Collector Conversations: Jeff Kingston

There’s a reason the name Jeff Kingston might sound familiar to many of you. Longtime readers of WatchTime should recognize him from our IBG (Inside Basel-Geneva) days when the WatchTime staff and Kingston would tour the country each year leading lectures about the top watches and brands from SIHH and Baselworld. These days you will see him patrolling the aisles at our annual events on Rodeo Drive (see highlights from this year’s event here) and New York City (tickets on sale now), ready to lecture on brands from Breguet and Blancpain to Vacheron Constantin and Zenith. As a renowned antitrust and IP lawyer, author, historian, speaker, and, most importantly, a longtime collector and close friend and partner of WatchTime, we recently sat down with him for an extensive conversation on the industry as he sees it.

Jeff Kingston at a WatchTime event on Rodeo Drive in 2017.

WT: What are you wearing today? 

JK: A Breguet [Tradition 7047] Tourbillon [Fusée Or Rose].

WT: And there’s an Apple Watch on your other wrist. 

JK: It’s not a watch; it’s a notification device! Everybody should really understand that. I think it is one of the most misunderstood products around. As a watch, it’s not terribly good; as an application platform, it’s particularly bad. By the time you get an application going on here, by pushing the small icon and then accessing the limited functionality, you might as well have pulled out your phone. It’s very good if you’re doing things while emails and texts are coming in, and you want to quickly see whether you should deal with them. For that, it’s great, and that’s why I bought it.

Everybody in the industry, or at least in the beginning, was terribly worried that the smartwatch was going to hollow the industry out. I honestly believe that over time, what we may very well see is that it will expand the industry, because it will get people who were not wearing watches used to the idea of wearing something on their wrist. Then, they could hopefully understand better what a great watch is, and hopefully move on to great watches. Honestly, I don’t know what it’s doing to the $100, $200, $500 and $1,000 watches, but overall, I think it will expand the base, expand the market.

WT: How did you start collecting watches?

JK: I didn’t set out to do it. I was not a watch person, I was a car person. I was an airplane person. I had my beloved Cessna 210 Turbo. I taught flying. Those were my passions together with skiing and things like that. I did own, at one point, a nice chronograph. A pilot needs a chronograph. By the way, the idea of these big non-chronograph watches being “pilot watches” is crazy. What you really need when you’re flying an airplane is a chronograph. You want something to mark a start time and tell you an elapsed time, and these big pilot watches don’t do that. People who buy them think that they’re getting side-by-side with aviation and will become the next Chuck Yeager. They don’t get it, don’t understand it, don’t have the first idea what pilots actually do when they fly airplanes and are doing time distance measurement. If you’re doing time distance in an airplane, you need a chronograph.

The Breguet Tradition 7047 on Kingston’s wrist during the interview.

I went out and bought a chronograph. It turned out to be a Rolex Daytona. I just went into a store; they had a bunch of chronographs. I fooled around with them, and that’s the one I bought. I didn’t buy it because it was a Rolex. I bought it because it was a chronograph and it seemed to me that it was easy to read. That was a watch I just wore every day. I mean, I skied with it, I washed cars with it, took my dog out with it – I just wore it.

Then I had a friend who was interested in watches, and he and his wife and my wife and I took a vacation to Hong Kong, and both our wives wanted to go off doing some kind of clothes shopping; he being a watch guy, wanted to look at watches. When our wives went off in one direction, we went off in another direction and I was the one who ended up buying a moon-phase watch (at Blancpain).

It was the first time I went out consciously to buy a watch, and I looked at the watches and I thought it was a very interesting piece. I’d never seen a watch with a moon-phase before, and my Rolex Daytona didn’t have a date – this one had a date, complete calendar, and so that’s the watch I bought.

Then I got back, and, of course, didn’t know anything about watches – nothing. That was in the early, early years – TimeZone was still based in Singapore, so there were a few things that popped up on TimeZone and I started reading them. Then, not too long after that, TimeZone became centered in the Bay Area. Richard Paige bought it and he attracted Walt Odets to write for him. Walt is a physician and simply one of the most brilliant people I’ve ever met. Walt is one of those people who can put his mind to something, and then take it to the extreme and teach himself. He got interested in watches and he trained himself to be a watchmaker. He took an upstairs room in his house and he made it a watch workshop, bought all the books, bought all the tools and started taking every watch he bought apart to understand how it worked. He was incredibly famous in the industry. I remember the first time I met Jean-Claude Biver when he was running Blancpain. He knew I was from the Bay Area and he said as soon as we met, “Who is this Walt Odets? Who is this person? He is the only person who understood our 1185 chronograph movement, the only person. Who is this man?!?” I heard that, as time went on, throughout the industry, everybody wanted to know who this guy was. I learned more from him than anybody else at the time. We’d have lunch together and then go upstairs and take watches apart. At the time, Ludwig Oechslin was doing graduate studies at Berkeley. Often there would be a group of us, all upstairs in Walt’s house, Ludwig Oechslin, a brilliant movement designer, and so forth, and we would have watch parts all over the place! Debating “was this really a good design, was that really a good design?” Those are priceless kinds of experiences where you really learn a lot about how watches are put together. Good things and bad things about how they’re put together.

