Joe Haj Ali is using his dining table to display what he says is a “small portion” of his watch collection. To protect them from dust, he’s covered the watches (approximately 250, including pocket watches) with a large white sheet. When he removes the sheet it isn’t intended to replicate the moment a chef lifts the cloche from a silver platter, revealing the culinary masterpiece beneath – Joe is far too modest for such theatrical flourishes – but it might as well be.
Were a gathering of watch aficionados present, it might cause one or two to hyperventilate. Despite being only a fraction of his collection, there are enough pieces here to start a small museum, perhaps one that celebrates the classic and enduring models of every major watch brand of the past 80 years.
“The collection started with my grandfather in Lebanon,” says Joe, the managing director of a telecommunications company in Dubai. “He had probably 10 or 15 pocket watches and three or four wristwatches. My late father was also a collector who acquired around 80 pieces, and then I started collecting seriously about 20 years ago. People often ask me how large my collection is. I stopped counting about 12 years ago when I reached 300. But it is substantial.”
Now, Joe’s son Khaled is set to be a fourth-generation collector having already caught the bug, although his younger daughter Sophia has so far shown no interest (as an animal lover she often admonishes her father for wearing animal-skin straps).
“One of Khaled’s favourite things to do over the weekend is to come with me to the bank to go through the collection,” says Joe. “He has quite a few watches of his own already, even though he’s only 15.”
Despite being surrounded by mechanical watches, Joe’s first watch was a 1970s LCD Seiko World-Time, gifted to him by his father when he was 14, which he still has. “The watch still functions but the date doesn’t go past 1999, so it’s forever stuck on that year,” he explains. “I was always interested in the watches he was wearing, and he would tell me a little bit about them and the collection of his father – my grandfather – and it just started from there. I was fascinated by it. I love everything mechanical, whether it’s watches, cars… I also have a large collection of automatons and music boxes.”
Joe’s first serious watch was a 1959 Rolex Submariner (ref 6536/1) with expandable bracelet, another gift from his father. “He bought that watch in 1959 from Harrods, and I think it was £60 back then. He worked in Saudi Arabia and Africa in general trading, building materials, and real estate. He also traveled extensively throughout Europe. Like me, he collected many other things, including antiques and paintings but we would talk only about the watches. I have one brother and one sister and they only have a little or comparatively normal interest in these kind of things.”
Joe’s house in Jumeirah is testament to his passion for all things mechanical. The sound of innumerable ticking clocks is a constant but soothing background noise, while at one point the place reverberates with the chimes of the beautiful 19th-century music box that sits in the hallway. Everywhere you look there is an object – a sculpture or antique cabinet – that looks like it has a story to tell. He also has a sizeable collection of walking sticks, which overlaps with his horological interest due to several of the sticks housing miniature clocks, either encased in the handle or embedded within the stick itself.
A self-confessed “borderline hoarder”, he is also something of a bibliophile when it comes to watch literature. “I have probably 700 horology books. I have a whole room upstairs and almost a whole room in my Beirut home dedicated to horology.
“The other thing is watch parts, especially with older pieces. Whenever I see a dial or a set of hands or even parts for a certain movement or caliber I tend to buy them, and then when I do need a certain part I can’t find it and end up buying another one anyway!”
Rolex forms a huge part of his collection – on his wrist today is a Rolex Daytona Paul Newman (ref 6239), the “holy grail” of Daytonas. (According to Christie’s there are little more than a dozen Paul Newman black dial Daytonas to have appeared on the market). Like all his pieces, it is in superb condition. He’s also particularly interested in limited editions and rarities from the brand.
“It starts with one model, and then you buy all the Submariners, then all the GMTs, and soon you start wanting to complete an entire collection of all the models, which I have almost achieved now with Rolexes. Then once in a while you get a limited-edition one, or, for example, a Comex Submariner (Eds Note: Rolex supplied diving watches to French diving company Comex) that crops up, so you keep buying more.”
As well as several other vintage Daytonas, including a 6265 from 1971, he has virtually the whole color spectrum of Submariners, from single and double reds to tropicals, plus a line-up of GMT “Pepsi”, “root beer” and two-tone steel and gold models from as early as 1964.
One sought-after model is an Oyster Perpetual Date Explorer II (ref 216570) specially commissioned by the SAS in 2012, of which a hundred were sold for £5,000 ($7,250) each to members of the regiment. The caseback is engraved with the SAS insignia – a winged dagger – while the side of the case is inscribed with its motto, “Who dares wins”.
Never previously worn, it belonged to a highly decorated former soldier in the regiment before Joe bought it in 2014 from a retailer in London’s Knightsbridge, having heard it had come on the market.
A 1960s pre-Daytona chronograph on stainless steel bracelet (ref 6238) is another model that would be on the hit list of any serious vintage Rolex collector. He owns an even rarer Oyster Perpetual moon-phase chronometer (ref 6062), which he didn’t bring along today.
