Su Jia Xian: The Romance of Watch Collecting
“Is that a vintage King Seiko?” Su Jia Xian asks before requesting to examine it. It didn’t take him long to start rattling off information about the watch—almost as if he was reading it from a catalogue. This doesn’t come as a surprise; Jia Xian is not only an established watch aficionado, but also runs a popular website SJX Watches that has become one of the leading voices in the horological world.
Historically, watches are tools engineered to tell the time, with various functions and complications like the chronograph and countdown bezel to aid in certain tasks. These functions, however, are rendered obsolete by the advances in technology. Even the core function of a mechanical watch has been sidelined due to the invention of quartz technology—creating battery-powered movements that are highly precise and cheap to manufacture. But why is there still a demand for mechanical watches?
On the surface, watches have become a status symbol and is often seen as a piece of jewellery or a work of art. Although some can cost more than a car, what is truly captivating about a watch is the story and craftsmanship that go behind each piece. To understand the mindset of watch collecting, we speak to Jia Xian to learn more about the watchmaking culture, his most treasured timepieces and what he looks for when he buys a watch.
Hight Net Worth: What’s on your wrist?
Su Jia Xian: I am wearing the G-Shock 35th anniversary “Full Metal”
Can you share with us the story behind these timepieces?
1. F.P. Journe Tourbillon
This is an important watch because it was one of the very first Francois-Paul Journe made, back in 1999. It has a very shiny dial which is unique to the earliest watches. I bought it from a very interesting collector in Italy—an old man, probably in his 70s, who owns a huge collection of watches. It’s always nice to buy watches from someone with good taste and has a genuine passion for watches, because you know the watch has been well taken care of.
2. G-Shock 35th Anniversary GMW-B5000TFG-9 Full Metal
It has the same design as the original G-Shock, but now in metal and it is just cool.
3. Cartier Tank Cintrée
The Cartier Tank Cintrée is, in my opinion, a true classic of watch design. It doesn’t get old.
4. A. Lange & Söhne Datograph Pisa Ref. 403.025X
This was the only limited edition of the Datograph produced, until the recent Lumen. Ten pieces were made for Milan retailer Pisa. I really like it because this is a rare example of one of the best chronographs ever made; the movement is fantastic.
5. IWC Porsche Design Ocean BUND “AMAG”
This is probably the most interesting timepiece of the group —it’s an IWC made for mine clearance combat divers of the German navy. Only 50 were made in the 1980s. The watch is 100% anti-magnetic, because the naval mines have magnetic sensors to detect changes in the magnetic field around them – prevents the diver from getting blown up. The watch even comes with a copy of the annual magnetism testing done by the German navy to make sure it’s up to scratch.
How did you manage to find this piece?
I saw it at a watch fair in Switzerland but I didn’t buy it then. I contacted the seller several months later and bought it. I was always fond of the IWC Porsche Design Ocean 2000 because of its design; very sleek yet functional. I had the ordinary combat diver version of the watch before, but then the Amag is much more important and interesting. To a normal person, the watches looks almost exactly the same; the only difference is the number at the back and of course the anti-magnetic properties.
How did you start developing an interest in watches at such a young age?
When I was young, my mother wanted to buy me a watch that would last, instead of quartz watches that can’t be repaired. I was given a budget of about $400, which was a lot of money then, to buy a good watch that could last forever. So I started doing research on mechanical watches. At the time, the Internet was something new and I went online to read up on watches—and that’s how it started.
When did you start writing about watches?
It started when I was around 17, a student in junior college. The watch writer at The Business Times, who I met at a watch event, asked if I would like to write a few stories for some pocket money.
Was your focus always on independent watchmaking or was it about watches in general?
I am always interested in all sorts of watchmaking, but I find independent watchmaking very intriguing.
Independent watchmaking is a very niche topic. How did you grow your following on an international level?
People who are typically fascinated by very niche subjects constantly want to find out more about it. They will go online or seek out different sources. My following grew organically, but it will never explode because it is still a very niche subject. People who are interested in watchmaking will eventually find me.
Would you say that you stumbled upon this path by chance?
I have been interested in watches for a really long time, so it’s not really by chance.
Was there a lot of networking involved in order to grow your blog?
It took me a really long time to meet people in the industry and really get to know them.
How did you go about meeting all these watchmakers, collectors and retailers of luxury watches?
I attend all the major trade shows like Baselworld and SIHH. The first time I went to Baselworld was about 12 years ago. The fortunate thing about being based in Singapore is that a lot of watchmakers and CEOs frequently visit, because Singapore is an important market. That’s a good chance to meet them without having to go far.
I understand that you recently met Jean-Claude Biver in Singapore.
Yeah, and about 3 months ago, François-Paul Journe and Maximilian Büsser were also in town recently for different events.
Do you agree that you don’t have to own a haute horlogerie timepiece to appreciate craftsmanship?