WT: How do you select watches?

JK: Here’s an interesting dimension to it and this is how the human mind can always come up with an excuse for another watch. So you say, “I need a dress watch,” so then you get a dress watch. “I need a chronograph! You know, come to think of it, I think I need a split-second chronograph, too,” and then, “I need a dress chronograph. My dress watch is rose gold, but sometimes I think I’m going to wear white so I better get a white metal dress watch.” You just go down this list and you can always find a rationalization for something new, and that’s the fun.

Jeff Kingston at WatchTime New York 2017

When I get a watch, it has to trigger something kind of deep and intriguing in my mind. There are some people, I think, who buy watches because they think the watch looks nice or cool or something like that. Well, I don’t want to buy a watch that’s ugly, but I have to have a mental image of something wonderful in the movement. There must be something special about the movement. This watch is built in a way that takes it out of the ordinary or it’s finished in a way that takes it out of the ordinary. I’m a gearhead guy, I really want watches that are mechanically exceptional.

Now, not every collector thinks that way. Worse, there are a lot of people who read and believe the trash that’s available on social media and on the internet which conveys misleading, false conclusions about particular watches. Or, worse yet, wax on and on and on and on about how it looks and whether it’s hip or something like that, completely overlooking mechanical deficiencies. That probably irritates me more than anything, the amount of misinformation that is out there. It’s a shame that people don’t have the opportunity to go in deeper and understand real value, understand real craftsmanship, and understand really good mechanical design. That’s a shame because that’s what a great watch should be. I’m talking substance versus marketing.

WT: Are there any watches you regret buying?

JK: I can honestly say that I made a lot of purchases in the early days that were down-right stupid. There would come a time after buying a watch, which I thought I understood, when I would have this horrible realization, “What in the world was I thinking? Why do I own this thing?” Then you sell the watch and as you go on, hopefully, you get smarter. You understand things better. You understand yourself better. You understand what you really are looking for better. Then you reach a point where you look at the watches you have and you say, “Yeah, I have some pretty good choices in there. I knew what was I was doing, and this is a great watch.”

WT: Was there a purchase or find that was more exciting than the rest? A flea-market story perhaps or a special buying experience? If I remember correctly, you once commissioned a watch with Kari Voutilainen, didn’t you?

JK: Well, there are all kinds of different experiences. The watch with Kari Voutilainen was an adventure. There were six of us in Northern California. We call ourselves the Northern California Watch Gang. We get together for a dinner, several times a year. We meet up in Switzerland during the watch fairs. Our group comes from different businesses. We have a venture capitalist, a high-powered business consultant, a headhunter, a software company owner, etc. The six of us got together and a project was hatched for Kari to do a watch for us that would be a chronograph. Kari already had developed a chronograph (the Series 1). To that, he added a large date and a moon-phase. This would be the series two limited to 10 watches. We would get six and then there would be four identical watches that would be sold to others.

Each of our six watches was unique; every single one of those six was different from all the others. Each one is a unique piece, different combinations of dial and case metal, different ways in which indexes were done. We drove Kari crazy because there were so many little variations to make the watches custom for each of us. The project lasted four years from the first conversation to watch in hand. That’s a unique experience. That’s different than walking into a watch store. And being in his workshop several times while the watch was being made, made it special. For the dial alone, Kari and I had several meetings.

We had another one of the guys who was doing Photoshop versions of all the different dial proposals so that we could all verify that our dials were unique and that we really liked them. Meeting with Kari in his shop, we would discuss finishing details on the movement that varied watch-to-watch and so forth. When you buy a watch like that it’s different. It’s an experience with the watchmaker. He becomes a friend. I’ve had other watches where I’ve been with the watchmaker during assembly. I have a Breguet repeater and I was with the watchmaker when it was on the bench being built. That was really a lot of fun. And the same thing with the Blancpain Equation of Time, where I was with the watchmaker in Le Brassus in the complicated workshop and the watch was in process of being built. To me, that’s really special and it also adds to your understanding of the movements and why they’re done the way they’re done and so forth.

Kari Voutilainen, Roland G. Murphy of RGM Watch Co., and Jeff Kingston during an industry panel at WatchTime New York 2017.

WT: What makes a brand or watch collectible to you?

JK: What makes a watch valuable to me is understanding why it’s special. What is outstanding about this watch? Why is it particularly good at what it’s trying to do? What is particularly good about the way it’s made? I think I’ve been lucky enough now to spend time with watchmakers to understand real value in a movement and to understand real value in finishing. What’s tragic is how poorly understood those things are, in general, even by people who hold themselves out as watch collectors. I’ll give you an example: take finishing. You’ll hear people say, “Oh, the finishing of this particular watch is fantastic.” Then I’ll look at it carefully. I’ll look at the anglage on the movement bridges, and I’ll find that there’s not a single interior angle. The French would say angle rentrant and you can tell by careful examination that the anglage was done mechanically with an industrial tool called a touret, it looks like an electric toothbrush.

