There’s a pattern that emerges if you study the collecting habits of watch enthusiasts. After an initial period of collecting the big names in horology they tend to hone their collection around specific themes or brands. Gerald Donovan’s decision to focus his watch collection around vintage Grand Seiko was born out of an epiphany he had two years ago.
“I realized that I’m a completist,” says Donovan. The Cheltenham-born, London-raised, Dubai-based photographer says he pursued vintage Grand Seiko because he knew he could complete his collection. “There were only seven series or generations produced during the vintage Grand Seiko era (between 1960 and 1974). Within those seven generations, 20 different movements were used.
I decided that I would acquire a sample from each of these movements. Unlike the fantastic modern ones that Seiko unveil every year, there is a finite number to vintage examples because they were only produced until 1974,” he says. So between a period of nine months in 2016, the 49-year-old Donovan hunted down 45 of these vintage watches to ‘complete’ his set. Along the way he learned that the same movement was sometimes used in 10 or 15 different models produced in such variety that he ended up with more than he intended. “The great thing about vintage Grand Seikos is that they are still affordable, so it didn’t hurt duplicating some of the models,” he says.
Some of the highlights in his collection include the first Grand Seiko, the reference 3180 that was produced between 1960 and 1964 at the Suwa Seikosha factory. Featuring a filled gold (gold-plated) case and a 2.5 Hz movement, Donovan also has a version of the 3180 in stainless steel. Although there is no known reference in stainless steel, there are many who claim that Seiko produced stainless steel prototype watches or service watches during that era. Donovan says he is waiting to hear from Seiko about the authenticity of this watch.
Another gem in his collection is the 4580 VFA (Very Fine Adjusted). Here’s the back-story: Between 1968 and 1970, Seiko submitted 283 movements in the Caliber 45 series to Neuchatel Observatory for chronometric testing. The 226 movements that cleared the rigorous testing process would be given the Observatoire Astronomique et Chronometrique Bulletin de Marche certificate. Grand Seiko used these movements in production models that were sold in Japan. Only 153 watches were fitted with the Caliber 4580, an unconfirmed number of which are the 45 series VFA models.
These timepieces are as rare as they come and only come to play in the market once or twice a year. These watches had an accuracy of ±2 seconds a day, incredibly accurate for a production model and stricter than the parameters of COSC certification used today. This is also the most expensive watch in his collection at $15,000.
“The sheer variety of what Grand Seiko produced towards the end of the Sixties is amazing. They were really creative especially during the start of the Quartz Crisis. It’s fascinating to observe the little nuances and changes that were made during the lifecycle of a single model. The more you dig, the more you find,” says Donovan.
Finding modern Grand Seiko models is hard enough (Seiko only made them available in the international market in 2010), how about vintage examples? Donovan says the best place to hunt for them is on Japanese websites. It helps that most Japanese dealers and sellers are meticulous and honest in their description of watches, so the risk of ending up with a dud is low.
“Fortunately, these days, a lot of Japanese dealers have websites, also there are websites like Yahoo Auctions and Rakuten, a fixed price marketplace that a lot of Japanese pawn shops use to sell their consigned watches. The difficult thing is that almost none of the Japanese dealers ship overseas but there are websites that act as middlemen; you send them the money and they ship the product over. Over 40 pieces in my collection were bought from Japan.”
Tracking down vintage Seiko models has not been easy. There is a lot of information out there about vintage models in the Japanese language, not so much in English.
“Even with online translation tools, searching for something in Japanese is difficult. I guess I learned a lot about Grand Seiko by simply looking at what’s on the market. It is difficult to find out details like production numbers, but if you look at watches that appear in the market only once a year you know this is going to be rare piece.
I used to look at Yahoo auctions about two hours a day. This will sound geeky, but I have built up a database of every single 57 series that was offered in the last year on Yahoo auctions and tracked where they were coming from, how much they were selling for and how they were described,” he says. He’s also had a few setbacks along the way.
“I have made the same mistake three times in quick succession. I bought three early pieces in 57GS series, with black dials. I found out later during a visit to Japan that Grand Seiko never made them with black dials, they were just good fakes.
I made two trips to Japan with the sole intention of buying watches. I had done my research before going and had it in my head that I would be spoiled for choice. It was actually the opposite, I only came back with two watches. Even at top Japanese dealers, you may only find 10-15 watches at any given time. You are actually better off setting up online alerts and trawling Japanese dealer websites,” he says.