“It’s the same with Pateks,” he says. “But it’s a little bit more difficult to [collect the whole range] of them because of the prices. I basically try to find interesting pieces. It’s not only about the value. As you can see, I have Longines, older Omegas, over 10 vintage Jaeger LeCoultre Memovoxes… Most of the military watches are really not that expensive, but they’re interesting. Old Breitlings used to be very affordable. It’s only in the past five years that these significantly started going up in price, especially the complicated ones.”
Among the more unconventional timepieces are his gold coin watches, a concept first introduced by Corum in 1964, which involves hollowing out the inside of a coin to accommodate an extremely thin movement. “The coin watches are really interesting. They were mostly made in the Seventies by the likes of Corum, Universal Geneve, Vacheron Constantin, Patek Philippe and Piaget. They’re elegant and slim and also luxurious. Watch companies would often use two twenty-dollar gold coins to make one watch as they would lose one half [when cutting the coin]. I probably own 15 of these by various different brands.”
Scanning the table, a handful of unusual models stand out among the numerous and comparatively predictable Nautiluses, Calatravas, Royal Oaks and DeVilles. There’s a triangular Waltham watch from the 1930s with a case bearing Masonic symbols, a tonneau-cased Omega 1915 Petrograd (the 2004 limited-edition re-issue of an old model), a limited-edition Omega Speedmaster Apollo 13 Silver Snoopy Award (one of three sold to U.A.E. collectors), and, a watch that has clearly brought him a lot of satisfaction, a remarkable piece of Tiffany’s illustrious watch history.
“This belonged to Senator Thomas J.Walsh, who was a Democratic Party politician from Montana in the early 20th century,” he explains, picking up a rectangular art-deco dress watch worthy of Jay Gatsby himself. “I had this book [Tiffany Timepieces by John Loring], which featured the watch, and I ended up acquiring the actual piece. Walsh’s name is inscribed on the back. When I bought it, I could see all the same imperfections that are in the picture in the book. I bought this from a collector in Dubai who probably had it for about 10 years. It took some negotiation to get it, I almost had to pry it out of his hands.”
He picks up a small gold dress watch, its dial concealed by what appears to be a set of vertical Venetian blinds. Sliding a switch on the case opens them to reveal an elegant face bearing the name Vacheron Constantin. “This is a vintage Jalousie, circa 1930. Vacheron is now making these again, at a slightly larger size.”
Perhaps notable by their absence, given Joe’s broad taste, are models by independent watchmakers. Does he own anything by the likes of MB&F or Voutilainen? “I got to meet a lot of [independent watchmakers] at Dubai Watch Week in 2015. They are incredible and they are making some amazing stuff,” he says. “I would definitely consider buying one because I saw some really nice pieces. The only area of concern is obviously the price. We still don’t have enough data to know whether these are going to go up in price. Am I going to pay 15-20 thousand [dollars] and the following year see one at auction selling for 10?”
Unlike some collectors, whose pieces never see daylight, Joe wears many of the watches in his collection, about 70 percent of which are vintage. As such, keeping them in working order, and keeping track of the ones being repaired, is a job in itself. He estimates that at any one time, four or five of his pieces will be away at the watch repairers.
“Anything that’s complicated or valuable I send to Europe, usually to a fantastic watchmaker called Steven Hale (watchrestoration.co.uk) in London. I had a friend who recently sent me a Royal Oak chronograph to get it serviced so I took it over to [Ahmed] Seddiqi & Sons, who have arguably the best service department in the region, so they sent the watch to Geneva because they told me there are so many unoriginal parts in it.
“When I asked my friend, he said he had been getting it serviced by the neighbourhood watchmaker who was just patching it up. And when you use one part that isn’t right it can go on to affect the whole watch – it’s a perpetual thing. And it costs a fortune to get it back in proper working order.”
He says he learnt a long time ago to send his watches to the manufacturer, or to someone he completely trusts. “I’d rather buy a watch with all original parts that has never been serviced in 10 or 15 years than a watch that’s been serviced by an incompetent watchmaker.”
He has learnt to do some of the simpler repairs himself by studying his many books, spending time with watchmakers and repairers, and watching online videos. “I’ve got, I would say, a pretty decent watch tool kit.”
He has even assembled his own basic timepiece from the parts of two old clocks, which now takes pride of place in a glass case on a chest of drawers in his lounge. He named it after his wife, Joumana. A plaque at the base reads “Joumana, 1 of 1.” Naturally, Joumana, a jewelry designer, declares it her favourite of all Joe’s timepieces.
Joe keeps a detailed database of all his watches but admits that as his collection grows it gets trickier to monitor what he has and where everything is. “The watches are kept in several banks and several safety deposit boxes,” he says. “Some of them are in banks, and some of them are being serviced. So just keeping track of where everything is at any one time is difficult… I have an Excel sheet and one inventory software program to help me. It’s very time-consuming, but it’s still something I enjoy. I love it.”