If it has sharp angles, either interior or exterior, you can’t do it with a touret. Then it has to be done the traditional artisanal way with a series of files, successively finer, followed by wood burnishing. That’s what great finishing is. Look at the watch I’m wearing right now. Examine the tourbillon bridge. If you look inside that bridge, you can see the angles are crisp and sharp and impeccably polished. That’s perfect traditional file-created anglage. You can’t do that except with a file.

But, people will hold out other watches to me and say, “Gee, isn’t this really wonderfully finished” The answer is, “It’s okay, it’s kind of industrialized.” They don’t understand the difference between real traditional handwork and glitz. Another example is skeleton watches. Most of them are made entirely with a machine. The part pops out of the machine and then has a coating applied. There is no hand finishing at all. I look carefully at watch finishing and can come to an understanding as to whether the finishing represents great tradition, great craft. Is this really now a piece of history in the way it’s being done or is it simply industrialized? I don’t know that enough watch collectors who buy watches really understand the difference.

The same thing is true with the way it’s engineered. For example, I really believe in free-sprung balances. There are unfortunately a lot of prestige watches that do not have free-sprung balances. I don’t understand why. To me, that should be part of being a great watch. And I believe in silicium [silicon] hairsprings. The technical reasons why you should have them are overwhelmingly positive and so it’s something that I look for.

Does the chronograph have a column wheel or not? That’s something you look for. Although it’s interesting, a lot of collectors will talk about a chronograph, focusing on the feel of the pushers. Many will say, “Oh, they feel very, very silky” without understanding that about 80 percent of the feel is the way the pusher is constructed. Many fabulous column wheel chronographs are deliberately built with pushers with a very positive action so that there isn’t an accidental push. That doesn’t mean the quality is lower than the silky one; it’s something entirely different.

WT: Any advice for someone who is starting his own collection?

JK: It depends on what a person wants. I get asked all the time about “What watch should I buy?” If somebody is buying a watch to get started watch collecting because they really do want to take up the hobby, you give a different kind of answer than to somebody who wants a utilitarian thing and they frankly don’t care much beyond that.

Jeff Kingston at WatchTime Rodeo Drive 2017

WT: How important is external quality control like a Geneva Seal, the COSC, etc. to you?

K: So I’m going to give you my Geneva Seal speech. I don’t believe in the Geneva Seal. First of all, it has a geographical restriction that makes no sense. A fabulously made watch in the Vallée de Joux is not eligible for the Geneva Seal. How is the geographic origin relevant to value? There are other parts of it that don’t make sense today. So for example, the Geneva Seal wants you to polish the pinions in between each of the teeth. If you visit a Geneva Seal factory, you’ll see women with a polishing wheel going tooth by tooth by tooth around whether it’s a pinion or a wheel. That’s crazy. If you do it that way there’s no precision anymore. You’ve gotten the burrs and things out of it, which is what the Geneva Seal historically was intended to do. At that time there was no higher precision way in which to make the component, so when the Geneva Seal rules were created, that was right. It was relevant; it delivered value.

Today, however, if you want to have a wheel or a pinion with perfect polish and with high precision in the teeth in the order of a micron or two, that’s the worst thing you can do. There are better methods. I’ve been to the factories where they make wheels and pinions, where they will make the wheel to a tolerance of a micron or two. With that degree of precision and polish, the watch will run better. It will be better than a Geneva Seal wheel or pinion.

The Seal is operating as a barrier to the modern uses of silicium because there’s not supposed to be any glue where you attach the collet. With silicium, there may be and it will be the right thing to do and you will have a better spiral. The Geneva Seal had its moment in history, but it’d be better to look at the substance.

WT: In your opinion, what would need to have to change within the industry in order to, beyond social media, reach a new generation of collectors?

JK: You know, what’s interesting is reaching the public with education. I am wondering if the industry approach is right: the industry is running to Instagram. Let’s just Instagram the living daylights out of what we’re doing here. Well, I got to tell you, Instagram is not teaching you anything because you can’t say enough with Instagram to really deliver meaning.

The challenge will be how do you really educate people on the romance of your craft and capture their imaginations with what you’re doing and having them understand that these watches, in a way, represent the very edge of micro-mechanical technology. Indeed, 200 years ago they were the most complicated objects that man could engineer and build. Teach how wonderful the craft is and how brilliant the minds are who make them. I think we’ll get millennials excited, I think that these values transcend any particular age. I don’t like to see the ideas being cheapened with gauzy lifestyle bits, rap stars, etc. When you market that way you are keeping hidden the best parts of what you do.

I’m hoping the industry will support good education for watch collectors.

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  1. Sylvio F. Bertoli

    Great article. A keeper with the words from a true watch connoisseur.Only missing a few pictures showing some of the watches from such a respectful collector.

  2. Otsenre Matos

    Pity to think only of currently made watches. Look at the English Watch makers ol the 19th. Century such as: Dent, Kullberg,AP Walsh. Or the French like Breguet . Or the Swiss like Audemars, Dittisheim, or Germans in Glasshutte. All hand crafted individually.

  3. Evan R

    Solid gold…a lot of wisdom and common sense from a very experienced collector/connoisseur. Thanks, Jeff.

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