DONOVAN’S FIRST serious watch was a Patek Philippe Ref 5026 in white gold that he bought on a business trip in Dubai in 1998. “The 5026 is an understated watch and nobody who is not a watch geek would recognize that it is an expensive watch. It was a great time only watch, but the thing is, after a few years I started looking for another watch because I felt it was too small for my wrist. I was traveling a lot on work by then and felt I needed to get a GMT watch, so I traded the Patek for a Rolex GMT-Master. Then I got a Zenith El Primero Chronomaster and so on. Back then, it was about collecting the popular big name brands.”
Everything changed in 2014 when Donovan spent some money he inherited on a FP Journe Chronometre Optimum. “I waited three months before I bought it because I wanted to be absolutely sure. The Journe is such a watchmaker’s watch. The next year I got spent my bonus on the MB&F LM101 Frost in rose gold.”
It was only after he bought the Journe that Donovan started to think about combining his two passions – photography and watches. In hindsight, he admits being persuaded to buy the MB&F because it was going to be amazing to shoot. “Which is maybe an expensive way to get something to shoot,” he laughs.
After Journe and MB&F, Donovan realized that there are dozens of nice watches that he would love to own but never could because he didn’t have an infinite pot of money. That’s when he turned his attention to Grand Seiko. The initial plan was to acquire one example from the three modern lines – Quartz, Spring Drive and Mechanical.
He acquired his first Spring Drive, a SBGA129, on a trip to Hong Kong in June 2015. He followed that up with a quartz version but when he started looking for examples of Grand Seiko mechanicals, he stumbled upon the brand’s rich history during the vintage era.
“I realized that I can spend $5-6,000 on a modern mechanical piece or use that money to buy five or six vintage Grand Seiko models,” he says.
The die was cast, vintage was the way to go. Donovan, promptly sold his MB&F to fund his future purchases.
IT’S CLEAR that Donovan doesn’t do things in half-measure. You only need to visit him at home to understand how serious he is about shooting watches. The CAPcam camera system he uses looks a lot like a force field generator from a sci-fi movie and dominates his study room. This is not your average Instagram watch enthusiast’s kit.
“I shoot medium format. Everything I have is focused around on shooting watches. The camera is a computerized view camera for close-up photography, you can swing and tilt the focal plane and do all sorts of tricks,” explains Donovan. It takes our Stefan, our staff photographer, a few minutes to take the whole thing in. Donovan posts these images on his Instagram account @watchdxb.
Donovan’s experience of shooting high-end watches has also helped him appreciate Grand Seiko better. “I’ve had the privilege of shooting some very high-end watches. When it comes to dials, hands and cases, the only watches I have shot that can hold a candle to Grand Seiko is Greubel Forsey. I have not shot a Philippe Dufour but pretty much every high-end brand out there. Apart from Greubel Forsey, when you look at dials, hand-set and that sort of thing, none of them can touch Grand Seiko,” he says.
“You have to handle these watches to understand. I have to say Seiko has not done a great job shooting these watches for its marketing campaigns.
The watches are shot in very flat light and you don’t get to see the amazing surfaces. You need to wear a Grand Seiko on your wrist and move it a tiny bit to see how light plays of the dial and case,” says Donovan.
Donovan runs a website now called watchdxb.com where he shares tips on how to buy from Japan and recommends interesting pieces he’s seen at online auctions. “The website came about because I needed to organize and categorize my Instagram posts, index and catalogue them. I’ve had a lot of people asking me for help on where to buy these watches. So I do a little piece suggesting interesting pieces on sale.”
What’s next? “The original idea was to cover the breadth of vintage Grand Seiko movements. There is an absolute limit to this, there were only about 140 to 150 models that GS made in the vintage era. I don’t have any desire to complete that 140, but there are about five or 10 models that I really I want to get,” he says. Does he view his collection as an investment that he can flip in the coming years when there is proper demand for these watches in the vintage market?
“One thing I learned from buying the FP Journe and the MB&F is that you don’t buy a watch as an investment. The thing you need to ask with an investment is: is it liquid? If you need the money, can you sell it for more than what you paid for it? Over the long term, I do expect to see the value of my collection to go upwards. I have had people offer to pay me double for what I have spent on completing this set, but the answer is no. It’s not just about the money, it’s about the time I invested in learning about the watch and looking for it,” he concludes.
Check out Donovan's website here.