in Melbourne this weekend for the Melbourne Fair, the annual celebration of everything antique and collectable at Caulfield Racecourse. Having begun collecting unusual antiques at an age when most of his friends were collecting football cards and toy cars, Becker will be in his element.
A one-time fashion designer for Morrissey and Saba and award-winning interior designer, he now runs a business specialising in collecting vintage jewellery and design objects, with an eye for eclectica.
He will be one of 60 dealers displaying their 20th Century, antique, Art Deco and vintage wares this weekend, including several rare and genre-busting timepieces. These include the elegant stainless-steel Georg Jensen Vivianna with its distinctive integral half-bracelet, and the strikingly unusual Chopard Tiger's Eye; but also a beautifully preserved Cartier 104 women's watch that was the world's smallest timepiece when it was created in 1925.
"It's a very eclectic mix that I have," Becker says of the stock that revolves through his Potts Point store, Antiques Art Design, in Sydney. "As a person with a design background, it's always difficult when you're standing there with a Georgian something in one hand, and an Art Deco or a '50s piece of kitsch in the other hand, and someone's saying to you 'which one is better?'. Well, this one's 200 years old and is pure and formal. But this one is the ultimate in kitsch and it still speaks to me because it's got a sense of humour!"
An eye for detail
Whilst the high end of the vintage watch market – inhabited by the likes of Rolex, Patek Philippe, Jaeger Le Coultre and Breguet – has been all-but picked clean by wealthy investors, it's still relatively easy to pick up some of the more distinctive and eye-catching models of recent decades for a few thousand dollars, or even less. With such a wide array of choices from modern, avant-garde, high fashion and jewellery styles, the trick is to work out what you will enjoy wearing.
"I would recommend people to buy high, low, quirky and everything in between until they find the style that really suits them," Becker says.
"At the end of the day, that's what collecting is all about, it's got to give some pleasure to you. If you get that from investing, that's fine, but at the end of the day watches are made to be worn and that's where the real joy comes out, in being able to enjoy your collection.
"If you ask any collector what are their favourite pieces, it's not going to be the most valuable. It could be a [Rolex] Submariner they wear all the time, or some quirky Russian wristwatch that is more off-piste in terms of design."
Becker's five tips for collecting and enjoying vintage watches
Wear what you own
"Watches are made to be worn and that's where the real joy comes out, in being able to enjoy your collection."
Collect a style
Find out what you like and begin to build a collection. "It's like Hansel and Gretel, it' a crumb here and a crumb there and that leads you to something else. It's quite an exciting journey because you don't know what the next discovery is or where it's going to take you."
Keep the best, sell the rest
"You're culling the dead wood, the things that don't mean anything to you any more, the things you have moved on from, but by culling it also gives you the opportunity to re-invest in other things that mean more to you at this point in time."
Always buy the best example
"Exceptional will hold its value. But great doesn't have to mean expensive. In the event that you do decide to move on from that piece, you're likely to be able to recoup at least what you've spent."
Trust the experts
"Knowledge is the only thing that can guarantee you the truth, and that takes time to build up. If you buy through a reputable dealer you are hedging your bets and covering your bases, because ultimately those dealers stand behind the product they sell."
The Melbourne Fair is at Caulfield Racecourse from August 9-12. Tickets and information from themelbournefair.com.au
View the gallery above to see some of Christopher Becker's favourite vintage watches.