Inside Calibre 61: The secret club for people who watch watches

Late 2013 found Justin Foong, a 30-something town planner and project manager, seated at his computer in Kogarah in Sydney's south wondering how he might hook up with fellow watch enthusiasts. He'd noted how watch forums such as watchuseek.com did just that, but hankered for something local and thought Facebook might be the answer.

Accordingly, in early 2014 Foong and a handful of fellow watch lovers began connecting and sharing thoughts and images via the site, along with posting the objects of their attentions on Instagram.

As the group grew to number about 80 regulars, it was decided they needed a name. From a short list of possibles Calibre 61 was decided upon, calibre deriving from the term for a watch movement and 61 representing Australia's international dialling code.

Fast forward to 2016 and Calibre 61 is a well-known "secret" in the watch community. It's not really a club and couldn't be called small; rather, it's a group boasting more than 300 active participants, one you can't join but have to be invited to participate in.

In keeping with its low profile Foong doesn't like to be photographed – understandable given he also suffered a robbery last year – but he agreed to sit down for a chat about how Calibre 61 has evolved.

I tell colleagues to exercise a bit of due diligence and make sure others are a good cultural fit before asking them to join.

Justin Foong

On the level

"Our first physical get-together was at a rugby league club near Circular Quay, and we had 10 or 12 people there. We had a great time but it was a bit of a challenge to co-ordinate things as we grew, hence the decision to mainly convene on Facebook. Then it spiralled, really taking off in the second year."

Foong stresses that it's not about numbers, "it's about a group of people on the same level. I tell colleagues to exercise a bit of due diligence and make sure others are a good cultural fit before asking them to join."

Wrist shots required

He explains that there's no formal structure, rather a referral system with people added to the group only after being introduced – and vetted, mostly online. "We try to draw out a few interesting facts, making a custom of asking them to provide us with a wrist shot," he says, referring to the kind of watch-on-forearm snap that buffs love to post.

For Foong posting pictures is part of the fun. Then there's that screening of newcomers; buying, selling and trading; advice to group members; even group-buying to organise. And there's those get-togethers to be dealt with.

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I wonder if this growth in activity has run him ragged and if he now requires administrative assistance. "It's all voluntary and it tends to run itself, although unfortunately I'm the one manning things when it comes to posting and the get-togethers are mainly me."

Hands on events

These events, better known as GTGs, are flagged by email and allow enthusiasts to indulge their fascination with timepieces and get a close look at the collections of cohorts.

A restaurant in the central business district has been the recent venue of choice, hosting a crammed back-room of watch lovers who've hauled in their treasure – as many as 15 timepieces each or more – to spread out on table after table.

If you're picturing attendees as predominantly middle-aged men, think again. "It's students, barristers, doctors, lawyers – a wide spread, and definitely under 40," Foong says. "What they have in common is a love of mechanical watches." As for how many watches, Foong notes: "It's really a sickness, and who says we should have quantifiable limits?"

Unlike viewing a watch at a retailer's, the GTGs are decidedly hands-on – watches are picked up, tried on, passed around and of course snapped ad infinitum, smartphones jostling to capture the rarer ones.

Eclectic tastes

"Rolex would be the most popular, modern then vintage models, and quite a large proportion of enthusiasts appreciate Grand Seiko," Foong says. Then again, brands as obscure as F.P. Journe and Ressence have made their own waves in this eclectic company.

I suggest that Foong's mailing list would be one that brands might be keen to tap into, especially given the role aficionados and collectors play in spreading the word.

"I've always wanted to keep commercial interests out of the group – and I'm not one to peddle anything," he insists. "Anyway, these are people who know what they want. But we have definitely been noticed."

As for the future, Foong is equally clear: "It's never been about scale; I'm amazed what's happened, humbled, as one could imagine. I just thought it would be great to meet watch lovers."

This article first appeared in the AFR Magazine's Summer Watch supplement.

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