I agree. In fact, affordable watches can also be well crafted. You can buy good vintage watches for $1,000 to $2,000, or a Nomos. Or for a bit more you can get a Tudor or a Grand Seiko.
Is collecting watches equivalent to collecting art?
Not really—because watches are manufactured objects; only a few independent watchmakers produce truly unique creations. It’s more akin to collecting cars.
What makes a watch collectible and possibly an investment?
It is an investment if the price goes up, however, it is really hard to predict which watches would appreciate in value. There are certain brands that retain their value well, Rolex is an obvious one, but appreciation is a different matter.
Often watches with provenance behind them are highly collectible—for example, watches that went to the moon, dive watches, military-issue watches. Or it’s watches with a story, which is often the case with independent watchmakers like F.P. Journe. The story behind a watch always make a difference.
What do you look for in a watch? Do you pay attention to the design, movement, complications, functions, and dial?
It depends on the watch. Each watch has to make sense as a whole, from design to purpose to price and so on.
I have a Tudor Black Bay Fifty-Eight, for example, and it has a historic design inspired by the early Tudor Submariners. It is very well made for its price, but it is not a hand-made watch. In contrast, a watch like the F.P Journe Tourbillon is very different; it was hand finished and built by a talented and important watchmaker.
What are your thoughts on people who still view Tudor as a poor man’s Rolex?
Maybe it’s true because Tudor is part of Rolex, but it shouldn’t be seen that way. Tudor has a separate identity, with its own history and products, even though it is closely related to Rolex. In the past, I would say it’s a poor man’s Rolex. However, what they have accomplished in recent years has made Tudor its own brand, and that will only grow as Tudor is investing for the long haul.
How important is the human element in a watch?
Hand finishing and design are very important for high-end watches, also the ingenuity and creativity of how the movement is built. But this usually only applies to very high-end watches.
I’ve always found it fascinating that for A. Lange & Söhne, you can tell which artisan worked on your watch through the unique hand engraving on the balance cock, which serves as the engraver’s signature.
That is what sets a very high-end watch apart from the rest. Even though a lot of components in the movement are made by machine, the human element comes in with the finishing, polishing, and engraving.
How important is brand heritage?
Heritage is not very important. A good product can be accentuated by heritage but it is not enough to save a lousy product. It is not a necessity but it enhances the story.
Do you think design by itself is enough to carry a watch? Andy Warhol wore a Cartier Tank but he never used it to tell the time. It was more like an accessory to him.
A great design is actually enough to carry a watch. A lot of iconic watches have great designs, but they don’t have complications. Cartier Tank, Royal Oak, Nautilus, Submariner – they are not complicated. In fact, most of them are simple.
What’s your favourite complication and why?
The chronograph is my favourite because when it is executed really well, the mechanism is most visually interesting.
There are a lot of micro brands coming up. How do you view them in comparison to independent watchmakers? Technically, they are independent as well.
Some of them are compelling, but the market is overly saturated with micro brands. Every month there’s a new Kickstarter campaign and a lot of them look the same. It is very hard for them to stand out.
What are your thoughts on homage watches?
I think they are good at the right price point. The price is important – only if they are really inexpensive; they make famous designs relatively accessible.
Do you think it’s unethical to produce them?
They are not pretending to be the real thing. Most of them cost a few hundred dollars and have a different brand name —nobody will mistake a $200 watch for the real deal that costs $10,000.
Are there any under the radar watches or brands that you recently discovered?
One brand that was under the radar but has become famous recently is AKRIVIA. Their latest is a classical watch with an extremely high degree of finishing on the movement. It won the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Geneve in 2018, so the brand is now famous. But with the advent of social media and the Internet, there are very few things that are under the radar these days. Somebody will be talking about it, especially on Instagram.
Can you tell a person’s character from the watch he wears?
Not really… Sometimes you can, but it’s rarely the case. I guess the only thing you can tell is with a certain kind of flashy watch, the owner probably wants to show it off.
Faux patina has gained a lot of traction recently—are you a fan of the trend?
I wouldn’t say I’m a fan of it because it’s basically just trying to make a new watch look like an old watch. Occasionally, it’s nice because you can get a vintage looking watch at an affordable price point. However, it’s been overdone so it’s no longer interesting.
Brands like Longines are producing a lot of such watches.
They produce a lot of vintage reissues at affordable prices, so even if it’s not as exciting in terms of the movement, I think it’s still a good watch because the price is competitive and it has a strong, historical design.
How about fashion brands like Daniel Wellington, do you have an opinion on them?
They belong to a different market. They appeal to very young people who buy them mainly for the interchangeable straps. Perhaps the consumers who bought them would eventually want to own a nicer watch, therefore they can serve as a gateway to watch collecting.
[Read More: Conversations with Dr Bernard Cheong]